On Racism There is Still Much to Discuss
On Racism There is Still Much to Discuss / Dimas Castellanos
Posted on August 8, 2013
This past March 23, the prize-winning essayist, critic and literary
investigator Roberto Zurbano, who up until this moment functioned as the
director of the Editorial Fund of Casa de las Americas, was dismissed
from the position. This measure was taken a few days after the US
newspaper “The New York Times,” published an article under the headline
“For Blacks in Cuba the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” In an interview given
to The Associated Press, in which he clarified that the headline he gave
his article was “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Ended,”
Zurbano reaffirmed his essential ideas on the subject when he stated
that, “on racism there is still much to discuss.”
Rather than driving an objective reflection on the subject, the
aforementioned article unfortunately provoked a bit of throat-slashing
on the part of some Cuban intellectuals who did not share his opinions.
As it is, the ensuing controversy tested Zurbano’s proposal about the
survival of racism in Cuba. As this thesis coincided with opinions that
I have shown in various works on racial discrimination in Cuba, I took
advantage of the opportunity to return to the vital point of social
relations in Cuba and their effect on the life and social development of
the dark-skinned population in Cuba and consequently on all Cubans.
The essential point is that throughout our history racism was not
treated in the comprehensive way that such a complex phenomenon
requires. This failure is one of the causes for its endurance and
continuation throughout the 20th century, in spite of half a century of
revolutionary power. To augment this claim, I will briefly list in the
form of a thesis a group of key facts, aspects and moments related to
this social phenomenon.
The concept of race as a group of hereditary characteristics is
certainly without foundation. As a social construct it has a damaging
effect on human dignity. In Cuba, it stems from a complex phenomenon
intertwined with our economic, sociological and cultural history which
is replicated over time.
From a sociological point of view the nation is the fusion of the
principal social factors which make up a country, resulting from a long
process of gradual cohesion as well as social, cultural, and economic
integration that gradually moves, in time and at a given moment, towards
unity across differences.
Black Africans appeared on the Cuban scene in the beginning of the 16th
century, but it was towards the end of the 18th century that their
massive entrance transformed the ethnic composition of the population,
the geography, the history, the culture and the social structure of the
Not being the owners of their own bodies and subjected to inhumane
living conditions, blacks responded by rebelling. They became runaways,
formed apalencamientos* and staged uprisings. Through these rebellions
blacks almost single-handedly wrote a chapter of our national history.
Faced with total inequality with respect to whites, blacks became
creole, but in a different way from white creoles, which, to paraphrase
Jorge Manach, precluded their a sharing common goal on top of the
During the 10 Years’ War, begun in 1868, land-owning whites aspired to
economic and political liberty while blacks aspired to the abolition of
slavery. The simultaneous existence of these goals — independence and
abolition — constituted the starting point for the formation of a
national consciousness in a context where inequality and racial
discrimination acted in opposing directions. This war, though it ended
without fully achieving its objective, dealt a blow to the institution
of slavery by liberating slaves who had participated in battle during
the war and legally endorsed some liberties (contained in the Zanjon
Convention), which gave birth to Cuban civil society.
In the interim between the 10 Years’ War and the start of the War of
1895, Juan Gualberto Gomez — supported by the colonial resolutions that
limited exclusion from service due to race — introduced various
principles similar to those that Martin Luther King would use six
decades later in the civil rights struggle of American blacks and
founded the Directorio Central de Sociedades de Color. From his position
as a social activist he mobilized thousands of blacks to resistance.
Facing arduous incidents while adhering to the law, he won access to
spaces and facilities such as balcony and orchestra seats in theaters as
well as to public classrooms, which until then had been limited to white
At the re-initiation of the war of independence, when slavery had
already been abolished, blacks were newly incorporated, this time with
an agenda of social equality. As before, due to their expertise in the
use of machetes and living in the jungle, equality and solidarity
between black and white fighters overcame racial prejudice.
With the coming of the Republic, where these skills were useless, a
sociological program aimed at reducing the economic and cultural gap
between whites and blacks was lacking. That lack was reflected in public
office, in commerce, banks, insurance agencies, communications,
transportation, tobacco stores and even the armed forces, which replaced
the Liberation Army was made up mostly of whites, in a country where the
60% of the fighters for independence had been black.
The persistence of inequalities and the constant frustrations in the
early republican years led to the founding of the Independent Party of
Color in 1908 and the armed uprising of its members in May 1912. This
last action ended with the most horrible crime committed in our history,
because in addition to the thousands of blacks who were killed, killing
happened between white-skinned Cubans against black-skinned Cubans, once
again hindering the unfinished process of a common identity and destiny.
In the 1930s, various press organs, radio stations and leading figures
in Cuban politics and culture engaged in a public debate against racism,
thereby aiding the integration and social and cultural development of
blacks, and as a result, strengthening the awareness of a common
destiny. One of the results was the inclusion, in the 1940 Constitution,
of a legal principle essential to the promotion of equality between
blacks and whites, that stated, “all discrimination on the basis of
race, color or class or any other cause harmful to human dignity is
illegal.” However, this principle was left incomplete in the never
enacted criminal law against discrimination.
In 1959, the Democratic and Popular Revolution dealt the most serious
blow to Cuban racism throughout its history. However, with the
dismantling of the existing civil society, in addition to its benefits
also lost were the civic instruments and spaces that had contributed to
the progress made so far. The mistake was to believe that racial
discrimination existed as a result of social classes, so that once these
were eliminated, they proceeded to announce its end in Cuba. Such a
significant “achievement” led to the decision to remove the subject from
public debate. Thus, racism, expelled by law, took refuge in people’s
minds, waiting for better times.
The equality of rights among blacks and whites proclaimed by law had a
weak spot: inequality that had been inherited and left unresolved. In
other words the starting point, seemingly the same for both blacks and
whites, put the former at a serious disadvantage. This explains why
universities that had been primarily black and mulatto re-acquired their
previous racial profile over time. Why was this? Among the reasons were
that black families, with rare exceptions, could not give their
descendents’ studies the importance they required given their own
backgrounds. (I remember my father, the grandson of a slave, telling my
mother, “Leave him be! He will study when he is big.”) In other words
the familial support so necessary to success was missing, which
facilitated a return to the former status quo.
Even during the very real crisis Cuban socialism experienced in 1989,
blacks did not emigrate for well-known historical reasons and missed out
on the much-anticipated cash remittances from relatives overseas.
Evidence of this can be seen in the re-appearance of social inequities,
in the high proportion of blacks in prison, in their significant
presence during the mass exodus of 1994, in their concentration in poor,
marginalized neighborhoods and subsequently in the re-emergence of
In short, throughout our history racism was not treated in the
comprehensive way that such a complex phenomenon requires. In colonial
times there was no interest in solving the problems of the black man.
The issue was recognized during the republican era, which allowed for
the right of association and political debate, addressed it in the
constitution and achieved certain advances. These, however, were not
accompanied by corresponding institutional measures.
The consequences of racism are reproduced and continue to be present in
our society, where the decision to increase the proportion of blacks and
people of mixed race en some bodies, as has happened in the National
Assembly of People’s Power, gives evidence that the problem is still
present. The most recent proof is exactly the controversy around the
black intellectual Roberto Zurbano.
In this polemic there are two distinguishing aspects: one, whether
racism is present in Cuba or no; the other, the treatment of the subject
given by Zurbano’s critics.
Regarding the former, exactly related to the theories presented, I will
only refer to the two basic questions posed by Zurbano:
The economic difference created two contrasting realities that persist
today. The first is that of the white Cubans, who have mobilized their
resources to enter into a new economy driven by the market and to reap
the benefits of a kind of socialism that is supposedly more open. The
other is the plurality of the blacks, which is witness to the death of
This statement confirms the similarity between the situation between the
blacks higher up in the Republic, lacking economic means and
instruction, and the lack of positioning today, to participate under
conditions of equality when faced with the measures of economic liberty
that are being dictated. One fact that reveals the reproduction of the
causes, one of the sources of Cuban’s participation are foreign
shipments, before which blacks are at a total disadvantage. Therefore,
dark-skinned Cubans continue to be unequal from the start.
Racism has been hidden and has been reinforced in Cuba in part because
it is not talked about. The Government has not permitted racial
prejudices to be debated or confronted either politically or culturally.
Instead, they frequently pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Here lies another key to the continuation of racism. They suspended
debate on the subject and now, 54 years later, it’s not only
uncomfortable to accept it, but a few of the intellectuals who have
attacked Zurbano even go so far as to deny its existence.
Regarding the second aspect, referring to the treatment given the
subject by Zurbano’s critics, what jumps out is an additional difficulty
in the eradication of racial discrimination in Cuba: the absence of
cultural dialogue and debate that has essentially nullified the social
In Cuba it’s not possible to have a basic, objective dialogue without
transgressing the limits imposed by the dominant ideology. This is a
sufficient obstacle to destroy the effectiveness of debate over
solutions to social problems. In this sense the statement of Guillermo
Rodriguez Rivera: The Cuban revolution not only began the struggle
against racism and discrimination but nor can one can say that this
struggle had never been so deep as in this moment of our history, it’s a
proposal that completely lacks foundation.
In another part Rodriguez Rivera noted that Zurbano should investigate
the subject with his elders. This and other proposals of Zurbano’s
critics reveal the limits established by the powers-that-be which comply
in part with intellectuality; a behavior which tends to paralyze thought
and debate, at the same time classifying within the absurd and worn down
categories of friends and enemies those who think differently from what
Without failing to recognize the role played by some emerging spaces for
debate, the complexity of the subject of race in Cuba makes necessary
public debate, where, paraphrasing Victor Fowler, all points of view
Racial discrimination is and continues to be a serious obstacle towards
sharing a common destiny among all Cubans. For all of these reasons, the
controversy provoked by Zurbano’s article should be converted into a
road towards reaching a consensus among all possible solutions to the
unresolved subject of racial discrimination in Cuba, whose fundamental
lines emerge from studies, public debate and consensus.
No one holds the truth in his hands, but we can shape it among all of
us. What is clear, as history has shown us, is that eradication does not
only depend on the proclamation of laws, which is what has been done
since the birth of the Republic until today, but also from a
multidisciplinary analysis of its origin, development and treatment, as
in necessary projects directed to this goal.
* Apalencados, stable communities of runaway salves, were located in
areas difficult for their persecutors to access, such as shantytowns.
Made up of a series huts, they were characterized by economic
Published in Convivencia
8 July 2013
Source: “On Racism There is Still Much to Discuss / Dimas Castellanos |
Translating Cuba” –