This essay attempts to enunciate what the Cuban nation has achieved over the course of the last six decades to alleviate the legacy of racial discrimination on the island, what aspects of racism continue and the reasons for that persistence, and an accounting of the current efforts underway in the society to further reduce and ultimately end racial bias in the country. It will draw on recent scholarship on the questions and the direct involvement of one of the authors, Esteban Morales, in the political discussions within Cuban society on the question.
Cuba’s racial past must be analyzed by understanding how the country moved from its colonial period under Spanish rule where slavery was only abolished in 1886 down through the period of the Cuban Republic from 1902-1959. In many ways all the prejudice, negative stereotyping and discrimination against non-white and particularly black people moved unhindered from the colony to the Republic despite their notable role in the bloody battles of the Independence War. To be sure, blacks were already suffering from marginalization by the time the Republic was founded. Among other reasons, because racists from both sides of the Florida Straits had joined forces to that effect, especially in the wake of U.S. intervention. In order to understand Cuba’s racial issue, it is necessary to take into account three highly significant factors. First, slavery and its many psychological and other consequences; second, racism’s economic, political, social, ideological, and even demographic effects – the “black scare” syndrome left by the Haitian revolution – and third, the length of time that went by before slavery was abolished in 1886, making Cuba the second-to-last country to do so in the Western Hemisphere. This particular fact had significant short- and long-term impacts on the status of Cuba’s black population and the racist culture it inherited.
In the early sixteenth century Spain established a colonial regime in Cuba that included an airtight monopoly on foreign trade and relations, the brutal subjection of black people to slavery, racism, and discrimination. Spain’s hold on the island began to wane in the second half of the nineteenth century and Cubans began to fight for their independence at a time when support for the institution of slavery was under challenge worldwide, including its demise in the U.S. Civil War in 1865. The First Cuban Independence War began in 1868 with the stated aim of abolishing slavery. However, in the first years of the war, despite the symbolic gesture made by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and some others who decided to release their slaves, abolitionism was overwhelmed by pro-slavery independents whose money and resources were necessary to carry on with the war. From a practical viewpoint the Ten Year’s War’s well-defined abolitionist goals failed to gain a foothold from the very beginning. It was the first time that nation and abolition, or rather race and nation, countered one another and paved the way for concessions in the fight for racial equality on the island. Throughout the years of struggle in the late nineteenth century, the Spaniards and some pro-independence forces used race to divide the Cuban people. It took the form of the Spaniards raising the spectre of Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and others who criticized black independence leaders like Antonio Maceo and his brother, Jose, as being “non-whites fighting for a republic of blacks.” The issue of racism took shape through the attitudes shown by Calixto García and others who during the independence struggle twisted the role placed by Antonio Maceo in a number of events including the unjust replacement of his brother’s leadership role in the decisive military campaigns of the war. Racism remained constant within the Liberation Army during the 1895 War despite the crucial role played by black Cubans and the stance taken by many white Cubans who never put up with such attitudes. The reality was that the Cuban culture being formed as Cuba separated itself from Spain was deeply racist. Between the late eighteenth century and the mid-1850s, slavery stood as the most significant social issue of the time. As staunch supporters of the existing institutions, most Cuban landowners demanded it be maintained. Slavery may have been abolished by the Spanish colonial administration in 1886 but the fundamentally racist attitudes of the white landowners remained fully in place and it was those leaders who inherited control of the Cuban Republic in 1902 and who then collaborated with the U.S. authorities to establish a new political and social system rooted in racial discrimination.
The U.S. plan for Cuba in the wake of its successful intervention into Cuba’s Independence War was to shape Cuba to its need and in the process place on hold everything that whites and blacks had done for the sake of Marti’s idea of a republic forged “with all for the good of all.” Racism gained momentum under U.S. tutelage embodied in the prejudices of U.S. General Leonard Wood who wrote to President William McKinley “we are dealing with a race of people which, after centuries of Spanish domination, there’s too ‘much mixed’ on the island to join successfully the group of civilized nations” (Wood, 1990). Accordingly, Cuba could only be accepted into the family of nations when it had been “whitened.”
As stated in Article II, Section IV of the Constitution of the Republic, blacks were granted citizen status as of 1901 but in practice, this right was at odds with the still prevailing class interests and racial prejudice of the colonial period. Ergo, the non-whites, who accounted for the poorest and lowest strata of Cuban society, remained markedly ostracized by the emerging bourgeois capitalist society. The new foreign masters used racism to subjugate and repress the non-white population while striving to twist, manipulate, and eradicate the ideals of racial equality that had brought Cubans together during the war. On top of that, those Cubans who sided with the U.S. military intervention were not really sure that Cuba freed from Spain, could become itself a sovereign, independent nation. It was very difficult for blacks to voice their frustration without being seen as anti-white, anti-patriotic, or enemies of the nation. They were just claiming their right to enjoy white Cuba’s power, wealth, and job opportunities on equal terms. The social elites treated the smallest complaint as an assault on the atmosphere of peace and social coexistence. They advocated from a place of privilege. The U.S. occupation and interference in Cuba’s internal affairs paved the way for the inculcation of U.S. “scientific” ideas about race, based on the concept of “biological racism” and the so-called laws of heredity. Sterilization programs were seen as the only viable solution to a growing crime rate ascribed, of course, to whites and non-whites. Only through selective immigration could the described radical change in the Cuban people’s racial composition be achieved whereas the low birth rate of black population was expected to lead eventually to their “natural” disappearance. Blacks were seen by leading intellectuals like José A. Saco as having no place on the island and were somehow expected to pass out of sight so that the overall population could get whiter. As planned, the long-awaited arrival of white and Catholic immigrants from Spain early in the 20th century steadily stripped black and mulattos of land and good paying jobs. Ironically the plans for this whitening of Cuba promoted by the most racist elements was undermined by the needs of capitalism. Under pressure from U.S. sugar companies, faced with labor shortages, the Cuban government agreed to take in seasonal black farm laborers from the Antilles.
In spite of this racist atmosphere in the early years of the Republic, black and mulatto Cubans used their formal citizenship rights to organize politically against the dominant racist norms. Generals Pedro Ivonnet and Evaristo Estenoz formed in 1907 the Independence Party of Color (PIC) to protest black exclusion from national office, demand rights promised to veterans after the wars of independence, and offer a more progressive agenda for Cuban politics. The new party enjoyed significant support especially among marginalized black veterans but faced hostility from the existing political parties. Afro-Cuban, conservative Martin Morva Delgado introduced a law in 1910 that passed outlawing race-based political parties. President José Miguel Gómez banned the PIC and prevented its participation in the electoral process. In response Ivonnet and Estenoz led a protest against the banning of the PIC that was met by violent repression by the Cuban army backed by the United States against the PIC and wider black community. More than 2,000 people died in the violence which came to be known as the Little War of 1912 (Helg, 1995). The events of 1912 had an indelible impact on the struggle for racial equality in the ensuing decades. The dominant narrative even among white progressive circles was that the PIC had been a divisive and reactionary force that sought to divide Cuba along racial lines (Benson, 2016). Only in recent years around the centennial of the Little War has a more honest accounting of the events of 1912 came to the fore as part of the efforts to achieve racial equality in Cuba today.
Racial inequality persisted in Cuba for the entire Republican period and extended from the massive sectors of the economy to the most desired fields of employment. Race continued to be an obstacle to gain access to many professions. Very few blacks made it to university and those who did had a hard time finding jobs after graduation. Although salary scales based on skin color were not too difficult among manual workers, they were quite unbalanced in professional fields. Meritocracy was regularly invoked to keep at a minimum the presence of blacks and poor whites in civil service or the private sector. This prerevolutionary Cuba was profoundly racist, a place where society’s hierarchical pyramid rested on blacks and poor whites. Poverty could certainty be white but wealth was very seldom black. Those few blacks who did succeed in the Republican period were easily assimilated into primarily white society. Politically they identified with mainstream politics. As a result the Republic never saw a unified movement that brought together the social demands of the most exploited non-whites. As a result the race issue would emerge as a key challenge for the Cuban Revolution.
During the time period of 1953-1958, the July 26 Movement and other revolutionary forces carried out a forthright struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista that culminated in revolutionary victory on January 1, 1959. This article explores the response of the revolutionary government to the racial inequalities describe above. First of all, there is no record of the leaders of the 26th of July Movement addressing the issues of race as they pursued their nearly decade long struggle against the Batista dictatorship. Given later statements on the issue by the revolutionary leaders, it is likely that they were aware of racial discrimination but did not choose to make it a priority of revolutionary propaganda. Only after the triumph of the revolution did Fidel Castro begin to address the matter.
Castro’s first major pronouncement on the race question was in March 1959, three months after the triumph. As was all so often the case with his speeches in that period, it was most didactic and like others famously—for that reason—lengthy. Known often as the “Four Battles” speech, he addressed, after detailing the three most pressing problems of the economic well-being of the population, the “fourth . . . the battle to end racial discrimination in the workplace’’—to major applause from the masses assembled in Havana. The speech distilled the reality of “colonial society” when “blacks were forced to work as slaves . . . worked to death and beaten to death.” Informing his point was that the political economy of sugar cane production, the colony’s major export, which took off after the successful slave uprising in neighboring Haiti in 1804, generated high mortality rates for the enslaved. Thus, why he explained that captives from Africa came to the island as late as 1868 and African cultural traditions exist in Cuba to a degree unlike in the United States where the African slave trade ended officially in 1808.
The legacy of racial slavery, Castro continued, explained why “some Cubans” were “discriminating . . . mistreating” other “Cubans because of the darkness of their skin. These things should be an anathema because all of us are more or less dark-skinned. Here one is either a little dark-skinned because he’s a descendant of Spaniards—and the Moors colonized Spain and the Moors came from Africa—or more or less dark-skinned because he comes to us directly from Africa. But nobody can consider themselves racially pure, much less racially superior.” (Needs citation) Never had a Cuban leader spoken with such frankness to its masses about the history of the island’s racial reality.
Castro then outlined measures to end practices of racial discrimination, particularly in the fields of education, healthcare and recreation. Making such benefits a public rather than private benefit, as had historically been the case, would be the solution—in anticipation of the socialist course of the revolution declared in April 1961, two years later. The proposals met with roaring applause from the gathered masses. The proposed campaign stood in stark contrast to what was increasingly underway ninety miles away to the north. Under pressure from the Freedom Now, or what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement, racist authorities in the southern United States moved to privatize what had been public accommodations and services such as education and recreational in order to avoid racial integration. For Cubans of African origin, Castro’s speech would be forever remembered, a founding document of the revolution—the official proclamation to begin the process of ending the more than century-old practices of racial exclusion. Three radio and television programs shortly afterward permitted him to elaborate and clarify his proposals.
Another founding document of the revolution that was significant for the race question was the Second Declaration of Havana, also presented by Castro to a mass audience in February 1962. Almost three years after the Four Battles speech, it sought to make the case that the “objective” conditions that birthed the Cuban revolution existed elsewhere in the Americas. And, to inspire those masses to emulate what their Cuban counterparts had done, the document listed the revolution’s many accomplishments, amongst which was that it had “suppressed discrimination due to race or sex”. (citation needed) The context for the claim was the reality of race in all of the Americas, especially in its neighbor to the north where the chief goals of the Civil Rights Movement had yet to be achieved. Compared to the United States, Cubans could justifiably say in 1962 that their black compatriots were advancing in ways that their counterparts elsewhere were not, even in the United States.
Over the course of the next quarter century, the claim of the Second Declaration of Havana looked real owing to the gains that black and mulato Cubans were making. The revolution’s social policies, focused on ameliorating poverty for all Cubans was sufficient for all poor citizens to feel that their lives had improved in meaningful ways, whether they were white, black, or mulato. This gave black Cubans in particular the security and confidence that the revolution would not abandon them.
The decades of the 1970s and 1980s also saw an important contribution to the worldwide struggle against racism through its commitment to defend the revolutionary government of Angola from attacks by the apartheid government of South Africa. Cuba committed thousands of troops to these efforts, with many black Cubans participating, and those efforts bore fruit when South African forces suffered a major defeat that contributed to the ultimate downfall of the apartheid system. South African leader Nelson Mandela to the end of his life spoke of Cuba’s contribution to the defeat of apartheid and Fidel Castro saw it as Cuba repaying their debt to Africa.
In 1986 at the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party Castro urged that the social and economic gains of the revolution for women and Cubans of African heritage be better reflected in the composition of the Party’s leadership. It was to be Cuba’s version of “affirmative action”. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the related regimes in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, and the uncertainly it created, the renewal of the revolution’s leadership with a more “diverse” one was put on hold along with the accompanying policies known as the “rectification” of errors; the latter often referred to Soviet Union practices adopted uncritically. Cuba, to survive economically, had to reintegrate itself into the world capitalist market and, thus, with all of the iniquities of a market economy that its population had been shielded from since the sixties. Remittances from relatives abroad, especially in the U.S., and increasingly important to Cuba’s economy, soon revealed the consequences of the new reality. The racial character of the exodus from Cuba to the U.S. after 1959 and the racial economic inequalities inside the United States began to be reflected in the island itself. In other words, the historical racial disparities in Cuba that the revolution had mostly attenuated by the end of the nineteen eighties resurfaced, especially economic opportunities—specifically, access to the dollar. Yet, having or not having U.S. currency did not have life and death consequences, as is the case elsewhere, that is, where capitalist relations of production and distribution exist. Though stressed, Cuba’s basic social safety net was still in place. That being said the issue of racial discrimination was now back on Cuba’s agenda.
To a largely African American and Latinx audience in New York City, at Riverside Church in September 2000, Fidel Castro admitted what most Cubans were already aware of for almost a decade. “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 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 that comes with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even ten laws, and we have not been able to eliminate them completely in forty years.” (need citation from August)
From the 2000 speech forward the struggle against racism began to take shape under Fidel’s leadership and in a very informative and popular series of interviews conducted in 2005 (My Life), Castro addressed inter alia the race question once again. Reflecting back on the initial measures of the revolution, “we were pretty ignorant about the phenomenon of racial discrimination, because we thought all we had to do was establish equality under the law, and that it would be applied, without discussion.” As for the current reality, “Blacks don’t live in the best houses . . . still have the hardest most physically wearing and often worst-paid jobs.” The racial dimension of remittances from the U.S. aggravated the problem. Of particular concern was the overrepresentation of blacks in prisons.(need citation)
Castro called for research to explain the sobering facts. The Special Period had revealed that owing to the legacy of racial slavery not everyone began on the same footing in 1959. “People might criticize us for taking so long to discover this, but we did discover it.” Therefore, he continued, “I am satisfied with what we’re doing in terms of discovering the root causes for the marginality”—what his 2000 address in New York City mentioned—because the research pointed the way forward for solving the problem.(need citation) Not the least of the baggage of the past was the fact that in spite of the revolution’s achievements in education not everyone, precisely because of that legacy, was able to take advantage of them. Needed, therefore, was special attention to those who had fallen through the revolution’s vaunted social safety net. In this vein of particular importance was the availability for the first time of a university education in each of Cuba’s 169 municipalities, free of charge for everyone.
Given the clear achievements in combatting racial discrimination that were made by the revolution in its early years and beyond what errors were committed from the early 1960s forward that led to the issue of race not being fully addressed? Because the revolutionary leadership declared that racism in Cuba had been eliminated and by engaging in forthright actions to end it the leadership cut short what was needed, an ongoing and systematic analysis of how racial bias on the island had been constructed and what action, beyond anti-discrimination laws, was needed. This idealism led to race being declared a problem that had been solved and the result was that over the ensuing decades there was no public discussion of the issue. The early attacks on Cuba of the counterrevolution created an internal political dynamic where it was seen that there was no room to debate something that could potentially divide the population. There is no doubt that race is a matter to be handled deftly, given the potential for social division it entails but it is also true that this argument has been used down to the present by political forces within the country who do not fully acknowledge the continuation of the problem.
Placing the issue as one that had been solved resulted in no systematic research conducted on the question by Cuba’s scholars and universities with the exception of some limited work on the contribution of Cuba’s African heritage to the development of the country’s culture. However, these studies were consciously divorced from any examination of how Cubans of darker skin may have continued to suffer discrimination after 1959 or how the island’s racial history remained relevant for study. A good example of the latter was the lack of introspection on birth the Independent Party of Color (PIC) in the early 20th Century and its subsequent repression by the Republican government authorities. It was significant that the revolutionary government largely accepted the racist narrative that the events of 1912 had largely been perpetrated by the actions of the PIC until archival scholarship done primarily by North American scholars early in the Twenty-First Century produced a more accurate account of those events.(need citation) As a result, with the renewed on the continuation of racism on the island, the 100th anniversary of the events of 1912 resulted in official recognition that there had been a massacre of PIC supporters perpetrated by the Republican government with the cooperation of US authorities.9need citation)
What are some of the ongoing manifestations of racial discrimination in Cuba today? One area is the media. Only fifty-eight years after the triumph of the revolution did a black woman for the first time show her face on Cuban national television news. Is that an achievement? No doubt that it is but it is also a mark of shame that Cuba had to wait fifty-eight years after a radical revolution for the face of a black woman to appear as a star on national television.
Cuba identifies itself as a multi-racial society. That declaration is contextualized within a broader “white hegemony” that remains in place in various fields, including the print media, university, private businesses, tourism, and certain areas of culture, like ballet. When we speak of “white hegemony” we must take into consideration that it exists in part because of the consent of the non-white population. Racial discrimination raises the issue that there is a real need to raise the self-esteem of the black population so that they can take their proper place in all fields of employment.
Another aspect of continued racial discrimination is that in Cuba’s educational institutions, especially on primary school, race is not discussed. Thus, the Cuban society allows the family and the street to mention it first in prejudicial terms. There is the challenge to provide anti-racist educational training of children and youth. Customs, popular phraseology, and whitening, all represent a strong tendency toward was is considered “white” and by implication superior. It is manifested in education with little teaching on the polychromatic richness of our culture, with little study of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the roots of our culture. There is a need to expand interest in the study of African languages, currently dominated in narrow frameworks by some practitioners and priests of Afro-Cuban religions.
In almost none of the Cuban universities is the topic of race relations a subject for academic and scientific study. It is not encouraged for masters and doctoral work, even in fields like sociology or political science where it would be a natural area of study. The result is a multicolored society which does not study itself as it should and therefore leads to a lack of understanding. An in depth review of history texts has only begun recently to ultimately better reflect black and mulatto presence in Cuban society.
There is also not adequate coverage of the issue of race in the media. Thousands of articles are published annually in the print media on Cuban social, economic, and political life but there is almost no coverage of race. Television is the media where there has been the most progress in addressing the issue of race, but so far most coverage has been limited to channels of limited access for the Cuban population like Cuba Vision International and Clave. When a movie is shown on Cuban television or in cinema dealing with racial injustice it is almost always a North American film set in the United States
Within Cuban civil society a process has generally been developed for the study and treatment of the race issue, including community projects and cultural organizations. However, these organizations exist without explicit government recognition, subsisting instead within a certain range of tolerance and official permissibility and without recognition from the media. Most significantly, there is no department, institute, or parliamentary section that deals directly with the issue of race. There is serious governmental concern with the issue, but it does not translate into an official expression in the structures that shape Cuban society. More organizational structure is awarded to gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
The Cuban national statistical system practically ignores the need to record the demographic variables and their economic, social, cultural, and political expressions. Thus, the censuses do not faithfully reflect the characteristics that distinguish the members and groups of Cuban society with the consequent negative result for social research and the scientific direction of society. Society is in the first place the people that form it. Failure to fully characterize the people negatively impacts the society’s sense of itself.
The former president and now head of the Communist Party has underscored the continuing importance of the race question in a speech in 2017 in the National Assembly when he said in the reference to efforts to end discrimination and raise up the representation of both women and blacks –
This has cost us a lot of work, it was not easy and we still have the battle of proportion in the aspects not only numerical, as I said, but qualitative in decision making places. Women and blacks have already prepared themselves in the country…but it takes work, that is why I insist not one step back!
Evidence today suggests that Raul Castro’s optimism was warranted; conscious attention to the race question, what he urged, seems to be paying some dividends. The co-author, Esteban Morales, has been instrumental in the debates that Castro initiated in the last years of the twentieth century to address the unfinished business of 1959. His writings from that period, and since, constitute the best documentation of the discussions underway on the island to understand what Castro initiated. In addition to the many programs, events, at both the national and local level, organized since then to recognize and celebrate the unique contribution of black and mulato Cubans to the country’s rich history, have been the gains they have made in elections to the key governing bodies of the revolution, the party and the National Assembly. Beginning with the Sixth Congress of the party in 2011. . . [I’ll provide later the data].
As is so true for the race and other issues with regard to Cuba—as well as for any other society—a telescopic view in both space and time rather than a more limited microscopic one is required to make sense of it, what this introduction can only suggest. A global and temporal context, in other words, is required to grasp the race question. Precisely because the Cuban revolution sought to end class inequality, it set the bar higher in comparison with the struggle for racial equality in the U.S. The struggle to end racial inequality in the U.S.—or South Africa for that matter—never pretended to end class inequality, the only way that racial and other social inequalities can be overcome. If Morales sounds surprisingly critical about what needs to be done in Cuba, it is only because he, a product of the revolution, begins with expectations that only what took place in Cuba can engender. A telescopic view of Cuba’s revolutionary project also reveals that its future, just as its past, depend on developments beyond its ocean borders—especially the northern ones.
The written press hardly reflects on anything that has to do with race. Of the thousands of articles that are published in our national newspapers and magazines on social, economic and political life in Cuba, it is hardly possible to remember more than one or two on racial issues in several years.
In closing, the authors identify a set of recommendations that when fully implemented would move Cuba further in the direction of eliminating racial discrimination and injustice.
Develop racial consciousness in contemporary Cuban society. Without racial consciousness, it is not possible to fight against racism and its social vices. Prejudices still exist and many people suffer from them, even through many have no awareness of that fact.
The struggle for a true, integrated national culture requires more public discussion on the theme of race.
The Cuban nation needs to understand in depth the place that history reserved for each racial group.
Society must unleash a definitive battle against racism and racial discrimination.
A prodigious anti-racist and anti-discrimination education program must be developed.
The state should guarantee social equality, equal access to opportunities, and recognize and continue to support disadvantaged groups.
The theme of race should occupy space in the media and on the agenda of political and mass organizations.
The support of academic institutions of higher education and research programs on the question of race.
Researchers need to develop a database that considers skin color and allows for cross-referencing social, economic, and political variables.
The work of existing national commissions fighting against racism and discrimination must be supported.
Establish a commission in the National Assembly whose fundamental objective would be to support the existing national commissions thereby institutionalizing at the highest level the struggle against racism and racial discrimination.