Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black intellectuals like to think it is. Today, on the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution, The Root launches its series exploring the island's color complex.

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There’s little question that, whatever else the Cuban Revolution has done or not done, it triumphed with a strong and progressive platform on race. At every single official level, it explicitly and forcibly banned racial discrimination. In fact, it may have done so too forcefully. Because Cuba is a top-down society — especially under Fidel Castro — the new anti-racism codes rained down without explanation and, more importantly, without process. People understood that racism was no longer tolerated but not how they participated in racist structures, how they were affected by the legacy of racism and, least of all, how light-skinned Cubans — especially on the island — benefited from those legacies.

Because racism was banned and did not officially exist, where was the venue, the safe space, in which these things could be aired? If there was no racism by virtue of decree, didn’t its mere mention in some way imply a revolutionary failure? Moreover, the lack of process meant that there was virtually no vocabulary — particularly no revolutionary vocabulary — with which to talk about racism in Cuba.

The government’s good intentions — combined with a willful silence on internal conflicts, national pride, a desire to protect a revolution that seemed constantly under siege, and the goodwill, especially from Africans and African Americans, that was inspired by the idea of eliminating racism in Cuba — made it almost impossible to have an open and honest discussion about what was really going on.

And there was plenty going on, especially during the Special Period, which came after the crushing demise of the Soviet Union in 1989. Suddenly Cuba was at the mercy of a capitalist world economy and trafficking with foreign investors who brought their own prejudices with them. Foreign-run hotels delegated black-skinned workers to behind-the-scenes jobs. Color fetishists in the sex industry re-awakened the stereotype of the oversexed black woman.

But the problems were not just brought from abroad. With a breakdown in Cuba’s highly regimented economy, the government gave a wink-and-a-nod okay to a no-rules black market, where day-to-day expression brought back old prejudices unbridled. Racist language and attitudes came screaming out of the closet. One of the worst: Negrada — which means, literally, a group of black people — came to signify a screw-up, a fucked-up affair. ¡Que negrada! became as common as hustling foreigners.