Racial Debate Enters US-Cuba Conflict

Patricia Grogg

Cuban dancers.  Photo: Caridad
Cuban dancers. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 6 (IPS) – Necessary debate on the persistence of racial discrimination in Cuban society could find itself trapped in the old conflict between Havana and Washington following accusations made by a group of US African-American intellectuals, which were rejected by their counterparts of this Caribbean nation.  afrocubaweb.com/actingonourconscience.htm

Black members of several US organizations, including some in their formal capacities, called for public discussion on the Cuban racial problem to make it visible and to facilitate the search of solutions on the part of the State as well as the island’s social institutions.

In a response, the president of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), Miguel Barnét, and other Cuban cultural figures, admitted that the process of racial integration has not been easy; however, they denied restrictions on “civil liberties by reasons of race” in the country.

We live in a free country - Photo: Caridad
"We live in a free country" - Photo: Caridad

According to their declaration, published in the island’s digital media on Friday, the transformation process undertaken over the last half century has allowed Cuban “blacks and mulatos” to find “opportunities for social and personal realization, supported by policies and programs” that foster the integration of society.

“This, we know, is a process that is not exempt from conflicts and contradictions in which inherited social disadvantages and deeply-rooted prejudices play an important role,” acknowledged the statement, which was in response to the declaration signed by over 50 Black intellectuals from the United States.

People of African descent in that neighboring country demanded the Raul Castro government “stop the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights.”

Drinking fresh sugarcane juice in Havana.  Photo: Caridad
Drinking fresh sugarcane juice in Havana. Photo: Caridad

“We cannot be silent in the face of increased violations of civil and human rights for those black activists in Cuba who dare raise their voices against the island’s racial system,” reads the declaration, whose signatories include Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Barack Obama’s church when the current president lived in Chicago.

Campaign to undermine sovereignty and identity

For Cuban intellectuals, among whom figure poet and essayist Nancy Morejón, “behind this fiction is evidenced the perverse intention of adding respectable voices from the US African-American community to the anti-Cuban campaign that seeks to undermine our sovereignty and identity.”

In the signatories’ opinion, “if the Cuba of these times were that racist country that some wish to paint,” its citizens would not have contributed massively to the liberation of African peoples, nor would more than 35,000 African youths have received education in Cuban schools over the past 40 years.

“Nor would 2,600 young people from some 30 nations of that region be studying right now in our universities,” adds the declaration, which also refers to cooperation in the form of the training of medical personnel and other human resources, as well as public health assistance provided to countries of Latin American and the Caribbean, where there is a “significant the African diaspora.”

The Cuban letter recalls that in those “first days” of the triumphant revolutionary process in 1959, “the institutional and judicial bases of a racist society were dismantled, and people of African ancestry immediately benefited from the battle waged by the new government to eradicate all forms of exclusion.”

Cuban students in Havanas Central Park.  Photo: Caridad
Cuban students in Havana's Central Park. Photo: Caridad

According to the 2002 Cuban “Census of Population and Housing,” 10 percent of the population of Cuba is recognized as black and nearly 25 percent multi-racial.

Article 42 of the Cuban Constitution outlaws and punishes “discrimination by reasons of race, skin color, sex, national origin, religious beliefs and any other category detrimental to human dignity.” In May 1961, the government of Fidel Castro eliminated racial exclusions with the nationalization of clubs and associations.

Esteban Morales (an academic, researcher and another of the signatories of the response to the African-American intellectuals), notes “Never before (1959) in Cuba, had blacks and mulatos been able to have a state and a government that defended their interests as its own.”

Refuges of discrimination

However, several voices in Cuba agree that persistent expressions of discrimination take refuge in the family, individual consciousnesses, in certain groups and in people’s concrete attitudes, which indicate a social context that cannot be covered over and should be investigated.

According to those sources, until the mid-1980s there prevailed the erroneous theoretical concept that with the disappearance of social classes and the incorporation of people in the construction of a new society, the very dialectical logic of that process would put an end to racial prejudice and discriminatory practices.

But in the last several years, there were changes and the racial issue was discussed.  This occurred in 1998 in a congress of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and one year later in a National Council meeting of that organization. Recently, a permanent committee was created to struggle -from a cultural perspective- against all vestiges of discrimination and racial prejudice.

Likewise, this past September, Cuban intellectuals and artists revived the Cofradía de la Negritud (CONEG), an association whose aim is to create awareness of “worsening” racial inequality, to seek the solution in social policies that consider the black population’s cumulative historical disadvantage.

A commission also exists for the study of the issue within the National Library; moreover, the government’s Institute of Anthropology recently concluded research on the current state of the matter, which is present in popular debates based on the showing of the documentary “Raza,” by the young Cuban film director Eric Corvalan.


A Yoruba proverb affirms, “The lie may run for a year, but the truth will catch up with it one day.” Although the most intolerant political circles and most powerful mass media have tried to impose a distorted image of contemporary Cuban society on the American public for a long time, in the end -in one way or another- reality will open the path.

We are sure this is what will happen when counter arguments are considered refuting the false statements about our society contained in a document circulated on December 1 in the name of a group of US African-American intellectuals and leaders.

Saying there is “callous disregard” for black Cubans, that they are “denied civil liberties on the basis of race,” and making the demand to “stop the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights,” would otherwise appear to be delirious philosophizing, if it were not that behind this fiction is evidenced the perverse intention of adding respectable voices from the US African-American community to the anti-Cuban campaign that seeks to undermine our sovereignty and identity

If the Cuba of these times was that racist nation they wish to paint, its citizens would not have contributed massively to the liberation of African peoples.  More than 350,000 Cuban volunteers fought alongside their African brothers against colonialism.  More than 2,000 combatants from the island died in the lands of that continent.  Nelson Mandela, a figure of undisputed worldwide import, has recognized the role of those volunteers in the definitive defeat of the infamous apartheid regime.  From Africa, we brought back only the remains of our dead.

If the Cuba of today felt such disrespect for the black race, more than 35,000 African young people would not have been trained in our schools over the past 40 years, nor would 2,600 young people from some 30 nations of that region be studying in our universities right now.

A people sick with racism would refuse to collaborate in the training of medical doctors and other health services personnel at medical schools founded in Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia and Eritrea.

It would have turned its back on the health assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the African diaspora is significant, and they would have not provided services to the more than 20,000 Haitians and English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans who recovered their eyesight through surgical operations performed in our country, free of charge.

It is very probable that the majority of those who signed the document aren’t aware that when the city of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, dozens of Cuban medical doctors and paramedics volunteered to provide help to storm victims in a humanitarian gesture that received no response from the American authorities.

It is probable that those who signed the document also ignore the fact that from the earliest days following our popular victory in 1959, the institutional and legal bases that sustained a racist society were dismantled.

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution confronted a critical situation among the majority of the population.  Cubans of African descent, who were among the victims that suffered most from the [US] neo-colonial model that existed here, immediately benefited from the battle carried out by the Revolution, which put an end to any form of exclusion, including the horrendous form of racism that characterized Cuba throughout those years.

Cuba’s policy against any form of discrimination and in support of equality has constitutional backing, found explicitly in the chapters of the Cuban Constitution that refer to the essential political, social and economic foundations of the State, and relate to the rights, obligations and guarantees of its citizens.

These constitutional rights, as well as the mechanisms and means to uphold them and restore legality before any violation of them, are guaranteed through very precise complementary legislation.

As never before in the history of our nation, black and multi-racial Cubans have found opportunities for social and personal development in transformative processes that have been ongoing over the past half a century.  These opportunities are conveyed through policies and programs that made possible the initiation of what Cuban anthropologist Don Fernando Ortiz called the “non-deferrable integration phase of Cuban society.”  It is, we know, a process that is not exempt from conflicts and contradictions in which inherited social disadvantages and deeply-rooted prejudices play an important role.

Fidel Castro, in a discussion that took place in Havana with Cuban and foreign educators six years ago, commented how “even in societies like Cuba, which arose from a radical social revolution in which the people reached full and total legal equality and a level of revolutionary education that buried the subjective component of discrimination, it [racism] still exists in another form.” He described it as “objective discrimination,” a phenomenon associated with poverty and a historical monopoly on knowledge.

Whoever observes daily life anywhere in our country will be able to see how a sustained effort is underway to bring an end to the factors that provide the remedies for that situation through new programs oriented towards eliminating any social disadvantage.

Afro-American intellectuals must know how their Cuban colleagues have dealt with these issues and promote actions from the prominent positions they hold in civil society.

Some of the programs we have referred to came into being as a result of debates that took place in 1998 during the 6th Congress of the Cuban Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) in open and frank dialog with the State’s highest authorities and then-President Fidel Castro.

It should be remembered that UNEAC, which brings together the vanguard of Cuba’s intellectual and artistic movement, had as its president and founder a black poet, Nicolas Guillen.  He was one of the most important poets in the Spanish language during the 20th century, an active fighter against racial discrimination and a personal friend of Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson.

Within UNEAC, an organization that has never turned its back on these problems, a permanent committee has been created to fight -from a cultural perspective- against any remains of discrimination and racial prejudice.

In a racist country it would be inconceivable to found and operate institutions like the Africa Center, the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, the Caribbean Center of Santiago de Cuba, the Center of Caribbean Studies of the Americas Center, and the National Institute of Anthropology, which, among others, conducts in-depth research into the African legacy of our culture and interracial relations in our country.

Likewise, artistic organizations and entities such as the National Folklore Group, the Camagüey Folkloric Ballet, and the Oriente Folkloric Group would not have received support and the most widespread social recognition,

There would not have existed the Museum of the Slave Route, the first of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean.  That museum is one of the first results of Cuba’s commitment to the UNESCO-sponsored program to vindicate the contributions made by Africans forcibly removed from their lands of origin and brought to these lands where they helped forge new identities.

If racial hatred was a predominant trend in our society, the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Black Independent Party would have been nothing but a rhetorical gesture.  The celebration was based on recovering the historical memory of that stage of the struggle and the aspirations of the Cuban people for their rights and liberation from all forms of domination.

Genuine bearers of traditional musical culture, “Los Muñequitos de Matanzas,” “Yoruba Andabo” and “Clave y Guaguanco”, much appreciated by the American public, would otherwise be working as parking lot attendants, shoe shiners and domestic labor with their extraordinary values unrecognized.

A racist society would not have committed itself so deeply to translating and publishing hundreds of literary works by African and Afro-Caribbean authors.

On one of his visits to Cuba, the Nigerian Nobel Prize Laureate Wole Soyinka stated, “It is difficult to find any other place in the Western Hemisphere where the quest to learn about African writers transcends the interest of academic institutions, like I have seen here.”

Cuban artists and intellectuals are thankful for the solidarity, understanding and respect many Afro-American figures have shown towards Cuba over a half century.  We have never asked them to share our political ideas, nor have we put conditions on dialog or any type of support or backing.  From a most basic sense of ethics, we respect their points of view.

Perhaps it would be opportune for those who signed the declaration to listen -without prejudice- to this point of view.  We are sure that by doing so, as the Yoruba saying asserts, “The truth will have its day.”

Havana, December 3, 2009

Nancy Morejon, poet and essayist

Miguel Barnet, poet and anthropologist

Esteban Morales, political scientist and essayist

Eduardo Roca (Choco), artist

Heriberto Feraudy, historian and essayist

Rogelio Martinez Fure, Africanist

Pedro de la Hoz, journalist and essayist

Fernando Martinez Heredia, sociologist and essayist

One thought on “Racial Debate Enters US-Cuba Conflict

  • At last, the most compelling and unavoidable issue confronting the Cuban government and its people, has come to the fore. None of the problems affecting defense, economy, health or the US-Cuba diferendo, can supersede this life defining matter that have plagued our nation for centuries. Not for those attempting to use this burning issue as a divisive tool to divide our nation, but for us concerned with its sovereingnty, independence and the wellbeing of 12 million Cubans and hundreds of millions in the third world, whose future and wellbeing is indisolubly tied to Cuba; we demand, an immediate, in-depth, honest, open and thorough analysis of the etiology, cause, effects and definitive solution of our most corrosive, intractable and self-destructive problem. 500 years of slavery, segregation, racism and social inequality must end NOW! Cuba will never become the lightening rod it must be in the world, without turning the majority of its people into the most developed blacks on earth

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