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    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, and paladares contribute to
    growing inequality along racial lines
    Cultural and educational representations continue to perpetuate
    negative stereotypes

    Cuba's 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, 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 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, 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
    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 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 " 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
    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 trade. While the 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
    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 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 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 was not
    addressed in the original anti?discriminatory reforms, and Afro?Cubans
    are still concentrated in overcrowded and dilapidated 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, 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 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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