Cuba’s Pending Racial Debate

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuba’s shantytowns and tenement buildings, where extremely poor living conditions prevail, are populated chiefly by black people. Foto: Raquel Perez
Cuba’s shantytowns and tenement buildings, where extremely poor living conditions prevail, are populated chiefly by black people. Foto: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — In 1925, Las Margaritas, the birthplace of Cuban singer Celia Cruz, was one of Havana’s poor black neighborhoods. Today, the children who live in this shantytown have free access to education and healthcare, but little of the deplorable living conditions that prevailed back then has changed, and its inhabitants are still, for the most part, of the same skin color.

León Mago Rodríguez, of African descent, has lived in the shantytown for 60 years. His daughters, who also grew up there, had to build additional rooms for themselves when they turned of age. For lack of space, his grandchildren constructed their quarters over the roof of the house, where the great-grandchildren can be seen running and playing about.

The few public and reliable statistics available in Cuba show that, today, black people live in the country’s worst houses, receive less remittances and hard currency, are less active in the country’s emergent economy, have lower university enrollment indexes and tend to be employed in the worst-paying jobs available.

In the 1960s, the Cuban government declared it had resolved the racial problem definitively. In an article recently published by the New York Times, however, intellectual Roberto Zurbano condemned today’s racial discrimination on the island. “I did it to spark off a broad debate about racism,” he explains.


Race has been a sensitive issue since colonial times. Fear of the black man, in fact, is one of the arguments used to explain Cuba’s relatively late start in the struggle for independence. In 1959, Fidel Castro’s public condemnation of racism provoked such a strong reaction among the population that he had to address the issue again, days later.

Even today, the issue is seldom addressed by the Cuban press or in public speeches. President Raul Castro has, however, promoted a quota-based policy aimed at increasing the number of black women and men in leadership positions.

The relatively high number of black people in Cuban jails reveals that a “racial problem” still exists in the country. Photo: Raquel Pérez
The relatively high number of black people in Cuban jails reveals that a “racial problem” still exists in the country. Photo: Raquel Pérez

Institutionally speaking, all races have the same opportunities for personal development in Cuba. In fact, a number of individuals of African descent have reached high positions within the government. A case in point is Esteban Lazo, a working-class black man born in the countryside, who is today the Chair of the Cuban parliament.

The general rule, however, is that most prisons and poor neighborhoods are filled with black people, while white people continue to advise their peers not to “do things like blacks do” and some Cubans of African descent insist that interracial marriages are a way of “moving up the racial ladder”.

A Sensitive Issue

In the internal debates re-opened by the New York Times article, Cuban professor Guillermo Rodríguez wrote that “it is dishonest” not to acknowledge that the revolution fought against racism by creating opportunities in the workforce, the media and education for Cubans of all races.

According to Zurbano, black people in Cuba were never equally empowered to take advantage of those opportunities, asking, as way of an example: “How could we even think of renting out our home or opening a restaurant in it if we live in the shabbiest of houses?”

“My article was misread. I recognize that we, in Cuba, enjoy many of the rights that other African descendants in the region continue to demand, such as health and education. But I demand that the history of Africa be included in the history syllabus.”

Zurbano proposes that a debate on these issues be opened. “The first thing to do is to hold a debate, among Cubans, on the basis of the data that has already been collected by research centers. But we need to get experts and political activists together, so as to discuss the results yielded by that research.”

A Taboo Subject and the Debate

Roberto Zurbano has opened a broad debate on the racial issue. Foto: Raquel Perez
Roberto Zurbano has opened a broad debate on the racial issue. Foto: Raquel Perez

Cuban professor Esteban Morales, who is also of African descent, believes the government is already open to such debates. “That’s why I don’t agree with Zurbano. The discussion is already underway. I do agree it needs to be broadened, that it needs to reach further down, to the base.”

His proposal is the creation of a State department responsible for racial issues. He points out that “women have been a priority since the beginning. The racial issue must be tackled through cultural, economic and government activities.”

Renowned racial activist Tato Quiñones, an intellectual and Babalao (Santería priest), acknowledges that the struggle against racial discrimination in the workplace and educational and recreational institutions began in 1959. “That’s when the revolution took on special meaning for me,” he states.

He adds that black people benefitted from the progressive social measures that were taken in favor of the underprivileged, such as free education and healthcare and the right to employment, but that that “no extraordinary policies were implemented to aid that sector of the population that was in dearest need of it.”

“It was a mistake to believe that the elimination of social classes would, in and of itself, put an end to racism,” Quiñones said, criticizing the taboos that surround the racial debate in Cuba. He acknowledges that Zurbano is to be commended for “putting the racial issue back on the table, at his own risk.”
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published on the blog of Fernando Ravsberg.

21 thoughts on “Cuba’s Pending Racial Debate

  • April 29, 2013 at 9:15 am

    There were racial problems in Cuba before the Castro Family took over the administration of the Republic; there have been racial problems during the 50+ years of the Castros; and there will be racial problems after the Castros cease to administer our affairs. Cuba needs a Democratic elected government in which Citizens have the right to organize themselves in order to have a meaningful “racial debate.” Afro Cubans of all shades do not have the right since 1959 to speak freely about their current situation in Cuban Society. It is not an exclusive attack against the rights to self determination of the Afro Cubans, it is the nature of the cuban state to repress any non governmental effort in all areas of Civic life. The afro cuban associations met the same fate as the workers union, mutualist groups, professional organizations, catholic and chriistian groups, immigrant societies, etc, Not even the athletic clubs or the small town liceos were spared. The cuban state faced out or took over civic life. To this day NGOs are the object of persecution by the cuban government, that is the undeniable truth. Whatever Civic organizations exist in Cuba today, they exit at the risk of their members being jailed, exiled or kill by formal or informal means.

    I am optimistic that in the future Democracy will return to our beloved Cuba. It has been absent with all its splendor since 1952. When it does return cubans of all shades of skin color will sit down and freely have a debate about our racial relations, ethnic prejudices, etc. Until the Democratic opportunity does not arrive we cubans can not solve our social problems. We need free elections!

    LW Fernandez

  • April 26, 2013 at 11:20 am

    George, thanks for your kind comments, and no need to apologize for any of your stands for needless to say, I am not perfect and I consider coming to HT a part of the process of learning. After his first term President Obama is not my political hero, and I have criticized him twice on this forum for his actions against Cuba. But I operate on the principle of giving praise where praise is due and criticizing where criticism is due. Obama is educationally-speaking an accomplished person, and I cited him to counter the racist stereotypes in ac’s comments. I have always been a defender of the ideals of the Cuban revolution and the Cuban people and against the economic warfare and political intrigues of the US. I have even on a number of occasions countered the arguments of Pedro of the Observatorio Critico and others who criticized the Cuban leadership. I do not and will never support any actions that hurt Cuba and the Cuban people.

    The Afro-Cubans constitute a very important support base of the Cuban revolution, and it is incomprehensible, anti-dialectical and dangerous that they have been politically marginalized. Unless the “historicos” swiftly correct this error and contradiction of race, and stop dreaming of the white Cuban Catholic hierarchy as their God-sent saviour, they and the revolution will go down the same way as the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe or even worse like Libya and Syria. Only a united Cuba will guarantee Cuba’s survival in this dangerous epoch of violent regime-change and resource neo-colonialism!

  • April 26, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Cimarron, your comments are about the only ones here worth listening to. I agree with your criticisms, but if it helps, I think the advent of e-democracy, something that the Cuban government are seriously considering, will pave the way forward. Once every Cuban has the right to vote at the National Assembly, in other words the National Assembly becomes not merely representative, but the entire country, it will be much harder for the leadership to continue its racial bias, unconscious or not. Similarly democratization of the workplace including the media will ensure greater sensitivity to the real diversity of the island. I also believe that the Cuban government, even in its current makeup, are already taking seriously the idea of teaching African studies in schools, particularly African languages. Certainly both these ideas are appearing voiced in the official media.

    I apologize if I appear to echo AC comments in some parts, my main concern on this page is the blatant divide and rule tactics of those from the U.S. who are more interested in hiding behind Obama to deflect criticism of their own country.

  • April 26, 2013 at 2:57 am

    conceited villager believes the entire world to be his village…”

    Jose Marti

    Beyond pathetic and leaning more towards the psychological phenomenon of the pathological liar are the only characterizations for such a desperate denial as long and winded as the Nile! To
    undertake to declare an entire people as not being “relevant” to the source of their culture is arrogance heavily fueled by bottomless ignorance. Cuba is a living museum of African culture! Ignorance of this essential truth is the strongest argument for the institution of African Studies in all Cuban schools as proposed by Zurbano. The works of eminent scholars and researchers such as Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera, the National Poet of Cuba, Nicolas Guillen,on down to the contributions of Nancy Morejon, Alejo Carpentier, and Miguel Barnet, the paintings of Wilfredo Lam and the sculptures for sale at Cathedral Plaza in La Habana are all evocative of African influence. Cuban
    folkloric dance from Rumba to the Tumba Francesa to Salsa, and the Tumbao of the bass and conga are all very much living African influences that have endured and remain very relevant to Afro-Cubans and Cuban culture in general. No truly educated and cultured Cuban will blurt out the ignorant nonsense that the “history of Africa is mostly irrelevant to[sic] blacks Cubans and Cubans in general.” As the normal Cuban knows, Cuba is “Nacion y Mestizaje”, “transculturation”, “Moros y Cristianos”. I will leave you alone to go wherever you want with your neat, apartheid formulations about who should be considered black, mulatto, “jabao” and heaven knows what else. A mere mortal, I am obviously incapable of contradicting your divine authority to put people in
    their proper places by racial percentage. But learn this today and for the rest of your life: That after nearly 500 years of slavery, oppression and denial of their culture (from the slave-era forbidding of their drums and dances to your modern-day racist denial of their living connection to Africa), Afro-Cubans remain triumphantly some of the most African of the Africans of the New World! The Cuban bata drum looks the same way in Cuba or in Nigeria. The ”Egungun” dress and dance the same
    way in Matanzas as in Lagos. Cuban liturgical Yoruba has been determined by etymologists as being purer than the Yoruba spoken ordinarily in Nigeria today! The devotés of Yemaya in Havana do the sacred, trance whirl dance the same way as the Yoruba pilgrims at the Oshogbo festival in Nigeria (Check both out on youtube).

    At a party several years ago before I visited Cuba, I raised a toast to an Afro-Cuban musician friend (with wavy hair like a Somali):

    “¡Que viva Cuba, hijo de Africa!,” I said, and
    in turn he quickly responded:

    “¡Y España, el padre!”

    If you cannot acknowledge all the roots of Cuba, as cultured Cubans do, then speak for yourself and only yourself. Speak authoritatively all you want about your own “authentic” and “relevant” roots. But do yourself a favour and do not to attempt to dabble in stuff that is beyond your knowledge, comprehension or intellectual capacity. Likewise, there is no basis for your grand concern, expressed in such a crude, racist fashion, that “Black people needs [sic] to put stuff together and aim for the world.” A very successful, black man is ruling you in the United States! And his black father got a doctorate from Harvard (just as his mother did from another university). Since there is no racism in Cuba, according to you, and all Cubans have the same opportunities, we would like to see a Black Cubans given equal opportunity to become Presidents and fill other top positions in Cuba in deed and not just in words!

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