Cuba's Pending Racial Debate
April 23, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — In 1925, Las Margaritas, the birthplace of Cuban singer
Celia Cruz, was one of Havana's poor black neighborhoods. Today, the
children who live in this shantytown have free access to education and
healthcare, but little of the deplorable living conditions that
prevailed back then has changed, and its inhabitants are still, for the
most part, of the same skin color.
León Mago Rodríguez, of African descent, has lived in the shantytown for
60 years. His daughters, who also grew up there, had to build additional
rooms for themselves when they turned of age. For lack of space, his
grandchildren constructed their quarters over the roof of the house,
where the great-grandchildren can be seen running and playing about.
The few public and reliable statistics available in Cuba show that,
today, black people live in the country's worst houses, receive less
remittances and hard currency, are less active in the country's emergent
economy, have lower university enrollment indexes and tend to be
employed in the worst-paying jobs available.
In the 1960s, the Cuban government declared it had resolved the racial
problem definitively. In an article recently published by the New York
Times, however, intellectual Roberto Zurbano condemned today's racial
discrimination on the island. "I did it to spark off a broad debate
about racism," he explains.
Race has been a sensitive issue since colonial times. Fear of the black
man, in fact, is one of the arguments used to explain Cuba's relatively
late start in the struggle for independence. In 1959, Fidel Castro's
public condemnation of racism provoked such a strong reaction among the
population that he had to address the issue again, days later.
Even today, the issue is seldom addressed by the Cuban press or in
public speeches. President Raul Castro has, however, promoted a
quota-based policy aimed at increasing the number of black women and men
in leadership positions.
Institutionally speaking, all races have the same opportunities for
personal development in Cuba. In fact, a number of individuals of
African descent have reached high positions within the government. A
case in point is Esteban Lazo, a working-class black man born in the
countryside, who is today the Chair of the Cuban parliament.
The general rule, however, is that most prisons and poor neighborhoods
are filled with black people, while white people continue to advise
their peers not to "do things like blacks do" and some Cubans of African
descent insist that interracial marriages are a way of "moving up the
A Sensitive Issue
In the internal debates re-opened by the New York Times article, Cuban
professor Guillermo Rodríguez wrote that "it is dishonest" not to
acknowledge that the revolution fought against racism by creating
opportunities in the workforce, the media and education for Cubans of
According to Zurbano, black people in Cuba were never equally empowered
to take advantage of those opportunities, asking, as way of an example:
"How could we even think of renting out our home or opening a restaurant
in it if we live in the shabbiest of houses?"
"My article was misread. I recognize that we, in Cuba, enjoy many of the
rights that other African descendants in the region continue to demand,
such as health and education. But I demand that the history of Africa be
included in the history syllabus."
Zurbano proposes that a debate on these issues be opened. "The first
thing to do is to hold a debate, among Cubans, on the basis of the data
that has already been collected by research centers. But we need to get
experts and political activists together, so as to discuss the results
yielded by that research."
A Taboo Subject and the Debate
Cuban professor Esteban Morales, who is also of African descent,
believes the government is already open to such debates. "That's why I
don't agree with Zurbano. The discussion is already underway. I do agree
it needs to be broadened, that it needs to reach further down, to the base."
His proposal is the creation of a State department responsible for
racial issues. He points out that "women have been a priority since the
beginning. The racial issue must be tackled through cultural, economic
and government activities."
Renowned racial activist Tato Quiñones, an intellectual and Babalao
(Santería priest), acknowledges that the struggle against racial
discrimination in the workplace and educational and recreational
institutions began in 1959. "That's when the revolution took on special
meaning for me," he states.
He adds that black people benefitted from the progressive social
measures that were taken in favor of the underprivileged, such as free
education and healthcare and the right to employment, but that that "no
extraordinary policies were implemented to aid that sector of the
population that was in dearest need of it."
"It was a mistake to believe that the elimination of social classes
would, in and of itself, put an end to racism," Quiñones said,
criticizing the taboos that surround the racial debate in Cuba. He
acknowledges that Zurbano is to be commended for "putting the racial
issue back on the table, at his own risk."
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published on the blog of