The place of race in Cuba

Cuba achieved more for Afro-Cubans in 50 odd years than in the 400 years before that. However, socialism did not resolve the question of racism on the island.

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Fernando via Flickr CC.

Race is possibly the most difficult and least understood issue in contemporary Cuba. Many Cubans don’t even want to hear it brought up in conversation. And when it is, reactions are still unpredictable, covering a wide range of attitudes that go from negation and cynicism to denial and disinterest.

Racism has historically been seen as a decisive topic, so there is very little effort to address it on a societal level. Sure, there are racially conscious black and mestizo Cubans, but they have had to wait too long for any kind of public debate on the subject. This is a flagrant contradiction and great dysfunction in a society that claims to be extraordinarily humanist, and whose people have fought for social justice and equality, reaching the borders of egalitarianism.

There is still a wide range of opinions on racism in Cuba, including denying that it even exists. And although there is still some ignorance, a false belief that the topic would effect our national unity. There is a persistent tendency to launch the accusation of “racist” to anyone who brings the idea of race to the surface. (In March of 1959, Fidel Castro put forth the need to address the issue of racial discrimination in Cuba, but there were those believed that this was an issue that had already been resolved. It is not surprising that such attitudes persist today.)

Unfortunately, after many years of silence on the subject, it has come to be a taboo, and today our country is significantly behind other countries when it comes to this question, whether among intellectuals or in cultural, scientific and political spheres. Race is not even mentioned in most contemporary analyses of the social and cultural reality of the Cuban nation. This is reflected, without a doubt, within our intellectual tradition, by the fact that there are many different views on where we are even at in terms of our development in the national project.

We have to stop accepting that everyone who calls themselves Cuban today received the same opportunity to contribute in the building of our nation. In order to have a more realistic attitude about the different racial groups, social inequalities, and the reality of race in Cuba today, it is essential to keep in mind the diverse contributions of different groups at distinct points in Cuban history. The truth is, some of us came as colonizers (whites) and others as slaves.

In Cuba, public debate is still discrete, incomplete, and unpublished. The work that is needed to address the root of racism still existing.  Inequalities continue to have a global component, even, when they are focused on our most vulnerable communities. Regardless, the variable “race or color of skin,” even with the existence of a policy of “affirmative action” in Cuba, continues to be a subliminal facet of public life, or at least people don’t admit when they are considering it. (Without a doubt, in 2005 after an increase in pensions, the minimum wages, and the distribution of subsidized basic needs—a humanistic political act—benefited blacks and mestizos because these groups were classed more proportionally amongst the country’s poor.)

Our Cuban society is, without a doubt, a “multiracial” society, or better said “multi-colored.” We should not only treat it as an issue of numeric representation, of whites, blacks and mestizos in different positions, but also to put an end to stereotyping and have it reflect it in the equality of conditions. Above all, the question of the distribution of power appears as an important one, because not all racial groups can assert themselves in order to reach the equilibrium of a truly multiracial (multicolored) society.

As the very wise founding father of Cuba, Don Fernando Ortiz, said, Cuba is an “Ajiaco” (a type of stew). An idea that we clearly share, only that I would modestly shift it to say that the “stew is still cooking.” We still have people who not feel like they are inside of the pot, and there are those who would even like to get out of it, or at least to diminish the intensity of the flame. On the other hand, inside of the pot we have more meat and vegetables than we had even imagined, from before the economic crisis of the nineties, that still haven’t softened. To paraphrase Issac Barreal, “…we shouldn’t only calibrate the stew by the expected result, but also during the process of cooking.” It is a reality on which not all of us are in agreement, but this is of vital importance for the process of consolidation of the national unit, as well as for our political alliances with the rest of the colonized peoples (indigenous, and Afro-descended) of the world, and in particular with those of our continent.

It is at this crossroads that we the Cuban people find ourselves at today, although, many of us do not understand or are ready to take concrete action in every way so that the stew can finish simmering. If we don’t do it, we will lose the last opportunity to finish constructing the society in which the large majority of Cubans really hope to live. At the same time, it will effect our alliance with 150 million Afro descendants and the indigenous populations of our continent, who look to Cuba not only as a paradigm for political emancipation, but also social emancipation. It is not possible to share with these groups the ideas that “a better world is possible” and continue bypassing the “challenges of color” internally.

Culture and education are, in our opinion, the first options of defense for the armies of this battle. Because it has already been more than proven that although racism has comfortably situated itself inside of capitalism, to getting rid of that regime is not enough to get rid of racial discrimination, and above all the prejudices and stereotypes that feed it. So, paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, one has to do away with simplistic “popular culture” and the innocuous “common sense” of the public; one must clear the battlefield for the formation of the true revolutionary culture. But the bourgeois ideology is so strong that it has had the ability to make many of us believe, that all those bad habits of racism and discrimination, are the most natural thing in the world.

I have a friend that said to me one day, “why do you think black people need to be on television more? You already have a station for yourselves: the sports channel.” Repeating that joke here, even though I don’t want to, shows the cynicism with which not a few Cubans approach the situation. Only an open debate, from the perspective of culture and science, could do away with that luck of hypocrisy, inherited from Spain, for which there is no place in the culture of the truly integrated and revolutionary society that we want to build.

We have ample examples in film, literary, dance, music, history, integrated culture that in general vindicate the African presence in the formation and development of our national culture, but not much of that laudable labor directly addresses our actual reality, where there is still the presence of negative stereotypes about non-whites, prejudices, racial discrimination and racism.

The three most ample investigations of the last 40 years (this, this and this)  around the issue of race in Cuba, were not produced in this country, nor by intellectuals that live on the island. Inside Cuba, very little has been published that treat the issue as a contemporary problem.

We have a written history, in which blacks and mestizos are still insufficiently represented inside the processes of the formation of our nation and its culture. This sincerely still effects our national identity. We have to finalize the introduction of ethnic-racial studies at all levels. They have to be constantly present and built into our education and our media systematically, above all on television.

We must educate ourselves to become Cuban, not to become white, like sometimes happens. We must assume the challenges, although also the spoils, from introducing color-consciousness into the formation of our children and young people.

Our education system cannot be qualified as racist, because all Cubans are able to access it equally, although limitations persist. Nevertheless, not all the foundational roots of our nation and its culture share equally in the opportunities for and programs of study. While we do not exclude blacks and mestizos in our educational system, lately, in daily practice, they are excluded as being part of the lesson in the classroom. What doesn’t enter into one’s education, doesn’t pass into the culture, and if our education is weak, or even absent in regards to questions of “color,” racism and discrimination, and the problems that come with, will never be solved.

The circumstances relative to the formation of a multiracial or multicolor identity have to finish taking their place in the Cuban education system. It is a problem that effects us all, and effects the identity of the nation as a whole. As long as it is not there, we will not be really be educating people to become Cuban in a holistic manner.

Regardless, in the last 20 years, we have advanced a lot. We are working hard to introduce new content into our school curriculum, and a new form of teaching national history; we start to explain the problem of color in school; Africa, Asia and the Middle East have started to find their place, not only in the cultural but also in the social and the educational realms. In community projects, study groups, and the press, a debate has been taken up with great enthusiasm, and has forced its way into academic and cultural institutions—albeit much more slowly in research at the university level, and in science in general. The Aponte Commission of the Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba (UNEAC) has begun to make their presence on the matter felt, in their strong ties with the national government and the state. They are advancing the need to recognize and constitute an institutionally that allows the issue of race to be recognized as a necessary issue for the national stage, with a governmental resolution that recognizes the need to consider race at the national level—as much from the point of view of the educational system as in culture, politics, and government. The National Assembly has adopted a structure with a greater representation of blacks, mestizos and women at a national level. So, blacks and mestizos today are present in political and governmental structures at rates proportional to the greater society.

Former president, Raul Castro, in the National Assembly, strongly pushed the issue of black, mestizo and female representation in our parliament—achieving in it a racial composition like has never before existed. At the level of the political organization, as much nationally as provincially, and all the levels of government, one can see the presence of black and mestizo people like has never been seen before in the country. So, things have advanced considerably, and the political will exists to keep doing so. We have started a period in which the determination to advance strongly towards a consolidation of the social project that is the Cuban Revolution, eradicating a problem that threatens us. Because, racial prejudices, discrimination, and racism are totally incompatible with the Cuban socialist project.

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