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Cuba's struggle against racism

By Roberto Jorquera 

[from Green Left Weekly, March 11 1998]

Since 1959, Cuba's revolutionary government has embarked on the task of eliminating centuries of racial prejudice dating from the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, when the indigenous people of the island were massacred and the black slave trade was introduced. 

To gain a full appreciation of the advances that have been achieved in combating racial prejudice in revolutionary Cuba, it is important to have an outline of the history of race relations in Cuba. The major historical periods are the colonial period, the period of the republic 1901-1959 and after the 1959 revolution. 

Racism is an ideology that justifies the social practice of racial oppression, of institutionalised inequality based on racial categorisation. The invasion of the Americas following its "discovery" by Christopher Columbus was central to the development of capitalism in Europe. After the invasion it was necessary for the colonial ruling class to develop racist bigotry to justify the oppression of the indigenous people and the development of the slave trade. 

Since the victory of the revolution, racist oppression has been systematically combated and defeated. However it would be utopian to suggest that individual racial prejudices do not still exist in sections of the population. The Cuban revolution laid the economic and social foundations for the effective elimination of racism, but, with increasing political and economic attacks by the US, even the gains that have been achieved face pressures. 

The history of Cuba is a history of socio-economic discrimination against the overwhelming majority of the population. This discrimination was based not only on race but more importantly on class, leading many scholars to define the pre-revolutionary period as that of a colour/class system. The post-revolutionary government, therefore, correctly realised that to overcome racism it needed to overcome the class system itself. 

Colonial period

One of the difficulties in looking at the issue of race politics in Cuba is in finding the most accurate statistics on who is, or defines themselves as, black. According to the 1955 Cuban census, negroes or mulattos comprised the following percentages of the population: in 55.85 per cent in 1827; 32 per cent in 1899; 25.2 per cent in 1943; and 26.9 per cent in 1953. Though these are the official figures it is important to note that they are based on a person's own definition, rather than on any objective definition of who is considered black, mulatto or white. Such figures are useful, however many other studies suggest that the percentage of blacks or mulattos is closer to 35-40% of the population in the post-revolutionary period. 

The 1800s were a period of revolutionary battles, many of which began to raise the issue of race. It was also a time of massacres of the black population, such as that in Aponte in 1812 and La Escalera in 1844. The Cuban revolutionary hero Jos Mart was one of the most outspoken and aggressive campaigners for the liberation of blacks. The ten-year war that erupted in 1868 was begun by Carlos de Cespedes' act of freeing his slaves, opening the way for a greater political role for blacks. 

The right-wing backlash which promoted a "fear of the black" was answered by Mart in 1868: "There can be no race hatred, because there are no races ... What then is there to fear? ... Shall we fear he who has suffered most in Cuba from the privation of freedom, in the country where the blood he shed for her has made her too dear to be threatened ... The revolution, which has brought together all Cubans, regardless of their colour, whether they come from the continent where the skin burns, or from peoples of a gentler light, will be for all Cubans." It was the battles lead by Mart and others that led to the abolition of slavery in 1886. The late 1880s also led to an increasing involvement of blacks in the struggle for independence, particularly the wars of independence 1895-98. 

The republic

The 1901 constitution effectively imposed discriminatory practices which hit blacks the hardest. Voting was restricted to males over 21 years of age who could either read and write, or owned real property valued over 250 pesos, or proved that they had fought in the liberation army. In response to such practices, the Association of Black Voters was formed in 1908, soon after changing its name to the Party of Colour. Part of its platform stated: "Freedom is not asked or begged for, it is won; and rights are not handed out anywhere, rights are fought for and belong to all. If we go on asking for our rights, we will die waiting because we will have lost them." 

However, in 1910, the government, in a clear attempt to curtail black political participation, introduced a law banning the formation of political parties on race lines. The banning led to the race war of 1912 that saw a genocide of blacks by the military. 

By the turn of the century a systematic form of racial oppression was firmly in place in numerous parts of Cuban society. These included the formation of exclusive social clubs, bars, restaurants, beaches, movie theatres and night clubs. Exclusion was also maintained through income levels. Lourdes Casal, in an article entitled "Race Relations in Contemporary Cuba", writes: 

"In Havana, upper class social clubs excluded blacks and mulattos systematically. (Even Batista, during his term as President of the Republic, was banned at the Havana Yacht Club, the most exclusive of the upper class clubs.) These clubs controlled private beaches in Havana which, therefore, excluded blacks. Middle class clubs, especially those organised around professional associations, admitted those blacks who belonged to the respective professional organisations." 

"In Cuban small towns and provincial capitals, segregation was rigidly enforced in formal social life and in the patterns of informal association related to courtship, such as in public parks. The private school system was predominantly, although not totally, white. Elite schools practised racial discrimination but it was hardly necessary because few blacks could afford the high tuition costs and other expenses", writes Casal. 

Race discrimination was also evident in occupational distribution, with blacks occupying the overwhelming majority of lower-paid and less skilled jobs in the economy. The republic's immigration policy encouraged white workers from Spain and promoted an assimilationalist policy. The government even went to the extent of introducing a process of reclassification of many mulattos as white, effectively trying to erase Cuba's black history. 

Revolutionary period

The victory of the revolution provided the opportunity for a fundamental change in the way in which blacks were treated and the way in which black history and culture was viewed within Cuban society. Casal writes: "The egalitarian and redistributive measures (such as land reform) enacted by the revolutionary government have benefited blacks as the most oppressed sector of the society in the pre-revolutionary social system." 

As early as March 1959, Fidel Castro spoke of the need to begin the struggle against racial prejudice. In a speech on March 21, 1959, Castro said: "In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad ... and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?" 

Castro also acknowledged that the "blood of Africa runs deep in our veins. People's mentality is not yet revolutionary enough. People's mentality is still conditioned by many prejudices and beliefs from the past ... One of the battles which we must prioritise more and more every day ... is the battle to end racial discrimination at the work place ... There are two types of racial discrimination: one is the discrimination on the recreation centres or cultural centres; the other, which is the worst and the first one which we must fight, is racial discrimination in the job." 

These remarks led to the Proclamation Against Racism: "We shouldn't have to pass a law to establish a right that should belong to every human being and member of society ... Nobody can consider themselves to be of pure race, much less a superior race. Virtue, personal merit, heroism, generosity, should be the measure of men, not skin colour." Castro then denounced racial discrimination and racial prejudice as "anti-nation". "What the eternal enemies of Cuba and the enemies of this revolution want is for us to be divided into a thousand pieces, thereby to be able to destroy us." 

It was clear from the start of the revolution that the new government would look at the race issue more from a class perspective than on purely racial grounds. From the start the revolution introduced various affirmative action programs that helped the most disadvantaged sectors of the population, including women and Afro-Cubans. 

The revolution has always prioritised socio-economic changes: they abolished the private heath care and education system which economically discriminated against blacks. The government's introduction of free health care and education has particularly benefited the black population of Cuba, who made up the bulk of the working class. 

Castro said in March 1959: "There is discrimination at recreation centres. Why? Because blacks and whites are educated apart. At the public grade school, blacks and whites are together. At the public grade school, blacks and whites learn to live together, like brothers. And if they are together at the public school, they are later together at the recreation centres and at all places." The right wing responded with slogans like "neither black nor red". 

On the eve of the revolution, roughly 15 per cent of Cuban primary school children and 30 per cent of high school students attended private schools, which were primarily white. The underfunded and poorly-staffed public education sector further enforced the so called "colour-class system". The segregation of the elite also made it difficult for the development of social networks across racial lines. Castro's comments were a very direct attempt to overcome those problems. Che Guevara also raised the issue in a speech to university students in 1960, stating that the "university must be painted black, worker, campesino". 

The situation today

On a political and cultural level the revolution has opened many doors for greater Afro-Cuban involvement and recognition. In April 1976, Castro became the first white Cuban head of state to recognise the mulatto character of Cuban culture and nationhood stating in a speech: "We are a Latin-African people." 

Casal writes that: "Cuban culture, which has slowly been evolving during several centuries, is undoubtedly Afro-Hispanic. In spite of the efforts of the white-dominant class, in spite of their resistance, black cultural elements are integrated into Cuban music, Cuban popular lore, Cuban art, poetry, in such fashion that, without their component of black heritage , they would not be what they are, they would not be Cuban. And this must not be seen as a result of an assimilationist option, but rather as a consequence of true mestizaje." 

Greater recognition was given to the Afro-Cuban culture with the 1991 decision to allow religious believers into the Cuban Communist Party. This change particularly affected Afro-Cubans and further opened the door to political participation through being allowed to be nominated for party membership. 


Prior to 1959, blacks tended to be concentrated in the most dilapidated areas of Havana. However the revolution immediately reduced rents by 50 per cent and eventually ownership was granted to tenants. Thus, more blacks now own their houses in Cuba than any other country in the world. 

One indicator of the level of people's consciousness on racial issues is that of inter-racial unions. Thirty-nine years of revolution has produced structural changes that have placed young people in daily contact with others of all races, but housing patterns and family ties continue to shape the kinds of inter-racial relationships they form. 

Nadine Fernndez, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, spent two years in Cuba in 1992-93, gathering information on the issue, which culminated in an article titled "The Color Of Love: Young Inter-racial Couples in Cuba". Though Fernndez admits that prejudices still exist she makes it clear that since the revolution's victory there has been a steady increase in the numbers of inter-racial unions. There are many reasons for this, primarily the increased social mobility that blacks have enjoyed since 1959. 

"Parents and grandparents built their lives and families around the revolution, integrating to a greater or lesser extent the revolution's struggle for racial, class and sexual equality. Often parents and grandparents find themselves holding contradictory views on these issues - caught between a legacy of discrimination and revolutionary ideas of equality", writes Fernndez. 

Her study found that there was a level of prejudice among the older generation when it came to inter-racial unions, particularly white women with black men. However the number of inter-racial marriages varies geographically. In the Carraguao section of Havana a survey found that 32 per cent of the marriages were inter-racial, while nationwide the proportion is only 14 per cent according to the 1981 census. 

The structural changes that the revolution has undertaken in the social and economic sectors have fundamentally changed the social and economic inequalities that had plagued Cuban society during centuries of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. 

Since 1959, the revolution has opened the door to an ever increasing level of racial integration in all spheres of social and economic life. However, racial prejudice has not disappeared in Cuban society. It is still around particularly in a section of the older generation, but such views that do not receive much attention. The Cuban revolution clearly provides the example that racism can only be fought and undermined through a fundamental change in the social, economic and political structures of a society along socialist lines. 

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