Cuba’s Government Needs to Look Within as It Denounces U.S. Racism

Fidel Castro claimed the revolution eliminated racial discrimination, but it is alive and well.

A police officer wearing a face mask stands guard at the Capitol in Havana, on September 1, during a curfew imposed to contain the resurgence of COVID-19.
A police officer wearing a face mask stands guard at the Capitol in Havana, on September 1, during a curfew imposed to contain the resurgence of COVID-19. RAMON ESPINOSA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Cuban government has consistently criticized the United States for failing to address institutionalized racism. During his famed trip to New York in 1960 to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting, Fidel Castro complained of unfair treatment in a Midtown Manhattan hotel and ended up at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, meeting with Malcolm X and making no bones about standing with African Americans in their fight for racial equality. Cuba has also famously given refuge to several high-profile Black nationalists sought by the FBI, most famously Assata Shakur (who still lives there) and dozens of Black Panthers, including Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.

In recent months, Cuban state-sponsored news stations have provided extensive coverage of the protests provoked by the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this May, and the nation’s highest officials, including President Miguel Díaz-Canel, have condemned continuing racial violence against Black Americans. But when it comes to incidents involving Black Cubans, the media there tends to be very tight-lipped, providing few details.

Cuba has its own problematic history of racism that has been obscured, both by its long-standing nationalist discourse—the notion that racism can’t exist in a nation with a large population of mixed-race people—as well as its socialist orientation that views race as reducible to class. According to the most recent census count from 2012, Cuba is 64 percent white, 27 percent mulato (of mixed African and European ancestry), and 9 percent Black. Nonetheless, Cuba scholars have long been skeptical of the government’s census counts, believing the state undercounts nonwhite Cubans.

Leadership within the Cuban government has historically been mostly white, though former President Raúl Castro took steps to address this issue when he made way for the current president, Díaz-Canel, in 2018. However, when it comes to racialized police incidents in Cuba—including the very common racial profiling of Black Cubans on the streets of Havana—the government tends to deny the existence of differential treatment.

Anger among anti-racism activists has recently flared, after the Cuban police killed a 27-year old Black man, Hansel Hernández, in Guanabacoa, just outside Havana, on June 24. Two officers claimed they saw him stealing auto parts at a bus stop and pursued him when he began to run. One of them, a Black officer, ultimately shot Hernández in the back after he allegedly began throwing rocks at them. The government was forced to acknowledge the police killing of Hernández a few days after his aunt publicized the details of his death on Facebook.

Nonetheless, as activists were organizing a protest in Havana following Hernández’s killing, several high-profile participants were detained by the police in order to thwart the event, including various outspoken artists, such as Tania Bruguera, as well as independent journalists; some also had their internet service cut off. This is a common tactic used by Cuban state officials to silence dissent on a wide range of issues. The government also issued the equivalent of a #BlueLivesMatter PR campaign with the Twitter hashtag #HeroesDeAzul (Heroes in Blue), a tone-deaf and hypocritical message, given the government’s simultaneous critique of U.S. police racism.

Since the founding of the Cuban Republic in 1902, governments of diverse political persuasions have promoted the idea of mestizaje, racial mixture, as the cornerstone of Cuban national identity. In fact, the utopian vision of racial harmony—where racial differences were subsumed under a common love for “la patria,” the homeland—put forth by the Cuban independence hero José Martí in the late 19th century was influential throughout Latin America.

However, while there was never legal segregation in Cuba, even before the revolution, there was resistance from white Cubans to the growing political power and enfranchisement of Black and mixed-race Cubans in the early 20th century. In 1908, as a response to the continuing inequalities faced by Afro-Cubans after independence in 1898, the Independent Party of Color was formed, largely by veterans of the independence wars with Spain. The party was the first explicitly Black political party in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti, whose revolution was the only successful slave revolt in the Americas and which became the second independent republic (after the United States) in the region in 1804.

The Cuban government at the time launched a racist smear campaign along with the media, suggesting the Independent Party of Color aimed to start a race war in the vein of the Haitian Revolution. This culminated in the 1912 massacre of thousands of Afro-Cuban party members and sympathizers, including the party’s leaders, by government troops and white militias, with backup from U.S. forces.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, his government set about eliminating discrimination within the public sphere and integrating public spaces such as beaches and parks as well as education and employment. The government saw Afro-Cubans’ disproportionate poverty as the main problem and focused on expanding education and health care to the whole population as a means of reducing racialized inequality. In the space of only three years, Castro announced that racism had been eliminated due to the class restructuring that had taken place in Cuban society.

However, one of the actions taken by the government to eliminate differences within the population was to outlaw organizations structured around racial identity, including the Black social clubs that had sprung up in the 1930s and 1940s in response to the de facto segregation that had existed before the revolution.

Castro essentially prohibited any public discourse on racial difference, and this had a chilling effect on race-based civil rights organizing on the island. Those who spoke out about the anti-Black racism that of course still existed, such as Carlos Moore, were branded as counterrevolutionaries and often detained, sent to reeducation camps, or forced to leave the island in exile.

One of Cuba’s most prominent scholars on racial inequality, Esteban Morales Domínguez, wrote in a 2019 blog post: “There is a persistent tendency to launch the accusation of ‘racist’ to anyone who brings the idea of race to the surface. … Unfortunately, after many years of silence on the subject, it has come to be a taboo, and today our country is significantly behind other countries when it comes to this question.” Morales emphasizes that the most in-depth research on racial inequality in Cuba has been published not on the island, but by scholars living abroad such as Aline Helg and Alejandro de la Fuente.

This dearth of research is a direct result of pressure by the Cuban government and high-level research institutions and intellectuals on the island to remain silent on the issue so as to avoid divisions among Cubans that would undermine national unity. In a country that has faced repeated threats to its sovereignty by the United States and that has strived almost singlehandedly to rescue socialism from the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism since the 1990s, admitting to any form of difference or inequality within the population, the government maintains, threatens to open the door to political unrest.

Despite the government’s refusal to acknowledge it, overt racism has persisted in Cuba, something I noticed frequently during my over 15 years of conducting research on the island. Common expressions include, “she’s Black but has good hair” implying that a physical feature associated with whiteness—straight hair—offsets the presumed unattractiveness of being Black.

I also had more than one Cuban question my desire to conduct academic research on rumba, a music and dance genre that is both historically and currently associated with Blackness and is considered by many Cubans to be a “low-class” or “vulgar” tradition. Anti-Black racism is sometimes reinforced by Black and mixed-race Cubans as well as whites: The notion of adelantar (“improve the race”) by marrying someone white or light-skinned to produce lighter-skinned children is still widespread.

The past few decades have brought about a revived discussion about racial inequality on the island. This is partly due to the introduction of Western tourism and investment in Cuba in the 1990s, which laid bare the privileging of whiteness, as tourist venues began to explicitly hire white or light-skinned Cubans who, they assumed, would not alienate white Western tourists. As de la Fuente writes, these assumptions rely on racist stereotypes implying that “Afro-Cubans are unattractive, dirty, prone to criminal activities, inefficient or lack proper manners and education.”

These notions are widespread among managers in government-run tourist venues. Notably, in the 1980s, before Cuba opened up to tourism, Black and mixed-race Cubans were overrepresented in the service sector—when these were jobs were poorly paid and offered no social prestige. However, in the post-Soviet period, people working in tourism often earn more than highly trained professionals, like doctors and engineers, partly because they earn some or all of their money in dollars.

Cuba is a heavily policed country—citizens can be randomly detained on the street to ask for their identification, and this happens much more frequently to Black Cubans, especially when they are walking with white foreigners. I, a white American woman, have experienced this several times when walking on the streets of Havana with my Black partner or other Black friends or musicians with whom I was conducting research: They were stopped and questioned about what they were doing with me, the result of an almost obsessive desire on the part of the Cuban government to do what they believe will protect white tourists.

Black Americans have recounted being mistaken for Cubans while walking on the streets of Havana. The late Cuba scholar Mark Sawyer, who was African American, wrote, “I was frequently the target of these stops. My passport was usually enough to redirect police officers’ questioning to whether I was a Cuban American seeking to cause trouble. One time, I was accused of shoplifting a Time magazine from the Hotel Nacional.”

Similarly, the Black Cuban intellectual Roberto Zurbano, known for his critique of continuing racism under the revolution, has often discussed the police harassment of Black men on the Havana streets. In a recent commentary published after the death of Hansel Hernández, Zurbano wrote, “It is clear to me and many Black people that we have experienced hours of police station waiting rooms and holding cells, where I would swear that 80 percent of us don’t deserve to be there.”

Zurbano argues that the Cuban police shooting of a Black man, while not necessarily motivated by race, has to be understood within the larger context of racialized poverty in Cuba. More importantly, Zurbano calls out the hypocrisy of the Cuban government. “The problem of race has been relegated to a useless competition with the United States,” he wrote. “This results in a lack of focus on our own racial predicament.”

While Zurbano has not been harassed for calling out the government this time, he faced consequences for highlighting continuing racism under the revolution in 2013, when he was demoted from his position at the influential research center Casa de las Américas following a controversial op-ed he wrote for the New York Times.

There are clear differences between the cases of Hansel Hernández and George Floyd: Unlike Derek Chauvin, who strangled Floyd, the police officer who shot Hernández was also Black; he witnessed the victim allegedly committing a crime; and he claimed that Hernández provoked him by throwing rocks. However, as the Cuban writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez points out, in both cases, authorities “criminalized the victim,” using their prior criminal records to suggest they may have deserved their fate.

The fact that racism operates differently in the United States and Cuba doesn’t mean it is less harmful. Cubans may express racist sentiments more openly, but the island is also a vastly more integrated society. Nonetheless, the assumptions of criminality and second-class treatment that both Black Cubans and Black Americans are subjected to are similar.

And, just as in the United States, Black Cubans are disproportionately poor, incarcerated, and underrepresented in positions of power. There is ample research contradicting the government’s long-standing claims to have eliminated racial inequality in Cuba, not to mention the ways tourism and family remittances have widened the gap between white and nonwhite Cubans in recent decades.

If the Cuban government wants to continue claiming moral superiority over the United States—as it has done repeatedly over the past six decades—it must first look inward and acknowledge its own racist past and present.

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer, Cuba scholar, and author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba. Twitter: @rmbodenheimer