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.
TR: What do Cuba and the U.S. have in common when it comes to race relations? What are some of the differences?
GR: In terms of similarities, a white or light-skinned Cuban would definitely prefer their children not to marry a negro because there is the idea that their descendants are going to take a step back socially—atrasarse.
But people are very understanding of attraction, lust and love. So interracial couples happen a lot in Cuba, and it’s definitely not a taboo; people don’t stare at you and your kids don’t get stigmatized.
The differences: The day-to-day experience of the average black person in Cuba is far less scary than in America. Black lives are not endangered in Cuba, simply because there is far less crime and guns are illegal.
Now, racism does exist in Cuba, but again, it’s just different.
Sira Perez: Yeah, I don’t recall being threatened in Cuba, nothing like the racism here in the U.S. Now, racism does exist in Cuba, but again, it’s just different. For instance, when I was a child, I wanted to take ballet lessons at a school in Havana, but I knew that was a dream that would never come true because of the color of my skin and not having the right connections.
I also remember looking through the holes of the gate to this exclusive tennis club and dreaming of one day to be able to participate. That was also an impossible dream at the time, but I guess that as a black Cuban, I conformed and accepted our place in society.
TR: Do you think black Cubans will become more racially conscious and want to exalt their blackness—for lack of a better term? Bring more awareness to their African ancestry?
Ruben: I don’t think America’s social influence will affect black Cubans. Cuba has been exposed to tourism and has had contact with the developed world for 20 years; that exposure hasn’t triggered a renewed awareness of ethnic identity. Nor has racism become stronger or weaker, in my opinion.
OD: I do think there would be a rise in black culture, but there wouldn’t be a movement to create a Black History Month in Cuba, per se, because, again, Cubans were conditioned to put nationalism before race. Black Cubans wouldn’t do anything to separate themselves, but more so to bring more awareness to black culture and to celebrate it.
I do think there would be a rise in black culture, but there wouldn’t be a movement to create a Black History Month in Cuba, per se, because, again, Cubans were conditioned to put nationalism before race.
Black Cuban public figures, like Celia Cruz, for example, will be celebrated. If a democracy is put in place and restrictions against certain kinds of activism are lifted, people that need to be celebrated in Cuba are going to be celebrated. And a lot of those people are going to be black Cubans for sure. African culture is in the food and it’s in the music—and those are the two most important things in Cuba. [Laughter.]
TR: Is that level of racial consciousness a good thing or a bad thing?
GR: I prefer the racial framework in Cuba and other Latin American countries because there are more options than black or white—an attitude that I think the USA needs to adopt now that there are so many bi- and multiracial people. Ruben in Cuba rejects the term “Afro-Cuban,” while Elia and Sira in the U.S. accept it. In my opinion, that’s the U.S. racial framework that Elia and Sira have learned to apply.
Read more of The Root’s coverage of Cuba:
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.