Matilda Munro

Revolutionary Cuba’s racism problem

Revolutionary Cuba's racism problem
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You can tell a lot about a country from its sexual politics. Out one night at La Fabrica, a state-funded arts venue and club in suburban Havana, a friend and I got chatting to a group of local girls. While we were talking, a trio of young black men were doing some kind of coordinated dance routine next to us. 'That’s cool,' I said. One of the girls rolled her eyes. 'I would never dance with a black guy,' she said, with a nonchalance suggestive of something that subsequently became very apparent. Racism is normal, and everywhere, in Cuba.

Since Castro’s death we’ve heard everything about the perceived successes and failures of revolutionary Cuba. The conversation has run the usual gamut from economics to politics. But a revolution can be measured in more than just material ways. I had thought the revolution was meant to have solved the problem of social inequality – racial discrimination included. Full systemic equality was supposed to have been achieved post-1959 through Castro’s revolution, right? Socialist Cuba established a legal apparatus that condemned racism and provided free food, education and healthcare to all citizens. It makes sense then that the Party’s official line is that there is no racism in Cuba because it was eradicated with the revolution. It is no longer institutionalised, therefore it no longer exists. And it’s true – institutionally, it does no longer exist. But you only have to spend half an hour in a bar to see that when it comes to Cubans’ social life, it’s definitely alive and well.

In a country which prohibits freedom of speech and assembly, to publicly acknowledge this issue has always been a dangerous thing to do. In 2013, Roberto Zurbano, who edited the government-owned Cuban Casa de las Américas publishing house, wrote in the New York Times that to do so surmounts to a 'counterrevolutionary act'. For this, Zurbano lost his job for daring to criticise 'two of the dictatorship's most sacred teachings: that the revolution elevated the island's black populations and ended oppression'.

It is logical then, that after 500 years of systemic racism and 67 years of a regime that ignores it, the problem is still here. Cuban census figures from 2012 indicate that black, mixed-race, and mestizo people make up a third of the population, while the other two-thirds is white. These figures don’t seem quite right walking around Cuban cities and towns. You will hardly see a white face. It’s not down to more white Cubans living rurally. The census puts the percentage of white Cubans living rurally down around 50 per cent. Curiously, statistics from both the US State Department and the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami put the nationwide population of black and mixed-race Cubans at twice the Cuban Government’s figure – at around 65 per cent  –  which feels much closer to the reality on the street. It begs the question — why the gaping difference between the two figures?

The answer becomes clear when you talk to non-white Cubans. Taxi drivers, shop attendants, and boys on the pull are all very quick to detail their European ancestry at any given opportunity. A bici-taxi driver in Santiago de Cuba proudly regaled me with stories of his Spanish grandmother, as I sat behind him with the view of his afro. Afro-Cubans are expected to feel especially indebted to the revolution, because it lifted them so much higher out of social destitution and the legacy of slavery, through the ushering in of instituted equality. This means, of course, that criticism of the government from black and brown mouths is considered all the more subversive. Why, if they gained so much by the revolution, would they want to talk it down? They must be counter-revolutionaries. This attitude must go some way to explaining why so many Cubans of colour say they’re white when the government comes asking.

Amid the I-can’t-see-you-in-the-dark jokes and the monkey comparisons that raised their ugly heads during my visit, the question persists: why is there racism in a country that institutes equality? Does its enduring hold over Cuban society tell us that racism has little or nothing to do with economics? Or does it say more about the failures of the island’s socialist revolution?

Racial inequality is so common in free-market economies that it’s tempting to assume capitalism must create it. But it isn’t quite as simple as that. The political scientist Adolph Reed Jr argues that racism is a belief system in which economic inequalities created by capitalism can be put down to differences in skin colour. In other words, it allows a society to legitimise hierarchies of wealth, power and privilege by regarding them as 'the natural order of things'.

A society which has eradicated economic inequality should, obviously, have no need for this justification. But ironically, the Cuban revolution actually entrenched some elements of racial inequality left behind by the regime it overthrew. For example, it only became legal to buy or sell a house in Cuba in 2012, which means that, despite some government-ordered shuffling, the pre-revolution rich have continued to live in their family homes under socialism, just as the pre-revolution poor continue to live in theirs. Cuba’s residual racism is, then, in part a symptom of an incomplete revolution. But it also reveals a great deal about the inadequacy of identity politics as an approach to tackling the problem.  

Cuba has made strenuous efforts to come up with an identity-political solution. As far back as the 1980s, a policy was rolled out by the government that was intended to correct racial inequalities, by promoting black cadres to managerial positions within the party administration and public infrastructure. As in many neo-liberal western countries, positive discrimination was heralded as the magic key. In practice, quota-filling did little or nothing to correct Cuba’s racial inequalities. Ana, a white hostel-owner in Havana Vieja still gets told by their neighbours not to bring her black boyfriend over lest he makes their house dirty.

Something resembling a public conversation about race and racial discrimination is now just beginning to gain real traction in the country. Last year the government convened a forum about racism; there have been Ministry of Culture-sponsored rallies around the notion of racial diversity. The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba organised a Commission Against Racism and Discrimination in 2009, a renaming of an initiative called Color Cubano, now re-named the Aponte Commission, the aims of which are not entirely clear. It’s interesting – and probably no coincidence – that this is taking place at the very time that a programme of gradual economic liberalisation is being introduced. In Cuba, it seems that class politics are being supplanted by the politics of identity.

But if economic inequality lies at the root of racism, it is hard to see how identity politics or market liberalisation will eradicate it. As Alejandro de la Fuente, director of Harvard’s Institute of Afro-Latin Studies has pointed out to Al Jazeera, Cuba’s new economic policies will 'produce losers, because their chief concern is not social justice, but economic growth and survival. None of these policies is racially defined, but they produce new forms of social inequalities, and those inequalities tend to be racialised quickly because of unequal access.'

But was the chief concern ever social justice? This is one of the more interesting questions provoked by Castro’s death. The thing I can’t help but think is that it wasn’t. If it was, and Castro’s revolution had truly succeeded, I wouldn’t have heard what I heard on the dance floor that one night in Havana.

Matilda Munro is a freelance journalist