Black Cubans: Restoring US Ties Is Cool, but America, Keep Your Hang-Ups About Race at Bay

Will the current racial tensions in America seep into Cuba and awaken a sleeping giant? Black Cubans say probably not.

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba
An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba All rights reserved

It doesn’t matter how much Cuba’s culture changes now that the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations; if you’re waiting for black Cubans to set off some sort of racial revolution, don’t hold your breath.

That’s according to some black Cubans who shared their thoughts on race with The Root in the edited Q&A below.

Omar Diaz is a 28-year-old black Cuban actor living in Miami who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 4 years old. He said that while he’s rooting for a democratic Cuba, he hopes that black Cubans will continue to benefit from the Castro revolution’s decree that Cubans prioritize nationalism over race.

Ruben* is a 52-year-old black photographer and book publisher. He is the only interviewee still living in Cuba. Even though he spoke passionately about racial inequality in Cuba, he explained why he and most black Cubans don’t quite see themselves as Afro-Cuban or black Cuban—just Cuban.

First cousins Elia E. Espuet and Sira Perez, on the other hand, both strongly identify as Afro-Cubans. Both women, ages 63 and 62 respectively, immigrated to the U.S. when they were teenagers in the late 1960s, Fidel Castro having assumed power in 1959. They could easily pass as African Americans, though they vividly remember how they were advised not to, in order to escape the brutality facing black Americans fighting for civil rights. That distinction—Cuba’s kind of racism versus America’s kind of racism—stuck with them. They maintain that black Cubans have it better in some ways on that front.

Georgina Rodriguez, 53—their mulatto, as she describes herself, cousin (who was categorized as “white” in Cuba when she was born)—doesn’t want Americans spewing their “racial framework” and “neoconservatism” all over Cuba. She argues that the former doesn’t account for all of Cuba’s ethnicities, and the latter will only widen the inequality gap.

The Root: As American influences trickle into Cuba in the years to come, is there a concern that the racial progress that Castro’s communism ushered in will become undone?

Elia Espuet: Yes—I’m inclined to believe that as relations with Cuba and the United States go forward, the rich white Cubans will marginalize the black Cubans on the island. Unfortunately, I don’t see things becoming better for black Cubans.

But there is a degree of wariness with regards to the potential socioeconomic inequalities that America’s kind of neoconservative capitalism brings with it.

Georgina Rodriguez: Agreed. I mean, everyone in Cuba—black, white and mulatto—will benefit from better infrastructure and greater access to goods, food and medicine. The Castro regime will no longer have an excuse for its totalitarian control over people’s thoughts or actions, and the Cuban people will finally be thrust into the modern world with Internet and everything. But there is a degree of wariness with regards to the potential socioeconomic inequalities that America’s kind of neoconservative capitalism brings with it.

TR: But doesn’t socioeconomic inequality already exist in Cuba? White Cubans are disproportionately represented in politics; they have the best-paying jobs—they live in the best neighborhoods. Communism certainly didn’t cause that inequality, but it doesn’t exactly allow for social and civic expressions like homosexuality or freedom of speech, either.

GR: African Americans have more equal rights “on paper” than Afro-Cubans, but that hasn’t eradicated racism in American society or its institutions like the police. Look at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin, for instance.

In Cuba, the races live side by side much more than they do in the U.S. There is far less de facto segregation in Cuba. Families are so much more mixed, and so racial hatred in Cuba doesn’t run as deep as in America, because everyone has a black grandma cooking in the kitchen unseen. So I would definitely say that there is more racial equality in Cuba than in the USA in many ways.

TR: There’s poverty in Cuba. Black Cubans—who were always marginalized—have felt that the hardest. Will their financial well-being improve if the embargo is lifted and American dollars start to trickle into Cuba with more ease and less restrictions? 

Omar Diaz: Definitely—I’m looking forward to the economic benefits. Most black Cubans aren’t receiving financial help from relatives abroad—like white Cubans do—because, remember, blacks didn’t leave Cuba at the time of the revolution. Castro’s policies appealed mostly to the poor, so they stayed. Now that the channels are opening up, someone like me, a black Cuban, can go back to my island, open up a business there, or open up a business here in the U.S. and help my black Cuban relatives.

*Ruben is a pseudonym. He lives in Cuba and would speak to The Root only on condition of anonymity.