Residents of Cuba
Black in Latin America screenshot/PBS

Editor’s note: With the U.S. Embassy reopening in Havana on July 20, The Root is giving some insight and perspective into the lives of Afro-Cubans who suffer discrimination and economic distress, even in the midst of the Cuban revolution that Fidel Castro declared put an end to racism. Harvard professor and The Root Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosted the PBS documentary Black in Latin America in 2011. This excerpt is from a chapter in the companion book called “The Next Cuban Revolution.”

I needed to talk to real Cubans and to find out what they thought about race and racism in their society. Soon enough, I was chatting away with our drivers, two men who were part of our film crew named Rafael and Yoxander. They were proud to be Cuban and happy to discuss race with me. I started by asking Rafael, who has a complexion like coffee, what color he is.

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“I am mixed race,” he replied. “I’m simply Cuban. It is a mixture of all the races.”

“Sure, I know that,” I replied. “But what does it say on your ID card?”

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“White,” he said.

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That was odd. The man isn’t white. And he couldn’t tell me why his ID card says he is. This sent our conversation in a different direction. Rafael might want to be just Cuban, and his ID card might officially categorize him as white. But what about unofficial Cuba? How do people think of themselves when they stop walking politically correct lines? I asked the two men to tell me about the people around us on the streets. They are Cuban, yes, but what else are they? I soon learned there are still categories of blackness within cubanidad.

[What is cubanidad? In the twenties, through music and culture, Cuba’s government and elite population stopped rejecting everything Afro-Cuban and favoring everything European. They began celebrating Cuba’s racially mixed, or mestizo, heritage. This cultural-identity movement was called cubanidad, a blend of white and black, to make brown.]

That person over there? “Moreno.” That one over there? “Mulato.” “What about me?” I asked.
 “Negro,” Rafael answered. That’s all right with me. I’m happy to be black. But I then took the opportunity to ask them why there weren’t more professors like me at the universities—and why the affluent neighborhoods didn’t have more black residents.

“I think perhaps it is because white people like to study more,” Yoxander said, surprising me with his frankness. “They keep on going and try to improve their life, day after day.”

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As you can imagine, I felt some strong emotions in that moment. But I wasn’t talking to Yoxander to judge him.

“Why don’t black people have the same values?” I asked.

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“Perhaps it’s because of their genes, their own mentality, the way they see life, the way they are,” he answered. “Or perhaps, because of the context in which they grew up, they are happy the way they are and don’t want anything else.”

I asked him if he believes there is racial discrimination in Cuba.

“Not really,” he said, shaking his head, “not on a grand scale. We all grew up together—white, mestizo, black, mulatto. We were all educated to the same level.”

“And there are black people with a low level of education and white people with a low level of education,” Rafael piped in. “The problem is that black people sometimes have complexes. They discriminate against themselves. They call each other black. But they have the same rights.”

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Okay, I thought. The word on the street, among average Cubans, is that discrimination doesn’t exist. But I wanted to get another perspective. So I ended my discussions about race with Rafael and Yoxander and decided to jump to the top of the income ladder. As in much of the world, successful blacks in Cuba are often athletes, not lawyers or doctors. I called Omar Linares, a famous baseball player—and an Afro-Cuban. I was curious how he feels. He invited me to a baseball game on a Sunday morning. For several minutes, we just chatted about baseball. Most Cubans love the sport, as do I. Then we turned to the matter at hand. I wanted to know why athletics are such a singular avenue for success for black Cubans.

“Black people here like to practice a lot of sport,” Linares told me amiably.

“Why do you think there are more baseball players, proportionately, than black lawyers or doctors?” I asked.

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“There’s a tendency for black people to practice sports,” he said, patiently. He was listening to my questions, but they weren’t really engaging him. He told me he had never experienced discrimination in Cuba, and he assured me that ordinary Cubans don’t either. The revolution got rid of racism, he said.

“Why didn’t you come to the US?” I asked. “You could have been like Big Papi and made so much money.”

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“Because I was born here in Cuba,” he replied, “and the revolution gave me the opportunity to study and play. I owe my success to Cuba.”

After I said goodbye to Linares, I must confess that I was baffled. I saw segregation everywhere around me. But Cubans didn’t seem to blame racism. I saw a wide gap between rich and poor, and so many poor seemed to have brown faces. But the black Cubans I had interviewed so far insisted that each individual’s success (or lack thereof) was his or her own responsibility.

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I told Tomás Fernández Robaina about my conversations with Rafael Muñoz Portela, Yoxander Oritz Matos, and Omar Linares. It seemed like cubanidad supersedes race, I told him, and that even Afro-Cubans believe there is no racism.

“I class myself as an ordinary Cuban,” he told me. “But speaking as a black Cuban, I also know, deep down, that the first thing people see is that I’m black, not that I’m Cuban. The police always remind me of that first and foremost.”

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“So you believe Afro-Cubans do face racism?” I asked.

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“All Cubans, whether they are aware of it or not, have been a victim of racism,” he responded, without skipping a beat. “Prejudice and humiliation make some people reject the fact that they are black. Here in Cuba, there are many different ways of referring to the racial category of black—there are forty-four different ways, in fact.”

Forty-four categories of blackness! Considering that no one wanted to talk about it, that number was a lot bigger than I expected.

“What happens is that those with the lightest skin, who are almost white, straighten their hair so they can pass for white and become successful,” he went on. “They just want to enjoy the same opportunities as white people.”

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This had the painful ring of truth. But I felt I still needed to learn more. I caught up in a black barbershop with another journalist, Tato Quiñones, who had lived in Cuba in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviets were Cuba’s biggest trading partner at that time, and when their empire fell apart, six billion dollars disappeared from Cuba’s economy. The island descended into chaos. Quiñones covered the whole story.

I was looking forward to our talk with particular urgency because we were going to meet in a barbershop. In my haste to keep on schedule over the past two weeks, I hadn’t had a chance to get my hair trimmed! Quiñones and I shook hands heartily and got comfortably settled in some grand, but fraying, old-school barber chairs, like the cars in Havana, refugees from the fifties. The hot towel around my neck felt lavishly wonderful, though the barbershop was in a poor section of town. Then I asked Quiñones how the Soviet Union’s fall affected Cuba—and what it meant for Afro-Cubans. Quiñones told me that Cuba’s economic landscape had been unequal for whites and blacks even while the Soviet Union was strong. And that was twenty years after the revolution.

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“The majority of blacks still lived in the poorest neighborhoods,” he explained. “And there was a remarkable disparity in terms of academic achievement. The percentage of black people in high-ranking positions, in political and governmental organizations, had no correlation with the percentage of the population that was black. The government took some measures to remedy this. But some, in my opinion, were naïve. There were new formations of social classes, but in these—as had always been the case in Cuba—the highest classes were made up of white families, and at the bottom of the pyramid were the black families.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost over 80 percent of its overseas trade. The country’s gross domestic product was slashed in half. Cuban industry and agriculture essentially ceased to function. Malnutrition and famine spread quickly, and most Cubans found themselves in desperate straits. Many had to rely on support from Cuban exiles in the United States—and the Cuban community abroad is mostly white, even if it is getting more diverse all the time. Still, most blacks in Cuba had no lifeline, so their situation became markedly worse. Race relations became bitter.

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“I went to the USA at the end of the nineties,” Quiñones told me, “and I found out that, you know, 97 percent of Cubans living there considered themselves white. And so the hundreds or thousands of millions of dollars, some say, sent to Cuba every year ends up in the hands of those who consider themselves white.” Many of the Cubans in Miami wouldn’t think of themselves as black or as mulattoes.

Why, if there was no more racism in Cuba, would multiethnic Cubans who achieved success choose to whiten their own identity? That didn’t sound like cubanidad to me.

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“Thirty years after the triumph of the revolution, there were still some racist germs in Cuba,” Quiñones explained, “and when the Soviet Union went away, they multiplied at an astounding rate. It was incredible. It was as if Cuba’s immune system had failed, and this disease took hold of society.”

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Incredible, indeed. I asked Quiñones if he experienced racism. He didn’t hesitate.

“Yes, of course I’ve experienced racism,” he said. “There is racial discrimination in Cuba. It gets worse every day—more apparent and more shameless.”

The race divide is exacerbated, he told me, by Cuba’s monetary policy. Since 1994, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country has used a dual currency system. Today, Cubans are paid in pesos, but tourists use Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs, which were introduced a few years ago. The difference? CUCs are worth about twenty-five times more than pesos. By using two currency systems, Quiñones explained, Cuba has rendered many of its well-intentioned reforms meaningless. After all, why should a Cuban go to school to become a doctor and get paid the equivalent of twenty dollars a month when a waiter serving tourists can make that amount in one day?

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I found this notion deeply troubling. I remembered Graciela Chailloux’s gleaming eyes as she told me about Castro’s education initiative. I remembered Omar Linares’s sincere expression of gratitude to his nation for providing him with an education and a chance to succeed. I understood immediately how such a currency system upended their conventional wisdom, and I wanted to know more about how it affected Afro-Cubans.

Quiñones helped me out by taking me to visit Roberto Zurbano, a writer and critic. Zurbano was happy to give me a few minutes in the restaurant in my hotel, introducing me to Cuban beer. But he didn’t mince words—the two-currency system in Cuba has been a disaster for poor blacks.

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I told him, “I’ve been in many places like Cuba, and as a black American, I always look for black people, always. But here, I see very few black people on airplanes, in the hotels, or in restaurants. Why?”

“Unfortunately, that’s the way it is,” Zurbano replied. “Maybe they clean the rooms, or they work in the kitchen or as performers. They are likely to be paid in pesos. In Cuba, there are just few black people in the strong economic sectors. Why? Because prejudice never went away. Prejudice never disappeared. It was simply concealed under the table. And silence allowed all the problems to grow, under the table.”

By “silence,” I took Zurbano to mean silence from the government, from the elites, and from black people, who were fearful of persecution. And I thought about his analysis as I sipped my beer. Silence is rarely a good response to injustice—and I feared that Afro-Cubans themselves had become silent. Of course, I don’t accept that black people are lazy and that their poverty is their own fault. I think that is a racist justification of the effects of a history of racism. How is that different from saying blacks are poor because they’re naturally inferior to whites? If you really think blacks are equal to whites and as capable as they are, don’t you have to question what keeps them in poverty?

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Excerpted from Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, New York University Press.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.