W.E.B Dubois Research Institute- Hutchins Center at Harvard University Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro- Latin American Biography Project Author: Remysell Salas and Editors in Chiefs: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Franklin W. Knight
First Afro-Cuban Mayor and Governor of Santiago De Cuba- Justo Salas
Salas Arzuaga, Justo (1894 –1956), political activist and politician who served as an influential Afro-Cuban political leader, was born in the Palma Soriano, Oriente, Cuba, in 1894. He was the son of Adriano Salas, a soldier who died in battle during the Spanish-American War, and his widow, Estelvina Arzuaga, who later married General Jose Valeriano Hierrezuelo. Salas came from a striving working-class family, where his siblings were also able to establish themselves in the city of Santiago in the professions as a doctor, a dentist, an architect, and an attorney. One brother, Pedro Salas Arzuaga, was a prominent lawyer in Santiago, as well as a board member of the Luz de Oriente Society, a black civic organization that promoted Afro-Cuban political activism; he also briefly served as Santiago’s chief of police and was a deputy congressional representative of the Liberal Party, and later became a civil court judge in Oriente. Justo Salas was married to Maria Pascuala Clemenceau, and they had five children together: Marta Raquel, Lucia Esperanza, Maria Caridad, Justo Eduardo, and Clara Himilce.
Salas was educated in the Quaker Elementary School of Oriente, and as a young man worked as a printer and as a newspaperman, through which he became involved with political activism in the community. He also cofounded several civic organizations that aspired to improve the lives of people that reside in Santiago, and he became a member of the Luz de Oriente. His political rise was vital to the Afro-Cuban movement and the political scene in Cuban society, because it amplified the voices of people that were unheard. He was first elected to political office as a member of the City Council in 1922. Thereafter he served as a representative of the Cuban Congress from 1925 until 1929. Once elected to Congress, Salas fought the national government to remedy the lack of economic assistance provided to Santiago, which was the second-largest city in Cuba, and city with the largest population of Afrodescendants. In 1940, with the support from the Afro-Cubans voters, Salas was elected as the first Afro-Cuban mayor of Santiago. When he entered office, Santiago was suffering from high levels of poverty and from poor management of public administration. His success as an elected official helped to resurrect the city of Santiago, and Oriente Province, by securing more funds for the region than any public official before him. This success gave him a strong political presence as a voice for people of African descent, whose priorities and needs were being ignored in the national budget. Salas continuously traveled to Havana, where he gained support from national lawmakers, to secure funding for public works and social services. He ensured that the needs of the residents of Santiago were a priority in city and national budgets passed while he was in office.
As mayor of Santiago, his greatest impact lay in his efforts to resolve the city’s debt issue, secure municipal funds, and improve working conditions for the citizens he represented. His administration was noted for building and enhancing the city’s public schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, and other public services. Salas fought for the working class of all colors by supporting workers’ rights and demanding better wages and rights in the work place. In 1941 he played an essential role in raising the salaries for low-waged workers from an annual increase of 5 percent to a more significant rise of 10 percent. This benefited the majority of Afro-Cubans working on sugarcane plantations and in unskilled professions. He also helped revise and improve work contracts and conditions for city employees and workers in the city’s large Bacardi rum plant. Furthermore, in comparison to previous administrations, he ensure that municipal workers were paid promptly.
In 1954 Salas would be the first Afro-Cuban elected governor of Oriente Province in the island’s history. His triumph was celebrated as a monumental accomplishment for all Cubans, and served as a catalyst for the future wave of Afro-Cuban political leaders. He demonstrated that people of African descent could lead as strong elected officials, and that the black community not only mattered, but also played a vital role in Cuban society. Salas died in 1956, while still holding the office of governor of Oriente Province. He was 62 years of age, and was buried in Santa Efigenia Cemetery, Santiago de Cuba. He was survived by his wife, Maria Pascuala Clemenceau, and their five children.