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Revolutionary racism: Afro‑Cubans in an era of economic change
Naomi Glassman, COHA
Cuba’s economy has struggled during the fifteen years since the fall of the Soviet Union, bringing economic disparity of an increasingly racial nature. Cuba’s population is split primarily between whites, mestizos and Afro‑Cubans (blacks and mulattos), with the percentage of Afro-Cubans varying between 62 percent[i] and 33 percent[ii] depending on the source. Like most former colonies, Cuba’s history of racism originated with the arrival of colonial Spanish settlers and their subordinated African slaves. Cuba was the last Latin American country to abolish slavery, by means of a royal decree issued by the Spanish King in 1886.
In his 1891 essay “Nuestra América,” Cuban author and independence fighter José Martí stated that there is no racism in Cuba because there are no races.[iii] He argued that Cuban unity and identity depended on all Cubans identifying as Cubans, instead of racially. White Cubans have often cited Martí’s position subsuming race to national unity as an argument that racism is not an issue in Cuba because “we are all Cubans.” But the legacy of slavery lingered, and was exacerbated by Cuba’s semi-colonial status under U.S. hegemony. Interactions with wealthy, white, prejudiced visitors from the U.S. contributed to social and economic divisions along racial lines. Afro-Cubans endured segregated facilities, discrimination under the guise of eugenics, and blatant racism at the hands of groups as extreme as the Ku Klux Klan Kubano.[iv]
After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro acknowledged the prevalence of racism and launched a set of reforms intended to eliminate racial disparity in public spaces, education and employment. However, he failed to adequately address its cultural and societal roots. After a few years, he declared his policies a success and made any further discussion of race or racial inequality a counterrevolutionary crime, insisting that talk of race would divide the nation. During Castro’s reign, the silence on issues of racism made further debate or improvements impossible, countering the initial benefits of his reforms. Even though the Castro government achieved more for blacks in fifty years than previous administrations had in the last 400 years,[v] his policies only addressed issues of unequal access without changing structural biases underlying society. With a new wave of economic changes affecting the country, race and racism are once again becoming important issues in Cuba.
Race and the Revolution
When Castro first came to power in Cuba, the Afro‑Cuban population was disproportionately poor and marginalized, lacking sufficient medical care, social services and educational opportunities. Castro believed that such overt racism was in direct conflict with his commitment to social justice and equality and passed policies to desegregate beaches, parks, work sites and social clubs. He outlawed all forms of legal and overt discrimination, including discrimination in employment and education. Castro also worked to increase the number of Afro-Cuban political representatives, with the percentage of Black members on the Council of State expanding from 12.9% in 1976 to 25.8% by 2003. However, overall, Afro-Cuban representation decreased as the institutions become more powerful.[vi]
Castro’s redistributive social and economic reforms had a positive and measurable impact on the quality of life for Afro‑Cubans. The government’s great achievements in extending education and medical benefits to all Cubans have narrowed racial disparities in life expectancy and matriculation rates. Alejandro de la Fuente, Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, used statistics from the 1981 census to illustrate the progress made during twenty years of Revolutionary rule. He found that by 1981 there was a gap of only one year in life expectancy rates between whites and non‑whites, which proved that Cuba had achieved relatively equal access to such indicators as “nutrition, health care, maternal care and education.”[vii] Moreover, educational reforms contributed to improved literacy and education levels across the island. By 1981, the percentage of blacks (11.2 percent) and mulattos (9.6 percent) who had graduated from high school were higher than those for whites (9 percent) leading to equivalent proportions of blacks, mulattos and whites in professional jobs.[viii] With education came improved opportunities for social mobility, as a mass exodus of wealthy white professionals to the United States after the Revolution, created many more professional opportunities for the previously marginalized Afro-Cuban.[ix] Similar social justice initiatives such as “wage increases, social security improvements, the provision of public services gratis or at nominal cost, and the gradual spread of rationing” further benefited the economically marginalized .[x] Government jobs were often distributed in a non-confrontational affirmative action style, giving “hiring preference to those who had the greatest family need and lowest income,” which again had a disproportional benefit for Afro‑Cubans.[xi] In areas with complete government control, such as education, employment and health care, social justice policies led to increased equality and improved services and opportunities for Afro-Cubans.
Three years into his rule, Fidel Castro declared that the Revolution had eliminated racism, making any further discussion of racial inequalities a taboo subject. Official discourse directly tied racism to capitalism, and thus the development of an egalitarian society officially ended racism. The government connected racial discrimination to the colonial and ‘semicolonial’ legacies[xii] and “to the capitalist elite, who had emigrated to Miami, officially making it a nonissue in Cuba.”[xiii] Castro’s government sought to develop a national Cuban identity and discussions of race and inequality were seen as creating divisions where none existed. For fifty years of Castro rule in Cuba, race and racism were taboo subjects, making debate, discourse, and study impossible.[xiv] Later developments have proven that racism was not actually eliminated, just improved and pushed underground.
Economic Reforms and Racial Inequality
The Special Period, the difficult decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, caused economic hardships for all Cubans. The government stopped numerous social services and the country struggled with widespread shortages. During this period, the structural legacy of racism meant that Afro‑Cubans faced a greater brunt of the economic challenges. Many of the economic reforms passed to bring the Cuban economy out of its deep recession served only to exacerbate these racial inequalities. When faced with a economic stagnation, the Revolution’s commitment to social justice lost ground to the need for economic recovery, especially given the official belief that racism was no longer an issue, the racist implications of economic reforms were not an issue for the Castro government.
Without Soviet sugar subsidies, Cuba’s economic development shifted to the growing tourist trade. While the tourist industry is currently the most profitable sector because of the availability of USD, it is also the industry with the greatest racial disparity in employment opportunities: Afro‑Cubans hold only five percent of jobs in the tourist sector.[xv] The tourist resorts hire primarily whites, drawing on the structural legacy of racism and the pervasive cultural belief that white is superior. Jobs in the tourist sector require less education and skills, meaning that Afro‑Cuban advances in education in the early years of the Revolution no longer translate to economic success.
Remittances—transfers of money into Cuba from Cubans living and working abroad—are a new source of unregulated USD in the Cuban economy. Remittances primarily benefit white Cubans, because the majority of Cubans who emigrated after the Revolution were white or lighter‑skinned mestizo. Statistically speaking, “83.5 percent of Cuban immigrants living in the US identify themselves as whites. Assuming that dollar remittances are evenly distributed among white and non‑white exiles and that they stay, roughly, within the same racial group of the sender, then about 680 out of the 800 million dollars that enter the island every year would end up in white hands.”[xvi] Cuba has limited data on the quantity and distribution of remittances, but a 2000 survey in Havana found that “although income levels were fairly even across racial groups before remittances, white households outspent black households in dollar stores and in the purchase of major household appliances.”[xvii] Both in the sending and consumption of goods, remittances provide greater economic benefit to white Cuban households.
The Castro government began legalizing personal enterprises for profit during the Special Period. Since then, more and more Cubans have opened their own restaurants or repair shops. However, in 2000, the Havana Survey found that 77 percent of the self‑employed were white, and that these white entrepreneurs were more economically successful in comparison to their Afro‑Cuban counterparts.[xviii] Once again, blacks face disadvantages because they lack the capital in USD from tourism and remittances: it often takes an initial investment, such as a bicycle for deliveries, or real estate that could be used as a storefront or neighborhood restaurant to start up a new business. Afro‑Cubans are also disadvantaged when it comes to the development of paladares, or small restaurants run out of the home. The quality of housing was not addressed in the original anti‑discriminatory reforms, and Afro‑Cubans are still concentrated in overcrowded and dilapidated housing areas, limiting their opportunities for owning and opening paladares.
Faced with growing racial inequality from the economic difficulties of the Special Period in a speech on September 8, 2000, Fidel Castro officially reestablished the issue of race as a subject for debate and improvement:
I am not claiming that our country is a perfect model of equality and justice. We believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, or racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in 40 years.[xix]
Castro recognized that he was premature when he declared racism eliminated and admitted that, despite progress, there were gaps in the original reforms. In the documentary RAZA, Cuban citizens remark that there are equal rights before the law, but equal rights do not mean social equality: society is still racist because of widespread ignorance.[xx] While notable achievements were made in education and employment, areas such as cultural representation, police discrimination and housing lagged behind. Cuba still suffers from the legacy of centuries of discrimination followed by decades of silence.
The growing Cuban rap and hip‑hop movements have been instrumental in bringing issues of racism and discrimination back into the public eye. They are often explicit in descriptions of racism as lived experiences, challenging the official silence and the popular belief that it no longer exists in Cuba. In 1964, Afro‑Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén wrote the poem “Tengo” (I have) to celebrate the end of racial discrimination, saying: “I have, let’s see / that being Black/ no one can stop me / at the door of a dance hall or bar … I have, let’s see / that I have learned to read / to count … I have, that now I have / a place to work / and earn.”[xxi] In 2009, with economic difficulties and the reemerging issue of racism, the Cuban hip‑hop group Hermanos de Causa rewrote the poem “to denounce the persistence of racial discrimination and the growing marginalization of blacks.”[xxii] In their rap, also titled “Tengo” the lyrics now say: “I have a race dark and discriminated against / I have a workday that’s exhausting and pays nothing / I have so many things I can’t even touch / I have so many places where I can’t even go.”[xxiii] The shift in music lyrics is paradigmatic of the shifting debate on racism in Cuba.
For Afro‑Cubans, the next step is to continue reopening debate and discussion, including the positive representation of Afro‑Cubans in television programs and classroom curriculum. Cuba must begin with the advances achieved by the Revolution and then work to deepen the Revolution’s commitment to social equality by rectifying the errors now evidenced in growing racial inequality.[xxiv] Television programs and educational materials on the island either completely ignore Afro‑Cuban culture or represent its negative stereotypes. Educational curricula teach the history of white Cuba, while ignoring the cultural roots of Africa, Afro‑Cubans and other marginalized groups. Esteban Morales, a PhD. at the University of Havana, says: “Whitening continues to be present and nourished in our education. We educate without mentioning color … we are teaching each other to be white. … it turns out that while we do not exclude blacks and mestizos from our classrooms, we do exclude them from the content of our curriculums.”[xxv] While the government succeeded early on in passing desegregation legislation, it has failed to effect any changes in the public media and educational representation of Afro‑Cubans, thus perpetuating racial ignorance.
Finally, although Afro‑Cubans are the largest non‑white population on the island, focusing on racism only against Afro‑Cubans ignores the issues faced by Chinese, Jewish and indigenous peoples. Discussions and studies of race and racism on the island have been limited by the official silence, and much more investigation and research is needed to provide an accurate picture of the racial divisions on the island. Afro‑Cubans are economically, politically, socially, criminally, and culturally marginalized, yet many Cubans still refuse to recognize racism on the island. The anti-discrimination advances of the Revolution deserve to be lauded, but they should not leave us blind to the racism that exists and the continuing struggles of Afro-Cubans.
[i] CIA World Factbook 2006. Quoted in Blue, Sarah A. “The Erosion of Racial Equality in the Context of Cuba’s Dual Economy.” Latin American Politics and Society, Vo. 49, No. 3 (Fall 2007).
[ii] CIA World Factbook. “Cuba.” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cu.html
[iii] José Martí. “Nuestra América.” 1891
[iv] Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2009. P. 34.
[v] Comment at the CIP Conference “Questions of Racial Identity, Racism and Anti-Racist Policies in Cuba Today.” Washington D.C., June 2, 2011
[vi] Adams, Henley C. “Fighting an Uphill Battle: Race, Politics, Power, and Institutionalization in Cuba.” Latin American Research Review, Vo. 39, No. 1 (2004), P. 171, 173
[vii] De la Fuente, Alejandro. “Recreating Racism: Race and Discrimination in Cuba’s Special Period.” A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution. Ed. Philip Brenner, Marguerite Rose-Jiménez, John M. Kirk, William M. LeoGrande. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2008. P. 316.
[viii] Ibid. 317
[ix] Alvarado Ramos, Juan Antonio. “Relaciones Raciales en Cuba.” Cuba Transition Project, Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies. University of Miami, 1996. P. 6
[x] Booth, David. “Cuba, Color and the Revolution.” Science & Society, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 1976). P. 159.
[xi] Blue, 39
[xii] de la Fuente, Alejandro. “Race, National Discourse, and Politics in Cuba: An Overview.” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 3, Race and National Identity in the Americas (May, 1998), P. 61.
[xiii] Blue, 40
[xiv] Ibid. 40
[xv] Huddleston, Vicki and Carlos Pascual. Learning to Salsa: New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations. Washington DC: Brooking Institute Press, 2010. P. 123
[xvi] De la Fuente 2008, 320
[xvii] Blue, 61
[xviii] Blue, 49
[xix] Castro, Fidel. Quoted in Godfried, Eugène. “Reflections on Race and The Status of People of African Descent in Revolutionary Cuba.” AfroCubaWeb. Nov. 2009
[xx] RAZA. Presented at the CIP Conference “Questions of Racial Identity, Racism and Anti-Racist Policies in Cuba Today.” Washington D.C., June 2, 2011
[xxi] Guillén, Nicolás. “Tengo.” Trans. J.A. Sierra. 1964. www.historyofcuba.com
[xxii] de la Fuente, Alejandro. “The New Afro-Cuban Cultural Movement and the Debate on Race in Contemporary Cuba.” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 40. Cambridge, 2008. P. 699
[xxiii] Hermanos de Causa. “Tengo.” La causa nostra. 2003. Trans. Alejandro de la Fuente.
[xxiv] Morales, Esteban. Panel presentation at the CIP Conference “Questions of Racial Identity, Racism and Anti-Racist Policies in Cuba Today.” Washington D.C., June 2, 2011
[xxv] Morales, Esteban. “The Challenges of the Issue of Race in Cuba.” Trans. Suzanna Collerd. Fernando Ortiz Foundation, 2007. P. 5