Race and the Revolution
Soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro
delivered a historic speech in which he abolished Jim Crow
segregation and announced that the revolution would bring
racial equality to the island. It was nearly 30 years before
he broached the topic of race again. In the interim, it was
assumed that racial healing would occur as a natural effect of
other changes. The government line, widely held by the Cuban
population, was that to speak about race directly would only
accentuate differences and divide the people at a time when
unity under a single "Cuban" national identity was necessary
to fend off U.S. attack.
Forty years later, the topic is still controversial, but
increasingly, Cubans are breaking the silence about race to
address persisting inequalities. On a U.S. tour this fall to
foster greater cultural exchange between Cuban and American
artists, Nisia Aguero and Nancy Morejón spoke with ColorLines
about race in Cuba.
Nisia Aguero is the director of the National Theater of Cuba
and founder of the Cultural Center for the Development of
Community Theater and Popular Art, "La Barraca," which extends
access to the arts to disadvantaged communities in Cuba.
An internationally acclaimed writer, Nancy Morejón has
published 12 collections of poetry, three monographs, a
dramatic work, and four critical studies of Cuban history and
literature. Most widely recognized in the U.S. for her book of
poetry,Where the Island Sleeps Like a Wing, Morejón's poetic
voice, at once deeply sensual and political, is a
feminist-infused expression of the Afro-Cuban experience.
Q. How is race different in Cuba compared to the U.S.?
Nancy: Like the United States, our history has been marked by
the plantation economy, by migrations, and by the battle of
the skin. Race and color are fundamental to the life and
existence of Cuba, yet they are distinct in their history and
presence. Exploring race in Cuba has become a fad, and we
must be careful, because many books and materials have been
produced by individuals who, while they may be well-intended,
take only a cursory and frivolous glance at the issue. There
are those who arrive from the outside thinking Cuba is a
racial paradise. Cuba is not a paradise, but neither is it
hell. Then there are those who arrive with a disrespectful and
paternalistic attitude, thinking they have a better analysis
than Cubans themselves. Cuba is a different reality, and race
does not function in the same way that it does in the United
States. People pontificate on these issues after visiting Cuba
for 10 and 15 days. I've known great cultivators of the theme
of blacks and race in Cuba who have not been to Cuba since
Q. What, then, is distinct about the Cuban identity?
Nancy: The concept of color to us is revolutionary and
innovative because it reflects an international phenomenon.
For example, mestizaje –the concept of a mulatto
identity– exists throughout the Americas but changes depending
on your location. In Haiti, the mulatto class betrayed the
revolution. They allied themselves with the French and created
a separate social class. This did not occur in Puerto Rico,
the Dominican Republic, or Cuba where the color line is not as
rigid. In Cuba, the black and mulatto population basically
made up the most impoverished stratum, but in the interior of
the republic there were many white campesinos within that same
stratum. So in Cuba, the economics of the color line are not
so fixed. To be a mulatto does not mean you belong to the
middle class or to the opulent class, as it does in Haiti.
Mestizaje also goes to the cultural question. If I enter South
Africa in 1980, I suffer the apartheid that any black person
there suffers. But the moment I speak, it becomes clear that I
am not from South Africa because culturally I am Hispanic.
This cultural question is a torment for the racial
nomenclatures of the U.S.: What am I? Spanish is my language,
so how can you say that I am not a mestiza? The Afro American
world, the world of the Americas, is really a mixed/mestizo
world. Understanding this, we then have to recognize that
there is still this pervasive vision of race that is very
Saxon –a mentality which promotes the idea that there are
still pure races and which becomes the cornerstone of fascist
Q. Many have made the distinction between the severity of the
U.S. color line and the more permissive nature of Cuba's color
Nisia:: There is a saying from the 19th century that goes, "Are
you Mandinga or Carabalí? If you're not from the Congo, you're
from Carabalí." In other words, you are more or you are less
black, but everyone is mixed and everyone has some black in
them. There are no pure whites –they don't exist in Cuba. The
culture is syncretic.
Q. Has the Cuban revolution adequately addressed race?
Nancy: The independence philosophy of Cuba has very strong
and long internationalist roots. Revolutionaries in Cuba
ourselves with the philosophy of José Martí, the Apostle of
Cuba's Independence, who lived for many years as an immigrant
in New York. He learned directly about issues of race in the
U.S. He translated the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson,
which dealt with Native Americans in the U.S. Our love of
liberty was partly taught to us by the cimarrones, runaway
U.S. slaves who fled into the mountains and afterwards joined
in the Wars of Independence.
The originality of the Cuban revolution lies in the fact that
it was not a European-style revolution. It was created by and
among people of color. The Cuban revolution looked toward
Asia and Africa. When the Algerian revolution triumphed, Che
Guevara discovered Franz Fanon. This was not accidental, or
because Africa was in vogue, but because there was a
recognition of the natural bond Cuba has to African history.
Cuba and the revolution connects and draws from many parts of
the world. The revolution has done an outstanding job of
teaching everyone this history. However, 500 years of the
philosophy of pillage, of racial discrimination, is not erased
by 40 years of exercising the Cuban revolution.
Nisia:: The revolution has bettered race relations. Before
1959, those who danced and played "black" music were
denigrated. The time right before the revolution was one of
intense discrimination. The Cuban elite had copied the U.S.
model of Jim Crow segregation. Blacks were barred from certain
beaches, restaurants, hotels, and other spaces. They couldn't
work in the banks, or certain stores. The grandson of Antonio
Maceo, who is one of Cuba's greatest patriots from our
independence struggle, was not allowed to enter a university
in Havana because he was black.
I am older, so I can speak of "before" and "after" the
revolution and can remember a time whites stepped on blacks to
keep us down. Racism was pervasive. The former president of
the republic, Carlos Prío Socarrás, divorced his wife, a
mulatto woman, and married a white woman so that his political
party would allow him to run for the presidency. Still, as
Martí always said, "In Cuba, being Cuban is much more
important than being white, black, or mulatto."
Q. Was there silence around the issue of race following the
Nancy: In the `60s and the `70s race was a taboo and forbidden
topic. But over time, writers and artists have used our work
to open space for dialogue. Over the past two years, writers
and artists have spoken to the Cuban Congress about it. We
have accepted as a fact that racial prejudice hasn't ended in
Cuba, that it forms part of a conflict in the history of our
country and that it is something we have to continue fighting.
Nisia:: It is true that in Cuba there have been periods of
extremism, eras in which, like the 1970s and 1980s,
there was no way to admit that there was any kind of
Nancy: It was an error. On the other hand, while it is true
that issues of race, gender, and sexuality were not talked
about immediately after the revolution, there were also other,
more immediate priorities. The feeling was, if the U.S.
decides to drop a bomb on Cuba, the bomb is not going to
choose blacks or whites. There was a lack of debate as a
result. That's why the recent Congress was a landmark in
stating that we still have social conflicts that reveal the
existence of prejudices. This is crucial because when you
are aware of something, you are able to start working on it.
Now we are finally beginning to discuss and deal with these
Q. Can you explain more about why you believe that race
is so important now?
Nisia:: Everyone is unhappy with television programs.
There is bias. Still, I can say with certainty that in Cuba
racial discrimination does not exist.
Nancy: I differ –racism and discrimination are related.
Constitutionally, no one in Cuba can say, "I don't like
blacks." It is not very socially acceptable; it is
condemned. But subtle discrimination persists.
Nisia:: It is not an institutional but a social problem. The
Cuban leadership is conscious and is struggling against it,
but it is complex. Fidel Castro openly acknowledged the
problem by standing up and saying, at the opening session of
Congress, that Cuba still has racial problems that must be
Q. What about ongoing problems? In Cuba there is a strong
image of a mestizaje national identity, yet television remains
dominated by fair-skinned cubanos and many Afro-Cuban actors
complain of being marginalized into stereotyped roles such as
the slave or the maid. In what way is there a disconnect
between the ideological image of cubanidad [Cuban-ness] and
that which is actively put forth to represent national Cuban
Nancy: As artists we see this about television and disagree
with it. Still it is complex. Those are problems that can't be
resolved through laws.
Nisia:: The leadership of our country is conscious and is
struggling against it. But the former president of the Cuban
Institute of Television is black, and he also perpetuated the
problem by mainly casting whites.
The revolution moved and changed the structures. But racist
values remain in the minds of many. Many of these values are
inculcated in us –these racialized concepts of beauty or
intelligence cannot be resolved institutionally but must shift
socially, among the people.
Arnoldo García is a poet and singer and a staff member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland. Vanessa Daniel is a research associate at the Applied Research Center in Oakland.