Cuba: showing how to defeat racism

August 6, 1998

By Roberto Jorquera

The invasion of the Americas following their "discovery" by Christopher Columbus was central to the development of capitalism in Europe. After the invasion, it was necessary for the colonial ruling class to develop the ideology of racism to justify the oppression of the indigenous people and the development of the slave trade.

Cuba's revolutionary government has been working for 39 years to eliminate the centuries of racial prejudice dating from the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, when the indigenous people of the island were massacred and the black slave trade was introduced.

Since the 1959 revolution, racist oppression has been systematically combated and defeated. It would be utopian to suggest that individual racial prejudices do not still exist in sections of the population, of course. The Cuban revolution laid the economic and social foundations for the elimination of racism, but, with increasing political and economic attacks by the US, even the gains that have been made are under pressure.

To fully appreciate the advances that have been made in combating racial prejudice in revolutionary Cuba, it is important to understand the history of race relations there.

Cuba's history is one of socioeconomic discrimination against the overwhelming majority of the population. This discrimination was based not only on race but, more importantly, on class. The revolutionary government correctly realised that to overcome racism it needed to dismantle the class system itself.


One of the difficulties in analysing race politics in Cuba is finding accurate statistics on who is, or defines themselves as, black. According to the 1955 Cuban census, Negroes or mulattos were 55.85% of the population in 1827, 32% in 1899, 25.2% in 1943 and 26.9% in 1953.

These official figures are based on each person's own definition, rather than any objective definition of who is black, mulatto or white. Many studies suggest that the percentage of blacks or mulattos is closer to 35-40% of the population.

The 1800s were a period of revolutionary battles, many of which began to raise the issue of race. It was also a time of massacres of the black population, such as in Aponte in 1812 and La Escalera in 1844.

Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí was one of the most outspoken and aggressive campaigners for the liberation of blacks. The 10-year war that erupted in 1868 was begun by Carlos de Cespedes' act of freeing his slaves, opening the way for a greater political role for black people.

The right wing's promotion of "fear of the black" was answered by Martí in 1868: "There can be no race hatred, because there are no races ... What then is there to fear? ... Shall we fear him who has suffered most in Cuba from the privation of freedom, in the country where the blood he shed for her has made her too dear to be threatened? ... The revolution, which has brought together all Cubans, regardless of their colour, whether they come from the continent where the skin burns, or from peoples of a gentler light, will be for all Cubans."

Battles led by Martí and others resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1886. From the late 1880s there was also increasing involvement of blacks in the struggle for independence, particularly the wars of independence, 1895-98.

The republic

The 1901 constitution imposed discriminatory practices which hit blacks the hardest. Voting was restricted to males over 21 years of age who could read and write, or owned real property valued over 250 pesos, or could prove they had fought in the liberation army.

In response, the Association of Black Voters was formed in 1908. It soon after changed its name to the Party of Colour.

Part of its platform stated: "Freedom is not asked or begged for, it is won; and rights are not handed out anywhere, rights are fought for and belong to all. If we go on asking for our rights, we will die waiting because we will have lost them."

In 1910, the government, in an attempt to curtail black political activity, introduced a law banning the formation of political parties on race lines. The banning led to a race war in 1912 which resulted in the wide-scale massacre of blacks by the military.

By the turn of the century, a systematic form of racial oppression was firmly in place in many parts of Cuban society. These included white-only social clubs, bars, restaurants, beaches, movie theatres and night clubs. Exclusion was also maintained through income levels.

Lourdes Casal, in his article "Race relations in contemporary Cuba", writes: "In Havana, upper-class social clubs excluded blacks and mulattos systematically. (Even Batista, during his term as President of the Republic, was banned at the Havana Yacht Club, the most exclusive of the upper-class clubs.) These clubs controlled private beaches in Havana which, therefore, excluded blacks. Middle-class clubs, especially those organised around professional associations, admitted those blacks who belonged to the respective professional organisations.

"In Cuban small towns and provincial capitals, segregation was rigidly enforced in formal social life and in the patterns of informal association related to courtship, such as in public parks. The private school system was predominantly, although not totally, white. Elite schools practised racial discrimination, but it was hardly necessary because few blacks could afford the high tuition costs and other expenses."

Race discrimination was also evident in occupational distribution, with blacks occupying the overwhelming majority of lower paid and less skilled jobs in the economy.

The republic's immigration policy encouraged white workers from Spain, and assimilation was promoted. The government even introduced a process to reclassify many mulattos as white, trying to erase Cuba's black history.


The victory of the 1959 revolution provided the opportunity for a fundamental change in the way blacks were treated and the way in which black history and culture were viewed within Cuban society.

Casal writes: "The egalitarian and redistributive measures (such as land reform) enacted by the revolutionary government have benefited blacks as the most oppressed sector of the society in the pre-revolutionary social system".

As early as March 1959, Fidel Castro spoke of the need to struggle against racial prejudice. In a speech on March 21, he said: "In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate.

"There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad ... and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?"

Castro also acknowledged that the "blood of Africa runs deep in our veins. People's mentality is not yet revolutionary enough. People's mentality is still conditioned by many prejudices and beliefs from the past ... One of the battles which we must prioritise more and more every day ... is the battle to end racial discrimination at the workplace ... There are two types of racial discrimination: one is the discrimination in the recreation centres or cultural centres; the other, which is the worst and the first one which we must fight, is racial discrimination in the job."

These remarks led to the revolutionary government's Proclamation Against Racism: "We shouldn't have to pass a law to establish a right that should belong to every human being and member of society ... Nobody can consider themselves to be of pure race, much less a superior race. Virtue, personal merit, heroism, generosity, should be the measure of men, not skin colour."

Castro also denounced racial discrimination and racial prejudice as "anti-nation": "What the eternal enemies of Cuba and the enemies of this revolution want is for us to be divided into a thousand pieces, thereby to be able to destroy us".

Che Guevara, too, raised the issue high. His vision was encapsulated in a speech he made to university students in 1960, in which he said the "university must be painted black, worker, campesino".

From the start, the revolutionary government introduced various affirmative action laws and programs which helped the most disadvantaged sectors of the population, including women and Afro-Cubans.

The revolution has always prioritised socioeconomic changes as the path to a non-racial society: the private heath care and education systems, which economically discriminated against blacks, were abolished. The government's introduction of free health care and education particularly benefited Afro-Cubans, who made up the bulk of the working class.

Castro said in March 1959: "There is discrimination at recreation centres. Why? Because blacks and whites are educated apart. At the public grade school, blacks and whites are together. At the public grade school, blacks and whites learn to live together ... and if they are together at the public school, they are later together at ... all places."

The right wing responded with slogans like "Neither black nor red".

On the eve of the revolution, roughly 15% of Cuban primary school children and 30% of high school students attended private schools, which were primarily white. The underfunded and poorly staffed public education sector further enforced the "colour-class system". The segregation also made it difficult for the development of social networks across racial lines.


On a political and cultural level, the revolution has opened many doors for greater Afro-Cuban involvement and recognition. In April 1976, Castro became the first white Cuban head of state to recognise the mulatto character of Cuban culture and nationhood, stating, "We are a Latin-African people".

Casal writes: "Cuban culture, which has slowly been evolving during several centuries, is undoubtedly Afro-Hispanic. In spite of the efforts of the white dominant class, in spite of their resistance, black cultural elements are integrated into Cuban music, Cuban popular lore, Cuban art, poetry, in such fashion that, without their component of black heritage , they would not be what they are, they would not be Cuban."

Greater recognition was given to the Afro-Cuban culture with the 1991 decision to allow religious believers into the Cuban Communist Party. This change particularly affected Afro-Cubans and further opened the door to political participation through being allowed to be nominated for party membership.

Prior to 1959, blacks tended to be concentrated in the most dilapidated areas of Havana. The revolution immediately reduced rents by 50%; eventually, ownership was granted to tenants. More blacks now own their houses in Cuba than in any other country in the world.

One indicator of the level of people's consciousness on racial issues is that of inter-racial unions. Thirty-nine years of revolution have produced structural changes that have placed young people in daily contact with people of all races, but housing patterns and family ties continue to shape the kinds of inter-racial relationships they form.

Nadine Fernández, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, spent two years in Cuba in 1992-93 gathering information on the subject, which culminated in her article "The color of love: young inter-racial couples in Cuba".

Though Fernández says that prejudices still exist, she makes it clear that since the revolution's victory there has been a steady increase in the number of inter-racial unions. There are many reasons for this, primarily the increased social mobility that blacks have enjoyed since 1959.

"Parents and grandparents built their lives and families around the revolution, integrating to a greater or lesser extent the revolution's struggle for racial, class and sexual equality. Often parents and grandparents find themselves holding contradictory views on these issues — caught between a legacy of discrimination and revolutionary ideas of equality", writes Fernández.

The structural changes that the revolution has undertaken in the social and economic sectors have fundamentally changed the social and economic inequalities that plagued Cuban society during centuries of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. There is an ever increasing level of racial integration in all spheres of social and economic life.

Racial prejudice has not disappeared altogether. It still exists in a section of the older generation in particular. But such views do not receive much attention, and since racial discrimination is no longer institutionalised in laws or the economy, the absence of these material bases for the prejudices that hang over from the past means they will wither away.

[Abridged from Venceremos, the magazine of the Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean, No. 57, 1998.]

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