Who Will Speak for Black Cubans on the Lack of Economic Opportunity?

Renewing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will open up financial prospects on the island, but racial disparities have long kept black Cubans on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Resident of Havana
Resident of Havana Black in Latin America screenshot/PBS       

Havana: If President Barack Obama comes here sometime next year, as he has hinted he will, he’ll be under great pressure to meet with Cubans who are widely seen in anti-Castro circles within the United States as the legitimate voices of dissent inside this communist nation.

In fact, Obama has already made such meetings a condition for Air Force One to bring him—and the massive media attention that follows the president abroad—to this island nation of 11.2 million people that has spent over half a century in the crosshairs of American foreign policy.

“If I go on a visit [to Cuba], then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody … we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba,” Obama said during a recent interview with Yahoo! News.     

At the top of that list, most likely, will be Yoani Sanchez, a blogger whose writings are the bane of this island’s rulers, and members of the Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents whose weekly demonstrations have garnered worldwide attention.

It’s understandable that Obama would want to hear from these pro-democracy advocates. But the push for democracy has many manifestations in this country in which democracy, American-style, never had a firm foothold. From the United States’ first occupation of Cuba in 1898 through a secession of plutocratic governments that ended in 1959 with the fall of President Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was a pigmentocracy in which people of African descent were the victims of widespread discrimination.

Obama won’t learn this truth from talks with dissidents—most of whom are culled from the ranks of white Cubans. To learn this truth, the president needs to talk to people like Esteban Morales. A member of Cuba’s Communist Party, Morales is more of a “race man” than a socialist ideologue. He is one of this country’s leading black intellectuals and a man who doesn’t hold his tongue.

In 2010 Morales was kicked out of the Communist Party after writing an article in which he said Cuba was threatened more by corrupt government officials than by the country’s relatively small number of dissidents. A year later, he was reinstated. Now he leads a national commission that pushes the highest levels of Cuba’s government to address this nation’s race problems.

During a recent meeting, Morales told me that blacks are largely at the bottom of Cuba’s economic system. “Eighty-five percent of Cubans are homeowners, but the [homes] in the worst conditions, disproportionately, are owned by blacks,” he said. Unemployment, too, Morales said, has a disparate impact on blacks.

“It’s not enough to say that only 3 percent of people are unemployed,” he said. “I want to know the color of those in that 3 percent.”