Race in Cuba: The Eternal 'Black Problem'

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, Cuba's best-known novelist weighs in.

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After almost five decades of Marxist revolution, the official romantic idea was that, with the elimination of certain onerous economic and social practices that promoted racial discrimination, the last vestiges of racism would be vanquished. Given the usual silence with which Cuban governmental institutions deal with the thornier issues in Cuban society -- as might be expected -- the deepest roots of prejudice remain embedded in time, the country's social structure and the Cuban people's very soul.

Racism -- like prostitution, corruption and religion -- didn't disappear because of a socialist magical spell: Although diminished and quiet, it survived among the people, and today, in fact, in certain nonofficial circles, its incidence in the complex narrative of contemporary Cuban society is openly debated.

It doesn't seem necessary to go over the reasons that forged racism in Cuba. They're the same that, with European conquest and colonization, were imposed on the rest of the Americas with the hegemonic focus on the metropolis, which, as we know, depended for three long centuries on the importation of African slaves to sustain the economies of extensive regions in which the indigenous Amerindian populations had been or were being extinguished.

Cuban society was thus built with a strict code in which skin color placed human beings in certain social classes and even within varying degrees of humanity: Black, in many cases, was synonymous with beast.

"The black problem" is so fundamental, the matter of ethnic origin among the island's inhabitants so dramatic, and racism so persistent among those with decision and economic power that Cuba's independence from the Spanish empire was delayed by almost a century precisely because of its large number of blacks. (At certain points in the 19th century, blacks made up 60 percent of the resident population.) They were a people who had been exploited and who, in a moment of institutional disorder, it was feared might try to vindicate their rights and their humanity, as had happened in the neighboring colony of Saint Domingue.

If, as certain historians and sociologists have claimed, "the black problem" marked the Cuban political landscape at the birth of the nation in the beginning of the 19th century, its essence returned a century later when the island, having recently achieved its tarnished independence, continued its confrontation with "the black problem" by treating blacks with particular violence in a series of pogroms that took place mainly on the eastern side of the island, where the majority of the African-descended population lived.

The painful truth is that, in Cuba, the vast majority of the prison population is black or mixed-race. The most physically ruined parts of the cities are those where most black and mixed-raced Cubans, weighed down by spiritual burdens and secular misery, have lived for generations. They are also the ones who, in the economic and social climbing of the last few decades, are least represented ... and let's not mention certain attitudes, repressive attitudes -- in other words, the attitude of the Cuban police, where blacks are mostly concentrated at the bottom of the pyramid -- that treat dark-skinned persons with much greater rigor ... precisely because of the color of their skin.

In its culture and idiosyncrasies, Cuba is a mestizo nation: a mix of spiritual and ethnic elements brought from Europe, Africa, China and neighboring Caribbean isles that contributed at a cellular level and can be seen on the skin, in the values and cultural expressions of Cubans. Cubanness is mestizaje. Nonetheless, the old prejudices live on in the minds of many people, while the social system, with its egalitarian laws, hasn't been able to liberate black people from the poorest margins of society. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the definitive answer to this problem demands new and more dynamic policies that, unfortunately, mostly depend on an island bereft of economic possibilities for white, mulatto and black Cubans so in need of improvements in their real and everyday life.

Leonardo Padura, Cuba's best-known novelist, is the three-time recipient of the Dashiell Hammett Award given by the International Association of Detective Writers. His most recent novel, El Hombre Que Amaba a Los Perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), features Leon Trotsky and his killer, Ramo'n Mercader, as its main characters. He lives in Havana and can be reached via Achy Obejas.

Translation by Achy Obejas. Read her piece on race in Cuba in the first installment of this series.

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