Race in Cuba: The Root Interviews Carlos Moore

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black intellectuals like to think it is. As part of The Root's series exploring the island's color complex, Achy Obejas interviews Carlos Moore, an Afro-Cuban intellectual who says that Cuba's gotten a pass on race for far too long.


Dr. Carlos Moore is an ethnologist and political scientist specializing in African, Latin American and Caribbean affairs. Frequently controversial in his views, he is the author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life and Pichon: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba: A Memoir, among others. Following exile from his native Cuba, Moore has lived and worked in many countries, including the United States, Senegal and, his current base, Brazil. He holds two doctorates from the University of Paris and is fluent in five languages.

The Root: Last year, you put together a declaration, called ''Acting on Our Conscience,'' which called Cuba on its racism. It was signed by more than 60 African-American intellectuals. Why did you feel the need to make this kind of statement? Why was it important to get African-American support for such a statement?

Carlos Moore: Actually, Dr David Covin, Dr. Iva Carruthers and I put the declaration together. I took the initiative and acted as the facilitator. However, it was a tripartite initiative. We agreed that, because of the mythology around Fidel Castro, socialist Cuba had gotten a pass on race for too long, contrary to most other places. We felt it was high time to call a "cat" a cat and a "rat" a rat, regarding this whole question of racism in Cuba. The blatantly unjust arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Darsi Ferrer, the human and civil rights activist, was the "drop that filled the cup." However, I am convinced that sooner or later such a declaration would have come. It was inevitable: Too many people have gone to Cuba and realized that the regime was lying to them concerning race.

TR: The Cuban Revolution has long been regarded as a bulwark against racism and as an ally of Africa. How did we get here, where African-American intellectuals need to call Cuba out about racism?

CM: The world has changed a lot since the collapse of Communism. Before the Soviet empire tumbled, Marxist regimes were considered to be off-limits for any criticism about their violation of civil rights, their trampling on human rights or their perpetration of racial discrimination. Such regimes enjoyed a sort of automatic immunity from criticism. "First World" leftist sympathizers made it their job to shield those despotic regimes from critical scrutiny, claiming that to criticize them was to be an ''agent of the CIA.''

So for decades these ideological bulldogs intimidated most people. But a time comes when people stop fearing a bulldog; that happened when the Soviet empire tumbled. On the other hand, over the years African Americans in general have gained greater knowledge about the world beyond U.S. borders, and the complexities of countries in so-called 'Latin' America. Thousands of African Americans have visited Cuba over the past 50 years. They have seen the reality and heard it, too, from the mouths of black Cubans. Many have even been discriminated there for being black and suffered humiliation. Sooner or later, the cumulative impact of all that would have produced a principled statement such as the one that was issued.

TR: But surely the Cuban Revolution has moved the issue of race forward, hasn't it? Is there any question that there have been achievements as far as race, representation, race relations and racial equality in Cuba since 1959?

CM: My perspective on race relations is perhaps quite different from that of most people in that I do not see race as being primarily a question of interpersonal relations. I see it as being, fundamentally, a question of relations of power over the distribution of resources along racial lines. And by race, I mean phenotype, not biology. Consequently, I do not analyze racial matters in terms of ''betterment,'' ''achievement,'' ''advancement'' or ''representation.'' I view maters of race in terms of the power to distribute or deny resources.

That is why I do not see socialist Cuba as ''less'' or ''more'' racist than pre-1959 Cuba. What has shifted is the consciousness that now exist among blacks of their overall inferior position in society, despite the Revolution. No doubt because of the socioeconomic transformations brought about by the socialist reforms, blacks as a whole enjoy greater educational access today. Yet, they remain crushingly at the bottom, whereas whites continue crushingly at the top. Such is the equation of power that -- before and after the Revolution -- prevails in Cuba.

TR: What does Cuba need to do now to address racism?