CUBA: The Race dynamic


We are flooded with so much information, most of it we push it aside and keep moving.  Then, there is a little we keep and ponder what it means.

 

The exact date escapes me but it seems about ten years ago that I heard the issue of race in Cuba explained in a way I had never heard nor appreciated.  I was listening to an interview with Professor Dwayne Wickham.  He taught at Morgan State University as well as being a columnist with U.S. Today.  Interestingly he was speaking about his many visits to Cuba and the notion of remittances.  His conclusion was yes, Cuba has a problem with race and among other things it could be seen through remittances, among other social dynamics!

 


Afro-Cubans

Cuba became a colony of Spain in 1492.   The natural resources the Spaniards found required a large labor pool to extract and develop.  Thus, thirteen years later or in 1512 African slaves were imported to the country.

 

“At the peak of the slave-based economy, enslaved people comprised nearly one-third of the Cuban population.”

 

Fast forward to the Haitian revolt as once it occurred, owners of sugar plantations moved their operations to Cuba, specifically on the eastern shores to Santiago.  The result was Cuba became the largest producer of sugar and those slaves needed for labor became important as communities of Afro-Cuba folk developed and once slavery was abolished they took a foothold in the population and the rest is history.

Even today Cuba is known for its vast sugar and tobacco plantations.

 

 


Remittances

 

The little I knew about CUBA didn’t focus on race or more specifically those of Spanish descent and those of African descent.  Perhaps like you I just viewed Cubans from a singular perspective, not one from obvious racial characteristics?   The discussion on remittances brought the issue into more focus as while the majority of Cubans proclaim unity or oneness, those relatives who were forced off the island or otherwise left after the 1959 revolution eventually settled in the United States.  As their lives were rebuilt they were better able to transition as Cubans in America.   Yes, this came with much struggle, sacrifice and perseverance.

 

The impact of those survivors resulted in them being better off than those family members or friends who were left behind.  Thus, through all of the years and up to today the money and the goods received are called remittances.  So, to the issue of race the majority of those who fled to the U.S. were Spanish Cubans or of European descent and the result was the recipients in CUBA became materially “better-off” than their Afro-Cuban fellow countrymen.  The people who left are to be applauded for their resilience and ability to “start-over.”  The issue of race raises it head as in Cuba everybody could use a little help but once the first batch of Cubans arrived after the Revolution,  the United States changed its policy and those of  darker hue or of Afro descent were discouraged or otherwise told they would not be welcomed, thus many simply stayed in CUBA and continued their lives.  Could it have been they were deemed supporters of Fidel and his regime?  The subtlety is race played a pivotal role in determining who was on the receiving in, and who was not.

 

Discussing race, not an easy discussion

 

Discussing race as a topic is not easy.  It’s very polarizing and people simply shun away as some feel the discussion centers of who is the “good” and who is the “bad.”  Or, they simply don’t want to be reminded of historical facts so for them it’s easy not to discuss.

 

Race has long been a paradigm to distinguish people of different ethnic groups.  While people are people race illustrates the great divide.  In the United States the work of noted social scientist, Dr. Francis Crest-Welsing is a leading authority.  For those serious about obtaining an objective analysis of the topic her book, “The Isis Papers” is a great reference and must read.

 

While race is used to distinguish people, it’s engine is racism.  Therefore, as a construct, the lighter one’s hue the better the opportunity or privilege.  Likewise, the darker one’s hue, opportunity lessens as well as their privilege.

 

Aside from those initial Cubans who settled in Miami, it’s not until you are inside Cuba that you fully appreciate the race dynamic.  You quickly come to accept of the 11 million plus people, there are many more than the 13% who are defined as Afro-Cubans?  The effects of racism slap you in the face as for many it is much easier to dismiss any signs of African heritage and proclaim you are “white” or “other” than for who you truly are.

 

“Make no mistake, Afro-Cuban also fled.  But they typically were workers of the Spanish Cubans.” Professor Esteban Morales Dominguez

 

In 2015 I discovered “Race in Cuba, Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality” written by Esteban Morales Dominguez.  The book is very intriguing and places the race issue front and center.  You come to quickly understand Morales Dominguez is not an apologist for the Castro regime or trying to sugarcoat the obvious.  Instead the book highlights facts supported by documentation that help to better understand how and why race in Cuba is a hot topic.

 

The Castro critics

 

Having a solid grounding of contemporary history on Cuba might help you establish a better perspective.  No doubt, Fidel Castro and the current administration has many critics.  At the same time, it must be noted the extreme racism Afro-Cubans suffered up to the regimes of the Revolution.  The racism being meted out in Cuba was similar to that of the rest of the world, particularly where there was European dominance.   The revolution singled out those who supported or benefited from the likes of Fulgencio Bautista and his predecessors.  The ideals Castro adopted centered on making CUBA equal for all.  Thus, the notion of educational equality, employment equality, and social equality was a centerpiece of why the Revolution was necessary.  As you might imagine, these measures motivated most Afro-Cubans to side with Fidel and support the cause.  Once the revolution occurred people saw immediate results as Afro-Cubans were given equality and some elevated into the power structure.

 

At the same time, those who were on the opposite end of the Revolution never stopped their vitriol.  While many left the country, or were imprisoned or otherwise dealt the blow of not supporting the regime, they never stopped their criticism or counter-revolutionary tactics to take back control.  As a matter of fact, their antics are very similar to those Americans who even today continue to want to fight the Confederate War.

 

In his book Professor Morales Dominguez makes clear the issue of equality is a process and the remnants of racism and its stubborn effects are not wiped out just like that.  Therefore, the fact that some lives are better off today than before the revolution is a positive reality, but leads to criticism of those who never fully supported the Castro regime or those who through the years have become disgruntled.

 

No doubt, race in CUBA remains an issue.

 

Why write the book?

 

I asked Dr. Morales Dominguez why he wrote the book?   His eyes gleamed as he stressed the pride most Cubans have of their country.  “It’s very simple, either you support or appreciate what Fidel is trying to accomplish………or you don’t!”

 

He went on to explain in 2009 a group of prominent African-Americans presented a document to the Cuban government, denouncing it as a racist regime.  “Statement of Conscience” created quite an uproar as the government felt it was anything but racist, despite Afro-Cubans still being dealt the hand of systemic racism.  The ideal was even though progress had been made there was still much work to be done.  Interesting the letter was signed by the likes of Cornel West, actress Ruby Dee Davis, former congresswoman Carrie Meek and Rev. Jeremiah Wright just to name a few. Afro-Cuban author Enrique Patterson called the declaration “historic.”

 

It was through this declaration that Professor Morales Dominguez felt compelled to use his educational gift and resources to provide a counter position or one that more related to the majority of Afro-Cubans in Cuba.  Thus, a series of essays were created and subsequently became the material for the book, “Race in Cuba.”

As Morales Dominguez told me, yes, we still have many problems in Cuba but ever since the Revolution groups have attempted to use a variety of mechanisms to divide the country, even those such as the signers of the petition who you might feel would be an ally given their likeness of Afro Cubans.  His contention was they are entitled to their opinions but never was it intimated that Cuba had been transformed into some oasis.  Most like him, accepted and understood progress is not necessarily immediate but more of a process.

 

Cruz, Rubio, et. At…..20 Million Dollars

Speaking of counter groups, I asked the professor why so many, particularly those in Florida despise their own country?   His response was interesting.  Ever since Fidel took control and even though the subsequent battles, those who fled assumed with the support and intervention of the United States they would be able regain control of the country.  This became a rallying cry for many and that remains their fuel for the hatred of the Castro regime and anyone who supports it.   The Professor pointed out that is why so many from the Cuban-American community in Florida opposed the actions of President Barack Obama.  Having written extensively on Obama, which includes over twenty-three articles, the Professor voiced appreciation of the common-sense approach he was taking.

 

He then pointed out the 20-million-dollar fund that politicians with Cuban heritage use to appease various groups and maintain counter-revolution support aimed at thwarting the Castro regime.  Professor Morales Dominguez mentioned, “they are like paid employees” who work for the funders of the money and distribute it to various groups in the disguise of democracy but the intent is to denounce the Castro regime.

 

So, this brings us back to the race issue.  Cubans are defined as one.  Yes, since the Revolution Afro-Cubans have seen progress but there is still much work to be done.  Professor Morales Dominguez is the consummate work horse as even though he no longer teaches, he is in much demand as an authority on the subject.  At seventy-six, he beams with pride when recounting why he joined the Revolution.  Even his wife, Katia who was a master professor in Economics talks about how serious she took her meetings with Fidel and leaders of the movement to help create a better Cuba.  The notion of prior to the Revolution, illiteracy was at epidemic levels.  A call went out to those in their teens such as Esteban, Katia and so many who accepted the goal of making Cuba a more literate country.  This topic comes up often when I speak here in Los Angeles to the critics of the Castro regime.  As much as they may despise Fidel and anyone associated with him or my empathy for the people of CUBA, they can’t explain the success of the educational policy and why the literacy rate in Cuba is higher than the United States?

 

Professor Esteban Morales debunks the notion that only 13% of Cuban are of Afro heritage.  He blames the flawed data of the census questionnaire or the type of questions asked for the conflict.  His hope is the next census is clearer so there is no ambiguity of what percentage of Cubans are Afro.  He stated from his observation the number is clearly thirty-five percent, if not more, as the majority of the country are comprised mestizo or mixed blood and there is little if any defined as “white”

This is a recent photo book on Fidel which the Professor gave me from his personal library.

One thought on “CUBA: The Race dynamic

  1. Fred-thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful assessment of race in Cuba. Like so many other regions in Latin-America, issues of race and identity are interpreted in a way that black Americans would consider to be patronizing and condescending, even when the statements are well meaning.

    Fact is, slavery has had a strong hand in suppressing both an honest examination of the impact of race on culture formation in Latin America. And in many cases, black people in many racially mixed regions of Latin America do not have a strong sense of identity as black, unless there is some organized effort to educate them as to the importance of their collective contributions to world culture.

    You as the black American observer can play an important role to help them understand that what has occurred in America with the civil rights movement ought to be a liberating element to them, also. In our travels in Brasil, we have been asked on so many occasions about what is happening in America to black people that it is clear that we are role models.

    These folks look to us and know as much about us as the average brother on the street. They are influenced by black Americans’ behaviors and how we live our lives.

    In North America, the black man’s post-slavery experience became central to much of the discourse about issues of equality. That experience is much less the case throughout Latin America.

    While it is generally acknowledged that Africa had an important impact on Latin America, the people who made the cultural contributions are left behind when it comes to valuing them as people worthy of respect and opportunity; even their humanness. It’s as if the art forms, religious impact, language and idioms, food and folkways, and the other actual cultural forms that are dominated by an African presence, are taken for granted.

    In Brasil, for example, there is the popular comment that, whether Euro-appearing, Indian-appearing, or even Asiatic, “every Brasilian has at least one drop of black blood”. That is the acknowledgment that the African footprint is alive and well all over the country.

    What has actually happened is that the black influence is very pervasive but the people who are the bearers of the African tradition and culture, the influencers and initiators, are not afforded any level of recognition for their positive impact on society. The average white person, or the mixed-race person in denial of their blackness tends to avoid any extensve discussion of how Brasil became the cultural polyglot that it is today. you think we’er screwed by skin color and hair textuer? There are at least five names for one’s racial heritage and identity in Brasil.

    Historically, racism has been so virulent in Brasil that the country was the last nation to abolish slavery in 1887. What that means is that people alive today had grandparents who even possibly raised them that lived as slaves.

    But, interestingly enough, there are so many instances that black Brasilians themselves find ways to express a “never again” mentality. When one is traveling throughout the country, particularly on the Atlantic side, when your tour guide takes you to a new destination, invariably you pass by a structure that has been preserved in its ancient horrid condition because it was a former slave quarters. After a few days of moving around the country, you become aware that “somebody” is trying to educate people about the obvious elements of what has transpired as part of history.

    Elsewhere,the Pacific Lowlands regions of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are amongst the most culturally vibrant parts of those countries. That is also where the predominance of African presence is located; where the Africans were rooted during slavery. But as in Cuba and Brasil, these are also the most neglected economically and equality-wise.

    Like

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