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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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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