Race and Income Inequality in Contemporary Cuba

August 16, 2011

It is by now a well-known story: Racial inequality has increased in Cuba since the 1990s. It is also well-known that different forms of racial discrimination in employment, particularly in the so-called emergent economy (tourism and joint-venture firms), have proliferated during the same period and are partly responsible for the widening racial income gap that has come to characterize Cuban society. This knowledge, however, is based on limited, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory evidence. Cuban scholars have produced important research about race and have tried to assess the impact of the Special Period—as the austere post-Soviet era in Cuba is officially known—on this and other forms of social equality, but their results are limited by the amount and quality of information available.

Although a census was conducted on the island in 2002, the first one since 1981, the amount of publicly released information from it on race has been minuscule, particularly in comparison to official reporting on the previous census. Indeed, whereas the report of the 1981 census disclosed racial information for several important variables and the government agency in charge of statistics released a special report on the population “according to skin color,” the 2002 report is notable for its lack of information on this area.1 There is, in other words, a significant gap between scholarly and public interest on race and the availability of public information. How are we to explain this disconnect, and what does it tell us about racial inequality in Cuba?

It used to be a truism that race constituted a “non-topic” in Cuban studies, a taboo issue surrounded by patriotic silence.2 During the first three decades of socialism, only a handful of studies on race were published in the island, most of them to celebrate the achievements of the revolution. This situation began to change in the 1990s, however. For the first time in decades, several book-length studies analyzed the history of black mobilization on the island and the origins and effects of a nationalist ideology that posited the irrelevance of race in the Cuban imaginary—the so-called myth of racial democracy.3 At the same time, scholars began to study contemporary questions: how and why racial discrimination and racist ideas persisted on the island, even after several decades of socialism. Within Cuba, the surge of scholarship on race was linked to the activities of the Center for Anthropology and Ethnology, which under the direction of Lourdes Serrano began to conduct field research on racial stereotypes and racial differences. Some of these initial results were published in a now legendary dossier in the journal Temas (1996) and in a special issue of the journal América Negra (1998).4 Some of the researchers from the Center for Anthropology continued this pioneer work on race, and the subject was taken on by other research groups and institutions as well. By the early 2000s, race had become an important topic of scholarly inquiry in Cuba.

This surge in academic interest did not happen in a vacuum. During the 1990s a large group of intellectuals and cultural actors—musicians, writers, filmmakers, visual artists, community organizers, and activists—began to denounce the persistence of racist ideas and practices in Cuban society and to demand the adoption of government policies against discrimination. Some of the most important cultural organizations in the island, such as the Union of Writers and Artists, took note of the importance of racial differences, called for government action on this area, and sponsored projects (such as Color Cubano, a working group led by Gisela Arandia, devoted to debating racial issues) and publications (such as a special issue of the Gaceta de Cuba in 2005) on issues of race.5 Community and civic organizations such as Cofradía de la Negritud, the Comité de Integración Racial “Juan Gualberto Gómez,” and, later, the Comité Ciudadano por la Integración Racial, approached government authorities to make concrete claims for egalitarian policies in employment and education while demanding greater visibility for black public and historical figures in the media.6

The publication of the 2002 census results should have sustained this interest. The census indicated that the proportions of so-called racial groups in the total population had not changed much since 1981, the last time that comparable figures had been released. The proportion of “mestizos o mulatos,” the category for mixed-race people, grew from 22% to 25%, whereas those classified as black (negro) decreased from 12% to 10%, and white (blanco) from 66% to 65%. These results would suggest that Cuba has become an increasingly mestizo nation where interracial unions are common and racial differences are increasingly imperceptible or socially irrelevant. As the Cuban journal Bohemia put it, “The island tends toward mestizaje.”7

But if this were the case, the growth in the mestizo population would reflect a proportional decline of blacks and whites, who would be gradually disappearing due to mixture. As it turns out, however, the growth in the mestizo population is related mostly to a decline of the black population; the proportion of whites has remained stationary. This would suggest that many Cubans share an ideology that denigrates blackness and places a premium on whiteness.

Changes in the composition of the population are probably related, first and perhaps foremost, to census methodologies. For the 1981 census, people were asked to racially identify themselves, but in 2002, the enumerators were instructed to identify people by skin color “without asking the question” (and “to ask” about family members who were not present, but only if the enumerator “had doubts” about their race).8 Furthermore, the census of 2002 introduced two additional innovations: It eliminated the category of Asian (asiático) used in the 1981 census and changed the mixed-race category from “mestizo” (1981) to “mestizo o mulato.” What all this means in practical terms remains to be researched.

What is clear, however, is that the National Census Report, released in September 2005, is of limited value to study the evolution of racial inequality in Cuba. One gets the impression that the Cuban National Office of Statistics carefully eliminated racial information from any tables that could be used for this purpose. For example, race is listed only in tables dealing with the distribution of the population in urban and rural areas, in a table about the economically active population (but not occupations), and in a table concerning marriages and civil unions. In this sense, as mentioned above, the census of 2002 represents a significant step backward compared to the census of 1981. Is it because in 1981 there was much to celebrate in the area of racial equality, whereas there is little to celebrate now?


Every piece of information available suggests that this may be the case. Social scientists in Cuba and abroad have conducted a number of independent surveys and field studies to measure the impact of the economic reforms implemented on the island since the 1990s on racial inequality. Despite differences in sampling methods and sizes, all these studies concur that racial inequality has increased significantly in Cuban society.9 This is usually linked to two factors: differential access to remittances and differential access to the hard-currency sectors of the Cuban economy, particularly tourism and firmas, or joint ventures.

Several of these studies now confirm what many people have reported since the 1990s in interviews and testimonies: that whites have had and continue to have privileged access to hard currency remittances from abroad. This is largely a function of the racial composition of the Cuban American community, which is overwhelmingly white. According to a survey conducted in Havana in 2000, 34% of households receive remittances from abroad. But whereas 44% of white households received remittances, only 23% of black households did. A team of researchers from the Center for Anthropology found that between 1996 and 2002 whites were 2.5 times more likely than blacks to receive remittances.10

In addition to remittances, a major determinant of income is access to jobs in those sectors of the Cuban economy where it is possible to earn income in convertible pesos (introduced in 2004 after the U.S. dollar was banned). Here, again, several recent studies confirm what many testimonies and some opinion surveys had been telling us since the mid-1990s: that non-whites have had extremely limited access to these jobs.11 As early as 1994, an opinion survey conducted in Havana and the city of Santiago de Cuba showed that 40% of respondents agreed that blacks had a considerably more difficult time getting jobs in the tourist sector than whites.12 Cuban researchers have furthermore found that blacks and mulatos are grossly underrepresented in the tourist sector, particularly in the most prestigious positions, such as those in management or those that require technical expertise.13

Although access to remittances and jobs in tourism and joint ventures are probably the most important predictors of income differentials in Cuba, a third factor helps explain why the income gap according to race has increased significantly on the island. Since the proportion of blacks and mestizos in the most crowded neighborhoods of Havana and other major cities is much higher than the proportion of whites, their opportunities to develop paladares, or home-based businesses like family restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts, are considerably more limited. The census of 1981 had already shown that blacks were overrepresented in the poorest urban neighborhoods, those characterized by overcrowding and a dilapidated housing stock.

The National Census Report of 2002 did not release information about the racial composition of the population by municipality, but recent studies confirm that the spatial distribution of racial groups continues to correlate with neighborhood quality. For instance, a 2005 study of the spatial distribution of the population in Havana, Santiago, and Santa Clara found that whereas 58% of whites lived in crowded “popular” neighborhoods, 96% of blacks and 69% of mestizos did. Only 4% of blacks lived in “residential” neighborhoods, those characterized by separate housing units with their own land.14

Unequal access to these “residential” neighborhoods probably helps explain why blacks and mestizos depend more than whites on state jobs to make a living. According to a survey conducted by geographer Sarah Blue in Havana in the year 2000, 70% of whites work in the low-paying state sector, compared with 81% of mulatos and 84% of blacks. Conversely, the proportion of whites among the self-employed is three times larger than among mulatos and blacks.15 This has a direct impact on income. Salary scales within the state sector are fairly egalitarian, but state salaries are considerably lower than income in the non-state sector, be it self-employment (as in paladares) or jobs in tourist facilities and joint-venture firms. In other words, blacks and mestizos are best represented in the lowest-paying sectors of the economy.

Despite the fragmentary nature of the information, it suggests that massive differences in income have grown between whites and non-whites in contemporary Cuba. The 2000 survey found that when total income (pesos and dollars) from all sources (state jobs, self-employment, remittances, and informal activities) are taken into account, the proportion of blacks (not including mulatos) in the top income tier was only 6%, compared to 11% among whites. Conversely, 34% of blacks were in the lowest income bracket, compared to 27% of whites.

The income gap between the lowest and the highest brackets was enormous by Cuban standards: Those in the highest bracket earned about 30 times more than those at the bottom, with an extreme ratio of difference of about 375-to-1.16 To put these figures in perspective, in the late 1980s wage differences were about 4.5-to-1 in the massive state sector. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago has estimated that the extreme ratio of income difference between the highest earners (paladar owners) and average wage earners was 829-to-1 in 1995 and may have expanded to 12,500-to-1 by 2002.17

A group of Cuban economists led by Angela Ferriol arrived at similar conclusions.18 Their study found that blacks and mulatos are concentrated in the lowest deciles according to income. In the lowest income bracket they represented 49% of the total, but their percentage decreased to 32% in the highest income bracket. Almost all workers in the lowest income group (94%) worked in the state sector and less than 2% worked in joint-venture firms. Conversely, the state sector employed only 87% of workers in the highest income bracket, where many are either self-employed or worked for foreign or joint ventures.

Fifteen percent of the highest income earners said they received part of their salary in hard currency, another 21% received hard-currency tips, and 39% received remittances from abroad. Among those in the lowest income bracket, 8% said they received remittances; none obtained hard-currency income through either salary or tips. These results would suggest that, in addition to remittances, a large portion of the income gap by race is related to job discrimination, that is, to the well-documented obstacles that Cubans of African descent (especially those classified as negros) face in getting access to jobs in the tourist economy and in joint-venture firms.

Lack of access to hard-currency-paying jobs is not a function of educational inequality. Although it is possible that the Special Period began to erode previous levels of racial equality in education, the information available suggests that major differences in educational achievement according to race had not developed as late as the year 2000. The 1994 survey found no significant differences in education among white and black respondents. The results of the 2000 survey were identical, its author concluding that “even ten years after the commencement of the Special Period, a racial parity in education remained.”19

Figures from the census of 2002 seem to corroborate these findings.20 They show that, as in 1981, blacks continue to be overrepresented among técnicos (high-school level technicians) and obreros calificados (middle-school level skilled workers), but rates of schooling continue to be roughly similar across the whole spectrum of education, including the university. This is somewhat surprising, since in the late 1990s there were widespread rumors that rates of school attendance among black youths had declined considerably. Organizations like the Cofradía de la Negritud complained that with the introduction of admission tests, blacks were at a disadvantage to enter the university, since they did not have the resources to pay for private tutors to prepare for their exams.21


Despite its limitations, the data produced by scholars during the last 15 years and by the census of 2002 can be combined to offer some conclusions. First and foremost, it is clear that racial inequality is significantly larger in the non-state sector than in the less competitive state sector. Blacks are grossly underrepresented in the small private sector; they are also underrepresented in joint-venture firms and tourist facilities, where it is possible to earn hard currency. This underrepresentation cannot be explained by lack of education. Although there is some anecdotal evidence that blacks’ access to the most desirable university specialties declined in the 1990s, census information and other sources indicate that rates of schooling and achievement continue to be roughly similar according to race.

But education is no longer a proxy for social mobility, as it was in the past. Without access to jobs in the small private sector or in joint-venture firms, blacks will continue to fall behind in terms of income and living standards. The private sector is largely family-centered (paladares, rental rooms, and apartments), and blacks have limited access to it. Racial discrimination, in turn, has prevented them from getting equal access to high-paying jobs in tourism and in joint ventures. Income disparities are linked to remittances and therefore to the composition of the Cuban diaspora, but remittances are not the only, perhaps not even the main, cause of income inequalities by race.

If racial equality is mostly linked to the retreating state sector, then we must assume that inequality will increase in the next few years. Unless specific policies are adopted, the racial income gap is likely to grow along with the contraction of the state sector. The Cuban government can do little to alter the racial bias in remittances, but it can do much to make sure that blacks have equal (perhaps even preferential) access to high-paying jobs or to the growing private sector (through access to cheap credit, for instance). Furthermore, the government has the power to enforce its own laws, which ban racial discrimination.

Whether there is enough political will to tackle this problem is an altogether different question. Cuban authorities know of the problem, but they refer to racial discrimination as a legacy that “subsists” in Cuban society.22 In consequence, their policy recommendations tend to be woefully inadequate. For instance, in his report to the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), President Raúl Castro called for greater representation of blacks and mestizos, along with youth and women, in positions of leadership within the state and the PCC.23

Although the representation of blacks and mestizos in centers of power is symbolically important, it is unlikely to make a dent in the growing income gap by race. Blacks and mestizos are already well represented in some of the upper echelons of the state and the PCC, such as the National Assembly (35%) and the Central Committee of the PCC (31%), although their proportion declines in organs that concentrate decision-making powers.24 However, participation in these bodies does not result by itself in greater access to lucrative jobs, nor does it guarantee that acts of discrimination will be persecuted and punished. At the very least, the need now is for concrete and specific anti-discrimination policies.



Alejandro de la Fuente is UCIS Research Professor of History and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), and the editor of Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011).



1. Cuba, Comité Estatal de Estadísticas, Censo de población y viviendas, 1981. La población de Cuba según el color de la piel (Havana: INSIE, 1985); Cuba, Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Informe nacional. Censo de población y viviendas, 2002 (Havana: ONE, 2005).

2. Jorge I. Domínguez, “Racial and Ethnic Relations in the Cuban Armed Forces. A Non-Topic,” Armed Forces and Society 2, no. 2 (February 1976): 273–90.

3. I discuss some of this historiography in Alejandro de la Fuente, “La historia del futuro: raza, política y nación en la historiografía cubana contemporánea,” La Gaceta de Cuba, no. 2 (March–April 2009): 32–34.

4. “De la etnia y la raza,” special issue, Temas, no. 7 (July–September 1996); “Raza, desigualdad y prejuicio en Cuba,” América Negra, no. 15 (December 1998).

5. “Nación, raza y cultura,” special issue, La Gaceta de Cuba, no. 1 (January–February 2005).

6. Alejandro de la Fuente, “The New Afro-Cuban Cultural Movement and the Debate on Race in Contemporary Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 40, no. 4 (November 2008): 697–720.

7. Dixie Edith, “Censo de población: Cuba bajo la lupa,” Bohemia (Havana, December 23, 2005): 12–14.

8. Cuba, ONE, Informe nacional (2002), 138.

9. Esteban Morales Domínguez, Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba (Havana: Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2007); Mark Q. Sawyer, Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

10. Sarah A. Blue, “The Erosion of Racial Equality in Post-Soviet Cuba,” Latin American Politics and Society 49, no. 3 (fall 2007): 57; Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Pablo Rodríguez Ruiz, “Raza y desigualdad en la Cuba actual,” Temas, no. 45 (January–March 2006): 44–54.

11. Rafael Duharte and Elsa Santos, El fantasma de la esclavitud: prejuicios raciales en Cuba y América Latina (Bonn, Germany: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1997); Pedro Pérez-Sarduy and Jean Stubbs, Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba (University Press of Florida, 2000).

12. Alejandro de la Fuente and Laurence Glasco, “Are Blacks ‘Getting Out of Control’? Racial Attitudes, Revolution, and Political Transition in Cuba,” in Toward a New Cuba? Legacies of a Revolution, Miguel A. Centeno and Mauricio Font, eds. (Lynn Rienner Publishers, 1998), 62–64.

13. Espina Prieto and Rodríguez Ruiz, “Raza y desigualdad,” 47–49.

14. Niurka Núñez González, “A propósito de las relaciones raciales en Cuba: algunas dinámicas espaciales urbanas,” Catauro: Revista Cubana de Antropología 9, no. 16 (2007): 4–20.

15. Blue, “The Erosion of Racial Equality,” 45–46.

16. Ibid., 45.

17. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Growing Economic and Social Disparities in Cuba: Impact and Recommendations for Change (Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, 2002), 7.

18. Angela Ferriol, Maribel Ramos, and Lia Ane, Reforma económica y población en condiciones de riesgo en Ciudad de la Habana (Havana: INIES, 2004).

19. de la Fuente and Glasco, “Are Blacks,” 60–61; Blue, “The Erosion of Racial Equality,” 54.

20. The Informe Nacional does not include educational data by race. These figures are taken from Rodrigo Espina Prieto, “Hacia la eliminación de las brechas raciales: juventud y programas de la Revolución,” Última Década 17, no. 31 (December 2009): 89–106.

21. Fernando Ravsberg, “Advierten sobre racismo en Cuba,” BBC Mundo, February 13, 2003; Norberto Mesa Carbonell to Luis I. Gómez, Minister of Education, Havana, August 31, 1999, in Cofradía de la Negritud, “En la primera línea” (July 2008, mimeograph, courtesy of Norberto Mesa Carbonell).

22. See, for instance, Raúl Castro, “Es preciso caminar hacía el futuro,” transcript of speech to the National Assembly on December 20, 2009, Granma, December 21, 2009.

23. Raúl Castro, “Informe Central,” Granma, April 17, 2011.

24. María Julia Mayoral, “Nuestro pueblo jamás entregará la Revolución y el Socialismo,” Granma, January 26, 2008; Marifeli Pérez-Stable, “El congreso cubano, una crítica a los últimos 50 años,” Cubaencuentro (April 27, 2011); Henley C. Adams, “Fighting an Uphill Battle: Race, Politics, Power, and Institutionalization in Cuba,” Latin American Research Review 39, no. 1 (2004): 169–82.


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