Thursday, June 23, 2011

Revolutionary Racism in Cuba

Revolutionary Racism in Cuba
June 21, 2011

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Naomi Glassman

Revolutionary Racism: Afro‑Cubans in an Era of Economic Change

Fidel Castro's regime enacted anti-discrimination legislation and
redistributive reforms benefiting Afro-Cubans
Afro-Cubans are disproportionately affected by Cuba's economic
struggles and change
U.S. dollars from remittances, tourism and paladares contribute to
growing inequality along racial lines
Cultural and educational representations continue to perpetuate
negative stereotypes

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 one of the last Latin American
countries 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

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.

Re‑opening Debate

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

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.

The references for this article can be found here:

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