The Resurgence of Racism in Cuba

September 25, 2007

“I don’t think you should talk about this topic,” an Afro-Cuban woman replied to a journalist from the popular weekly Bohemia in 1992 when asked about racial discrimination on the island. Roughly at the same time, a reader who described himself as a mulatto wrote to The Miami Herald in response to several articles published by the newspaper: “Please, do not speak about races, comments like these do us a lot of harm…what you are doing is dividing us.” This is perhaps one of the few areas in which most Cubans inside and outside the island agree: It is better not to discuss questions of race, which are frequently perceived as divisive, dangerous and a threat to Cuba’s—and the Cuban community’s—racial harmony and national unity.

Students of race and racism in Latin America will not be surprised by this. In Cuba, as elsewhere in Latin America, most people are not only reluctant to discuss these questions in public, but quickly deny any charges of being personally prejudiced. The existence of racism may be acknowledged, but only as a social ill inherited from a past of colonialism and slavery that has not totally faded away yet. The great Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes described this denial as “prejudice against prejudice.”[1]

Nor would the same students be surprised to know that, despite the pervasiveness of this public silence on race, ideas of race in fact affect and mediate social relations among ordinary Cubans in myriad ways. The silence has never been total, not even generally observed. At the street level, in daily interactions among family members, lovers, friends, neighbors and work and recreational partners, notions of race are constantly recreated and given new life. Individuals are identified using racial markers that are socially relevant and widely understood. The origin of these markers may lie in a past of colonialism and slavery, but their continuing vigor and social impact are very much contemporary.

What makes the Cuban case unique is the fact that race continues to affect social relations despite the significant efforts undertaken by the Revolutionary government to create an egalitarian, color-blind society. In contrast to other countries in Latin America, where governments have typically paid lip service to the ideal of national integration but done little to achieve it, the Cuban state has invested its considerable prestige and significant resources to eliminate racism and racial discrimination. Since 1959, state power has been used to dismantle the pillars of racial segregation that characterized various social spaces in pre-Revolutionary Cuba. The government’s radical policies of redistribution resulted in significantly lower levels of social and regional inequality in general, and of racial inequality in particular.

By the early 1980s blacks and mulattos, who according to the 1981 census represented slightly above one third of the population, had roughly similar access to social goods such as employment opportunities, nutrition, education and middle management positions. Furthermore, a new generation of Cubans, born after 1959, trained in a thoroughly integrated school system, and socialized in what was, for the most part, a color-blind ethic, was coming of age. New social identities had been created (pueblo, compañero, revolucionario), based largely on the politics of distribution and on the rhetoric of revolution. Although more difficult to assess, some attitudinal changes had begun to take place. Fragmentary, but consistent evidence indicates that cross-racial couples, a particularly sensitive indicator of true racial integration, were on the rise.[2] Inequalities according to race continued to be significant in areas that had received lower government priority, such as the distribution of housing, but Cuban society had been fairly successful in dismantling some of the social and cultural bases that make race a socially relevant category.

Why, then, were people so reluctant to speak about this theme in public? Measurable racial inequality had undoubtedly decreased. The impact of race on individual life chances had declined. Given these realities, why did many ordinary Cubans remain uncomfortable debating the social meanings of race and racism?

This public silence on race is rooted in at least two important factors. First, since the late nineteenth century, dominant interpretations of cubanidad have consistently minimized racial differences on the grounds that they endanger national unity. Based on a particular understanding of José Martí’s creed and his foundational myth of a republic “with all and for all,” these interpretations have opposed public debates about racism in Cuban society as a betrayal of Martí’s legacy and as attempts to divide an allegedly integrated, racially harmonious nation. This conservative vision of cubanidad—conservative because it maintained the status quo—was championed by the political and cultural elites throughout the 1902-1958 republic. To them, silence was the only really patriotic act when it came to race. As presidential candidate Carlos Saladrigas explained in 1944, “Black and white Cubans are linked by their patriotic feelings and we can’t speak about black and white Cubans without deeply splitting the nationality.”

By denouncing the persistence of racism and discrimination in Cuba, Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders challenged this silence in 1959 and exposed the hypocrisy with which dominant groups had traditionally approached this problem. But the then Prime Minister did more: Castro called for a national debate on race and racism, its causes, manifestations and solutions. Journalists and intellectuals were urged to educate the public on the fallacies of racial stereotypes.

Public campaigns against racism and discrimination were not new. During the republic, Afro-Cuban activists and intellectuals had frequently denounced the subordination of blacks in Cuban society. After the 1920s, their campaigns were supported by the Communist Party and by the radical sector of organized labor, both of which turned the struggle against racial discrimination into one of their political priorities. But the 1959 campaign was different: It had been launched by a group in power. Never before had a government in Cuba called for a national debate on race and racism. This created unprecedented opportunities to launch an assault—perhaps even the final assault—against discrimination and racist ideologies on the island.

Various social and political actors heeded Fidel Castro’s call. In the summer of 1959, a multitude of conferences, symposia, round tables, television programs and newspaper articles denounced the persistence of racism in Cuban society and called on blacks and whites to unite behind the revolution’s radical program of integration. Labor, student, civic and religious organizations supported the campaign. Cross-racial recreational activities and “fraternity banquets” were organized. Cultural expressions which had been traditionally hidden or demeaned as “black things,” such as Santería or the Abakuá—a secret all-male fraternal society that had been traditionally represented as a criminal gang of African savages—were brought into the public sphere and re-examined.

Yet this campaign waned almost as quickly as it began. Faced with important threats from within and without, since 1960 the government’s priority was to consolidate the unity of the revolutionary forces. Race was perceived as a threat to such unity. As early as 1962, the authorities talked about racism and discrimination in the past tense and formally proclaimed Cuba to be a discrimination-free society. For instance, the Second Declaration of Havana, issued in February 1962, asserted that the revolution had “eradicated discrimination because of race or sex” in Cuba. Writing the same year, a Communist Party official argued that the “Revolution ha[d] eliminated from Cuban life the odious and humiliating spectacle of discrimination because of skin color.”[3] Fidel Castro summarized the dominant discourse himself when he argued that discrimination in Cuba had disappeared together with class privileges. The Revolution had solved Cuba’s historic race problem: Racism and discrimination were things of the past. What had been the subject of a fruitful and unprecedented public debate in the early post-Revolutionary years eventually became a taboo. Thus, attempts to debate publicly the limitations of Cuba’s integration were considered to be the enemy’s work. The authorities admitted that racist attitudes and prejudices would not wither away overnight, but they were conceptualized as “remnants” of a past that would disappear in due time.

By adopting this position, the Revolutionary government in fact endorsed the traditional dominant interpretation of the nationalist ideology that claimed that race was a divisive issue which endangered national unity. Previous governments had been equally uncomfortable acknowledging the continuing significance of race in Cuban society, but no administration before 1959 had been able to silence the issue. Afro-Cuban intellectuals, the black social clubs and radical cross-racial political actors, such as the Communists, had kept it alive. Only the revolutionary government, controlling the media, was in the position to impose an effective ban on public discussions of race. Thus, the ultimate irony is that the same government that did the most to eliminate racism also did the most to silence debates about its persistence.

This silence, however, began to break in the 1990s. The structural crisis of the 1990s, officially known as “The Special Period,” not only eroded some of the Revolution’s most successful social programs, but also resulted in growing social polarization, a widening income gap and increased competition for employment and scarce resources. Social problems that the authorities had deemed solved reappeared, including prostitution and new forms of criminal activities. Prominent among these unsolved problems was race, which in the 1990s reclaimed a central place in social relations.

There is widespread and convincing evidence that government policies to cope with the crisis have resulted in racially differentiated effects. Some of these are clearly unintended and undesirable to government authorities. For instance, in order to capture badly needed resources, the government authorized the use of dollars, but by doing so increased significantly the material status of those Cubans with relatives abroad. Given the social composition of the Cuban-American community, the origin of most of these resources, it is reasonable to assume that the beneficiaries of the remittances are mostly white. The proportion of Afro-Cubans among the U.S. exiles is too small (16.5%, according to the U.S. census of 1990) to represent a substantial source of income for the blacks and mulattos living in the island.

Yet this does not explain why Afro-Cubans are poorly represented in some of the most dynamic sectors of the Cuban economy, particularly in tourism. In the early 1980s blacks and mulattos were slightly over-represented in the service sector, when these jobs were poorly remunerated and offered little social prestige. If anything, Afro-Cubans should have had a “structural advantage” to fully participate in the new, service-oriented tourist economy of the 1990s—they had both experience and seniority. Yet domestic and international observers agree that most tourist-related jobs are performed by individuals deemed to be white in Cuba. Particularly in those jobs that imply direct personal contact with the visitors—and in which the opportunities for complementary income via tips and gifts are greater—the proportion of blacks is abysmally low.

Cubans explain blacks’ low presence in tourist jobs using various arguments, all of which more or less openly imply that Afro-Cubans are unattractive, dirty, prone to criminal activities, inefficient or lack proper manners and education. The most frequent argument revolves around the concept of “pleasant aspect” (buena presencia), a racialized construct that claims that blacks cannot be hired for these jobs due to aesthetic considerations and to the alleged preferences of the tourists. One of the testimonies compiled by Cuban historians Rafael Duharte and Elsa Santos is eloquent: “The absence of blacks in tourism is an interesting phenomenon. I think that, in part, it is an aesthetic question, even though this is not the most important factor. The main thing is that they are entertaining white tourists…. These white tourists may or may not be racist. Then, why risk anything, if this is business? You employ only whites and there is no problem.”[4]

Other informants emphasize the importance of “aesthetics” and its impact on employment opportunities. For instance, a young woman who works in a beauty parlor while she attends the university explains that many of her clients, “when they come to have their nails done, tell me that they need to look nice because, since they are black and ugly, they must have a pleasant aspect.” When those in charge of hiring workers for the tourist corporations apply these notions to the prospective candidates, they effectively preclude the entrance of blacks and mulattos into the sector. “The individual who examines [the applicants] in one of those corporations,” a young white woman explains, “has a reputation of being a racist and always gives the most difficult tests to blacks.” Tourist personnel acknowledge that few Afro-Cubans find work in these activities: “I do believe that there is an aesthetic criterion in the selection...which favors whites. In my company, out of 60 workers three are black.” The manager of one of these corporations, in turn, asserts that they only employ five blacks in a labor force of 500. “There is no explicit policy stating that one has to be white to work in tourism, but it is regulated that people must have a pleasant aspect, and blacks do not have it.”[5]

Barred from the most lucrative jobs and with limited access to the exiles’ remittances, many Afro-Cubans have turned to activities that are perceived as either illegal or unethical in order to access the dollar economy. These activities, from street hustling to prostitution to petty theft, have reinforced pre-existing notions that blacks are naturally predisposed to criminal activities and the easy life. Young Afro-Cuban males complain of racial profiling among police and claim that they are stopped and asked to show identity papers much more frequently than whites.[6]

These racist notions are confirmed in other ways. For instance, although Afro-Cubans are frequently denied jobs in tourism, blackness is used in the sector’s advertising campaigns as an icon of sensuality, good music and fun. Thus, whereas the Tropicana cabaret is almost invariably advertised through the faces (and bodies) of mulatto women, in the promotions for the family-oriented dollar “Photo Services,” all the pictures seem, as a journalist from the official Juventud Rebelde asserted in 1999, taken from “a European journal.”[7]

Slowly, these new realities have made it into the public sphere and are becoming part of public discourse. Since the early 1990s, scholars inside and outside the island began to study questions of race in contemporary Cuba. The theme has become one of the central research themes of the Cuban Center of Anthropology, whose researchers have produced several valuable studies concerning the persistence of racial prejudice in the population—an unimaginable research topic just a decade ago.[8] Research teams affiliated with the University of Havana and the National Committee of the Communist Youth have done field research among the jineteras (prostitutes), a large proportion of whom are allegedly nonwhite.[9] The renewed vigor of Afro-Cuban religions has also been the subject of scholarly inquiry.[10]

Discussions, however, are not confined to relatively isolated academic spaces. In 1998 the Fernando Ortiz Foundation sponsored a symposium titled “Multi-Racialism and Integration.” The Cuban Union of Writers and Artists has called for a better representation of blacks in the media. In a document submitted to the organization’s congress in November 1998, writer Roberto Fernández Retamar denounced the “unwillingness to debate in the open the problem of racial prejudice,” and criticized employment practices that favor whites in the allocation of the “best remunerated” jobs.[11] The central theme of a 1999 young artists’ exhibit at the Center for the Development of Visual Arts in Havana was, precisely, race and the persistence of stereotypes surrounding blackness. Some of the paintings denounced racist myths such as the sexual prowess of black males or ingrained fears that associate Afro-Cubans with crime and violence.[12] Finally, the theme has also found some limited space in the official press.[13]

Afro-Cubans’ own social activism has also contributed to breaking the official silence on race. Although most efforts have been conducted in the relatively safe area of culture, of which the exhibit mentioned above is a good example, some forms of organization have transcended these limits. In this sense, the Malecón riot of August 1994 was both an expression of just how much racial tensions had escalated during the Special Period and a harbinger of possible things to come. This popular outburst in the working-class neighborhood of Central Havana, in which participants stoned tourist stores and called for “freedom,” convincingly showed that Afro-Cubans should not be construed as passive beneficiaries of government policies. Five years later, the same message was made explicit by a new organization whose main purpose is to fight racial discrimination on the island—the Cofradía de la Negritud (Black Brotherhood). Further evidence of black discontent is the prominent presence of Afro-Cubans in the leadership of the various dissident and human rights organizations that have emerged in Cuba during the last decade. Some of the best-known leaders of this movement are either black or mulatto. These groups have demanded a democratization of the country’s political structures and respect for individual human rights. Although they have not articulated an agenda centered on racially defined claims, some Afro-Cuban leaders, such as Manuel Cuesta Morúa of Corriente Socialista Democrática, assert that “racial issues” are indeed part of their concerns.[14]

Cuban authorities have begun to take notice of these changing realities and have referred to racial issues occasionally. For instance, during a January 1999 meeting with a delegation of the U.S.-based TransAfrica Forum, Fidel Castro candidly acknowledged that racial discrimination had not disappeared in Cuba and admitted that Afro-Cubans were overrepresented among prison inmates. In a meeting of the government’s commission of promotions the same year, Raúl Castro emphasized the need to promote women, blacks and youths to positions of leadership within the various branches of government. Raúl Castro identified those ministries in which there were neither blacks nor women in leadership positions and warned that, due to the educational advances experienced by the population, the old excuse of a lack of suitable personnel was no longer valid.[15] Meanwhile, a few Afro-Cubans have been promoted to visible positions within the Communist Party.

The experience of revolutionary Cuba raises a number of perplexing questions that are relevant to the struggle against racism elsewhere. Why, despite massive structural change, did race regain such a central place in Cuban society during the 1990s? How is it that, the revolution’s radical integration social project notwithstanding, traditional racist ideas are very much alive in the island? What, in more general terms, accounts for the resilience of race even when some of the social contexts that feed its significance have disappeared or been significantly altered?

The Cuban case provides strong evidence for both the necessity and the limitations of a program based solely, or mostly, on changes in the “structure.” On the one hand, as Charles Tilly suggests, a reorganization of employment, education and other forms of social opportunity has rapid and far-reaching consequences for traditional structures of inequality.[16] Government policies of redistribution and the socialization of social services indeed resulted in a significant decrease of racial and other forms of social inequality. On the other hand, the Cuban experience suggests that dismantling racism and eliminating race from the social landscape imply much more than changes in the allocation of social opportunities. In the 1960s, the revolutionary government envisioned that the elimination of capitalist exploitation would result in cultural and attitudinal changes in which racial prejudice had no place, but social realities in the 1990s effectively shattered whatever remained of these illusions.

What the 1990s have shown is that racial ideologies were there, somehow hidden but alive in the social consciousness. These ideologies were powerful enough to be mobilized by whites responding to a unique set of structural opportunities. The existence of these ideologies is frequently explained, by government officials and scholars alike, as “left-overs” or “remnants” of the past that still affect Cuban society. I find this explanation unsatisfactory. Although race as a social product has historical roots in colonial slavery and in the expansion of European capitalism, a characterization that presents racism as a “heritage” runs the risk of minimizing the process through which such inheritance is constantly revitalized. Race does have a long history, but it has a recent history as well. Thus the struggle against racism is not just a struggle against an ominous legacy from the past. Rather, it is a struggle against the conditions and social actors that infuse new life into such legacy. By institutionalizing the silence on race, the Cuban government precluded a consistent confrontation of racial ideologies and attitudes. Material changes surely began to erode some of the ideological pillars of racism, but the pillars themselves were not directly attacked. Changes in power relations can gradually undermine the material and even cultural foundations of racism, but the process, as comparative historian George Fredrickson has noted, is unfortunately reversible.[17]

Alejandro de la Fuente is assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of A Nation For All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth Century Cuba (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

1. Florestan Fernandes, A integraçao do negro na sociedade de classes (Sao Paulo: Dominus, 1965), p. 293.
2. Nadine T. Fernandez, “The Color of Love: Young Interracial Couples in Cuba,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter 1996), pp. 99-117.
3. José Felipe Carneado, “La discriminación racial en Cuba no volverá jamás,” Cuba Socialista, Vol. 2, No. 5 (January 1962), pp. 54-67.
4. Rafael Duharte and Elsa Santos, El fantasma de la esclavitud: prejuicios raciales en Cuba y América Latina (Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1997), p. 135.
5. Rafael Duharte and Elsa Santos, El fantasma de la esclavitud: prejuicios raciales en Cuba y América Latina, p. 121; pp. 124-6.
6. “Aumenta la vigilancia policial en la capital,” El Nuevo Herald (Miami), October 11, 2000; Eugene Robinson, “Cuba Begins to Answer its Race Question,” Washington Post, November 12, 2000.
7. Deisy F. Mexidor, “Blanco y negro, sí,” Juventud Rebelde (Havana), April 30, 1999.
8. Lourdes Serrano Peralta, “Mujer, instrucción, ocupación y color de la piel: estructura y relaciones raciales en un barrio popular de la Habana,” América Negra, No. 15 (December 1988), pp. 119-33; Juan A. Alvarado, “Estereotipos y prejuicios raciales en tres barrios habaneros,” América Negra, No. 15 (December 1988), pp. 89-115.
9. Elena Díaz, Esperanza Fernández and Tania Caram, “Turismo y prostitución en Cuba,” unpublished paper, FLACSO, (Havana), 1996.
10. Lázara Menéndez Vázquez, “Un cake para Obatalá?!” Temas, No.4 (October-December 1995), pp. 38-51; Tomás Fernández Robaina, Hablen paleros y santeros (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1994).
11. Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Documento Cultura y Sociedad,” Granma (Havana), November 7, 1998.
12. Robinson, “Cuba Begins to Answer its Race Question.”
13. Deisy F. Mexidor, “Blanco y negro, sí,” Juventud Rebelde; Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, “Razas: diferentes pero iguales,” Bohemia Vol. 89, No. 2 (1997), pp. 8-13.
14. Gerardo Tena, “Los ‘no blancos’ irrumpen en las filas de la disidencia,” El Nuevo Herald (Miami), October 2, 1999.
15. Susana Lee, “El primer requisito,” Granma (Havana), April 23, 1999.
16. Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
17. George M. Fredrickson, The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism, and Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Tags: race, Cuba, afrocubans, revolution, tourism, identity politics

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