Race still an issue in Cuba
'Race still an issue in Cuba'
By Patricia Grogg
The elimination of racism remains unfinished business in Cuba today.
"We have to admit that the problem exists, determine its impact on the
social model that we defend, and tackle it in depth," says Esteban
Morales, an Afro-Cuban economist, political scientist and author of
numerous articles and essays on the subject.
As a researcher at the University of Havana's Centre for the Study of
the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), Morales could also be
considered an expert on US affairs.
While he openly admits to the persistence of racism in Cuba, he takes
issue with a statement recently issued by a group of 60 African-American
artists and intellectuals accusing the Cuban government of Raúl Castro
of persecuting and harassing black citizens based on the colour of their
As far as Morales is concerned, accusations like these reflect a lack of
awareness of the reality on the ground in Cuba, and "are trumped up as
part of the same campaigns that US governments have always waged against
the Cuban revolution".
"We talk about racism and say that we need to perfect guarantees of
civil and democratic rights, but not only for blacks in Cuba – for
society as whole. This is a struggle in which our allies include the
country's highest political leadership," he says in this interview with IPS.
Question: Why has the Cuban revolution's social model not succeeded in
eliminating the disadvantages faced by the black population?
Esteban Morales: Despite the radical nature of the process that got
underway in 1959, the country's social policies failed to take skin
colour into account. In terms of social policy, after the triumph of the
revolution, all poor people were treated equally, without
differentiating between whites and blacks. But this was something that
needed to be done, because the colour of one's skin in Cuba is a
significant variable in social differences.
White people came to Cuba by their own free will, as colonisers, with
goals that they very often achieved. Black people were brought here by
force and turned into slaves. These are very different starting points
that cannot be forgotten or ignored, and that continue to have an impact
Despite the fact that everyone's living standards improved and black
Cubans achieved a more favourable position over the last half century,
the profound differences did not disappear entirely. During the special
period [the economic crisis of the 1990s, following the collapse of the
East European socialist bloc], we realised that those who were hit
hardest by the crisis were in fact black Cubans, who had fewer
possibilities of forging a livelihood.
Even in Cuba today, being poor and white is not the same as being poor
And yet the Cuban government declared in 1962 that the problem of racism
had been overcome.
That was a mistake, caused by idealism and wilfulness, and the pressures
of political circumstances in those years. From that time on, there was
a long period of silence on the subject, since talking about racial
differences was seen as playing into the hands of the enemy. Anyone who
insisted on bringing up the subject was considered racist and divisive.
The issue of racism re-emerged during the special period, and with the
kind of virulence you would expect from a problem that was supposed to
have been solved, but actually wasn't.
On more than one occasion you have said that in this country, people are
educated "to be white". Do you think it would be fair to view this kind
of contradiction as a form of "institutionalised" racism?
It is a certain kind of institutionalised racism, but not as a result of
specific directives, or a conscious decision. It is more a result of
flaws and errors in the educational process, in the teaching of history,
in the racial representations in our books. It is a result of failing to
address in the schools, in depth, the consequences of slavery, which are
still felt today.
The problem is not with the institution of education, but rather with
aspects and problems of social life, with dysfunctionalities and
imperfections in our society. In Cuba there is still a lack of racial
awareness. For whites, it isn't important because they have always been
in power. But blacks need racial awareness in order to fight against
racism and fight for their place in society.
Racial discrimination is a phenomenon that persists in people's minds,
in the family, in personal relationships, sometimes in institutionalised
groups, and this is something that cannot be easily resolved.
How would you propose to solve these shortcomings in the field of education?
The only way to remedy this is through strict vigilance to guarantee
equal opportunities for all in employment, and especially in the new
economy – in other words, in tourism and joint ventures with foreign
capital – as well as in education, along with major cultural work.
Education should really not be biased towards any colour, but what is
happening in practice is that our schoolchildren are being educated, for
the most part, to think that it is better to be white and that it is a
disadvantage to be black.
We have to deal with the problems of a Western bias in our education,
and expand the teaching of history to include Africa, Asia and the
Middle East, while addressing racial representation in our books. We
have to take the discussion of racial discrimination into the schools,
so that when kids go out into the streets and hear a racist remark, they
will have a basis for challenging it.
What do you propose in social terms?
"We are all equal" was also a demagogic slogan of republicanism.
Equality is the goal, the aspiration, while inequality and difference
are what we stumble over every day.
We have to start by recognising the inequalities that exist in our
society, despite all of the efforts that have been made to eliminate
them, leading almost to the brink of egalitarianism. They are a legacy,
but at the same time, they are a phenomenon that can be reproduced as a
result of the dysfunctionalities of our social model, which needs to be
It is only by understanding these differences in depth and working on
them that we can achieve genuine equality.
Do you think a specific policy for the black population is needed?
In Cuba there is a certain kind of affirmative action policy, although
we don't call it that. After researching in depth the situation of
families, the problems affecting children, the disabled, different
social groups, we were led in practice to adopt affirmative action
measures, because this is how we were able to reach the people who have
historically been the least privileged and the most vulnerable.
There are phenomena that need to be remedied and this can only be done
by addressing them separately, such as housing, employment, health. In
all of these efforts, it is essential to take skin colour into account.
The more research that is done, the more obvious it becomes that blacks
are at the bottom, people of mixed-race backgrounds are generally in the
middle, and whites are at the top.
Why isn't there more in-depth discussion, including coverage in the
Cuban media, about this widely recognised issue?
There is growing debate at the intellectual and community levels, and in
cultural centres, but it also needs to reach government bodies, and the
country's political, social and grassroots organisations. This is what
we are calling for, because more than 60 per cent of Cuba's population
of 11.2 million people is not white [but instead either black or of
mixed race] according to our studies.
Do you think it should form part of the political agenda as well?
Of course. The fact that President Raúl Castro referred to the issue in
his December 20 address to parliament seems to imply that it could be on
the agenda of the upcoming 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.
And if it isn't, I think it should be.
In addition, there are two commissions studying different facets of the
problem: one at the National Library and another at the Union of Cuban
Artists and Writers (UNEAC). There should also be a commission to
address this issue in parliament [National Assembly].
If the National Assembly specifically addresses the questions of
religion, women or youth, then why not the issue of race? I believe it
is of equal importance, but it has been dealt with less than any other.
Is there a danger that this discussion could be cut short out of fear
that it could create internal divisions or be manipulated to be used
against the revolution?
On the contrary, what is actually being used in the campaigns of our
enemies is the fact that it has taken us so long to address the issue,
and failing to discuss it is what could actually divide us.
What hurts us politically, from the point of view of our image abroad
and inside the country, is the fact that our official discourse is out
of sync with reality, because up until very recently we claimed that
there were no racially related problems in Cuba.
Al Jazeera English – Focus – 'Race still an issue in Cuba' (1 February 2010)