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Cuba’s census, skin color and social analysis

By September 14, 2021Commentaries/Opinions
Cuban trumpet solo by Riccardo Maria Mantero Reuse

By Esteban Morales Domínguez —

Although it still causes many prejudices, misunderstandings and challenges, there is no choice but to pay attention to skin color. Above all, in its consideration within the media and national statistics.

Cuban society is a multiracial society, or rather, multicolored, mestizo. And that reality has to be registered statistically. Not by handling the Census as a simply numerical matter, but as a cultural demographic one.

It is about the fact that color is a legacy of slavery. It is not possible to avoid it, since it has marked Cuban society since its origins.

When the Spaniards arrived in Cuba, in 1492, they did it with white credentials and that is how they stayed. Those who came of their own free will did so in search of a fortune, which they often found.

But Spain is not White. Colonized by the Arabs for 800 years, it is impossible to consider it as such. Even when the Spanish do not assume that identity.

So, the colonizers of our Archipelago were not white. Their power did not consist in being white, but in having arrived with the cross and the sword.

They arrived in a territory of indigenous people, of low culture and they only used them to find gold. They exploited them mercilessly and their population mass did not last long, although we still have representatives of that original population in Cuba.

Chinese also came, brought by means of a system of contracts that turned them into slaves. The so-called “culíes” [coolies], who since then added their beauty to the population of the Island, becoming a part of our nationality. These three large groups were the ones that formed the Cuban population. Later, other Antilleans joined, although not in the magnitude of the first ones, also merging with our population.

Although the Spanish Crown, put rules for the care of the indigenous population; anyway, the ambition of the colonizers, together with the regime of the Encomiendas and slavery, reduced that population to its minimum expression.

In little more than 100 years, the so-called Tainos, Siboneys and Guanahatebeys, almost disappeared, because they were not of an advanced culture, as it happened for the rest of America. Cultures, Aztecs, Mayas, Toltecs, etc. Those that did, culturally, had practically nothing to envy to the European cultures of their time.

But the existing indigenous population in the Cuban Archipelago lacked the strength that comes from belonging to a superior culture.

Along with the Spaniards came the first blacks. Not from Africa, but directly from Spain. Those blacks were called “Ladinos”. They were slaves in Spain. They knew how to speak the language and had a certain culture, acquired in the work of servitude, for which they also arrived in Cuba. But they did so in reduced numbers.

The vast majority of the blacks who arrived in Cuba, massively, did so later, as a result of the slave trade. And massively, after the Haitian Revolution of 1791, they settled in the eastern end of the island. They had a great cultural impact, since they were accompanied by their French masters. This is how the French contradanza and the so-called Tumba Francesa arrived in Cuba. All of which, we know as antecedents of our national dances, the Danzón.

Through the eastern region, the Antillean groups entered to participate in the sugar production, hence the mixture that characterizes that region, which covers up to the current province of Camagüey, where we find many descendants of French (Haitians), or English (Jamaicans) and other Antillean groups. This made the situation of racial discrimination in the aforementioned regions more complicated.

However, they did not give rise to the formation of minorities, as in the United States, but merged with the Cuban population, keeping their English and French surnames.

Then, the blacks were brought as slaves to Cuba, first for the work of construction and later for the work of sugar production, within a colonial regime already organized. To say black in Cuba was to say slave.

These slaves, practically, since the XVI century, could buy their freedom.

As the Spaniards arrived, they were men alone. Immediately, they began to mix with the Indians and blacks, thus initiating the mestizaje of the Island. And within a complex mestizaje, because it was formed by free or enslaved people, mestizos or blacks. Not so the Spanish whites, who never suffered the condition of slavery.

Unlike the blacks who were brought to the territory of the Thirteen North American colonies, which later became the United States of America; those who arrived, also brought from Africa as slaves to the aforementioned territory, could not speak their languages, but only English, they could not practice their religions or their cultures. They were not allowed by the colonizers. In this sense, the slave regime coming from England was harsher, with an almost absolute separation between blacks and whites. That is what has ended up characterizing the American society.

To blacks brought to Cuba, also from Africa, the Spanish colonization allowed them to speak their languages, worship their gods and practice their cultures.

It was that, for historical and cultural reasons, the Spanish were more inclined to coexist with the cultural practices of the slaves in Cuba and with the different colors.

Unlike in North America, in Cuba, the Spaniards coexisted better with the differences in color. This also contributed to the differences introduced in black slavery by the existence of domestic slavery and plantation slavery.

In Cuba this did not take place, but in the American colonization, there was a type of colonizer who, not having money to cover the expenses of his transfer to America, requested a loan, which obliged him to work, practically as a slave or serf. Once the loan debt was paid, he received a piece of land, becoming a poor farmer. Except for the existence of some slaves, who did not live in the barracks and cultivated a small piece of land, to supply the master’s house, in Cuba there were never serfs as such.

On the plantation, blacks had to work from sunrise to sunset, under the whip of the Foreman or Overseer. Meanwhile, in domestic work, the tasks were deployed in the house of the slave owner, intertwined with the activities of service to the family. There one could be a coachman, cook, seamstress, wash and iron, set the table, mend the master’s clothes and made him a concoction, when he was ill, etc. Performing tasks that practically prepared him for a trade, in case one day he was able to obtain his freedom, bought or manumitted.

The contact with the family instructed them and endowed them with a certain culture, which differentiated them from the plantation slaves. They were only allowed to work in sugar cane cutting or sugar production.

Blacks, wherever they were, were still slaves, and the trap, before the slightest disobedience, was over him, like the Sword of Damocles. For the white master did not allow them those freedoms that could inculcate in them a culture of independence, which was closely guarded. But, in domestic work, in fact, the advantages, they had them and not few took advantage of them very well.

For example, the girl of the house took a liking to the nice, docile little black man, and could even teach him to read and write. In the domestic context, the skillful, respectful, docile Negro was intimate with the father of the house and got to know him even certain secrets, such as his affairs with the black women, from which, not infrequently, “bastard” children were born within the family.

The black man, a connoisseur of herbs, prepared a concoction that cured the master of pain. And within this intimacy, the master practically began to see him as part of the family. He gave him chores, shared certain secrets with his slave and thus, sometimes, this one, already old, earned manumission, or the letter of freedom.

Within the master’s house, living together as a domestic slave, the black man achieved advantages, which he often took advantage of and which made him advance in social life, even while maintaining his status as a slave.

Domestic slavery generated a certain culture and within it, a level of permissibility, of which the black could take advantage. This allowed him to become part of society, even with all the disadvantages of a slave society.

Meanwhile, in the United States, after the Civil War, slavery was abolished in the North, but they had to continue to struggle with it in the South. Blacks escaped to the North, where they became free, but not infrequently, they left behind relatives who remained as slaves in the South.

Not in Cuba, where slavery was a homogeneous system throughout the island. Therefore, when the laws that attenuated it began to appear, such as the so-called Law of Free Wombs, until its official abolition in 1886, this had a national effect.

Of course, slavery began to disappear after a long process, in which Spain abolished it, as a first step, giving freedom to blacks who had fought, on both sides, during the First War of Independence (1868/1878) until it was finally abolished in a general way in 1886.

However, in America, slavery took color. And with it came racism and racial discrimination, which were not born with capitalism, but which hit it very well, as an instrument of power and exploitation.

Therefore, slavery disappeared, but racism and discrimination, which it engendered, for more than 400 years, remained imbricated within the structure of Cuban society. And so, since the middle of the 19th century, a society with a racist, mestizo and white hegemonic culture began to emerge. Therefore, racism, racial discrimination and white hegemony, within our mestizo society, have not yet been eliminated, although they have been attenuated.

Therefore, the Revolution that triumphed in 1959, found a society in which there was a well-defined structure. The so-called whites had the power, they always had it. Mestizos were, more or less, in an intermediate position, some few had access to power; the blacks were, almost always, in the subsoil of society. This is the result of a distribution of wealth that colonialism inaugurated and Cuban-dependent capitalism took charge of solidifying.

In Cuba, poverty was also massively white, but wealth was never black, and almost never mestizo.

After Fidel, almost since the triumph of the Revolution, began to treat it systematically, racism, racial discrimination and white racial hegemony have not disappeared.

The social policy that the revolution inaugurated in 1959 has always had a profoundly humanist character, but, from the beginning, it focused only on poverty, making no differentiation among the poor, treating poverty as unique, which was never homogeneous, without differentiating within it, according to skin color.

Would it have been possible, so early on, to have considered poverty, taking into consideration its differences and levels, according to skin color?

I don’t think so. I believe that this would have greatly complicated the fight against racism and racial discrimination that was beginning at that time. I believe that if Cuban society was not prepared, as it became clear, to assimilate Fidel’s speech against racism, much less would it have been prepared if, in addition, the existing differences in the levels of poverty according to the color of the skin had been introduced. I believe that this would have implied the introduction of a certain level of affirmative action, for which whites, mestizos, and not even blacks themselves were prepared.

That is why, I believe, social policy, in Fidel’s speeches, began by demanding employment for blacks, while everything else: health, education, culture and sports and social security, fell under its own weight and equally for all. When there was an equal distribution for all, blacks and mestizos got what, in general, had never been given to them before. Because the blacks and, to some extent, the mestizos, had never enjoyed free and quality education and much less, blacks, health. Sport was the opposite. And so, it began to produce a distribution of national wealth, which the nation had never known. And, within which, to blacks and mestizos, almost never, almost nothing had touched them. For this reason, although skin color was not taken into account, blacks and mestizos benefited as never before in the history of the nation. For this reason, it was not difficult for blacks and mestizos to understand that the revolution was their revolution and that Fidel had been concerned and fought for their welfare.

This is one of the aspects that, in the last 40 years, we have managed to fine-tune. Without yet reaching, as such, so-called Affirmative Action. Forms of the latter have been gradually appearing in Cuba, but almost indirectly. And we are still in the process of perfecting the initiated path. What is beginning to take shape, by means of concern and an occupation by the political leadership that there is no one left behind.

Having demonstrated that race does not exist, that it is a social invention. But that, however, color does, and that, in our country, after 500 years [M1] of colonialism, skin color continues to behave as a variable of social differentiation. Against which, we have proposed to fight.

This tells us why, since the beginning of the Republic, in Cuba, there were black and mestizo societies. It is true that they acted within a racist and discriminatory context, which made them respond to it. But they also functioned as fraternal societies, which helped the black and mestizo members to train themselves, on the basis of free courses for their young people, social and cultural activities, which in general helped this population to face the problems of inequality. Sometimes they made it easier to find employment and, in general, helped blacks and mestizos to have a certain recognized social presence.

However, after the triumph of the Revolution, these societies began to disappear, as a result of the consideration that they were not necessary, since the revolution assumed the defense of blacks and mestizos and that they could contribute more to the racial division within the Cuban society.

However, paradoxically, at the same time, the Spanish Societies, considered as white, were maintained in Cuba until today. The question still remains unanswered: Why did the black ones disappear and these, coincidentally, of whites, did not?

This is something that has brought controversy and uneasiness, although not only among blacks and mestizos. Today, it is even questioned whether black and mestizo societies should not reappear. Today, the subject tends to re-enter the debate. Especially because the problem of racism and racial discrimination has not yet been completely overcome.

But the blacks and mestizos, from the beginning, did not make any demands and everything remained as it was.

Here in Cuba, after 60 years of a radical Revolution, of profoundly humanist essence and of an extraordinary struggle against poverty, injustice and inequality, to the very edges of egalitarianism, still, from the point of view of social position, access to certain resources and certain advantages in social life, it is not the same to be white, black or mestizo. This is not a burden, but it responds to a structural dysfunctionality that even Cuban society drags along and is capable of reproducing.

In particular, the so-called Special Period showed that the economic crisis had not affected all racial groups equally. Blacks and mestizos suffered the most. This became evident.

Our government also realized that the difficulties with racism, which surfaced with some force during the Special Period, were indicating that it was a problem that, having been considered as solved, was not really solved; or at least, it was not being solved at the pace that many had imagined, but rather, racism had been hidden in the midst of the difficulties experienced during those years of the mid-eighties and early nineties.

Until then, there had been a long period of general silence on the subject, which Fidel broke on several occasions, both inside and outside Cuba, but without achieving then that the racial issue would definitely occupy its rightful place in the struggle for a better society in Cuba today.

I think that, in this, we have to start from the existence of inequalities, to reach real equality. Unfortunately, inequality is what we find at every step. Equality is a social project, not yet achieved by Cuban society as a whole.

Therefore, we should not mechanically assume that all Cubans are equal, because that was also wielded as a hypocritical slogan of Republican Cuba.

All Cubans are not yet equal. We are equal before the law, but not socially. They are two very different phenomena. Equality before the law has been achieved. But achieving social equality is a much longer and more complex process. Equality before the law is not social equality. It is, perhaps, only a step towards the latter.

Today, there is a clear awareness that we must continue to fight against inequality, pursuing it to those places where marginality still assaults members of our society and not only blacks and mestizos. Therefore, the work with the so-called Community projects gains unusual strength.

It is possible to observe the Party and the government, extraordinarily busy, mobilizing qualified human forces and resources, which are put in the function of the solution of multiple material, spiritual and social problems, which the Cuban society still has to overcome.

This task of the Community Projects is strongly intertwined with the Government Resolution, which serves as an instrument for the fight against racism and racial discrimination.

Fidel had already become aware of all this and began to take action. He conducted in-depth investigations in several underprivileged neighborhoods on the situation of sometimes marginalized sectors.

It was also, then, when the experience of the so-called Social Workers was carried out; most of them blacks and mestizos, which resulted in many young people, who neither studied nor worked (it is said that there were 80,000 in Havana) reaching the Universities. Those that had been “whitened” during the Special Period.

Then, at the end of the eighties, we took up the subject again. Which, I think, is the period in which we find ourselves now, at the height of 2021.

Previously, during the 20’s and 30’s, above all, the racial issue had been present in the written media, especially in the press of the time. Personalities such as Juan Gualberto Gómez, Arredondo, Guillen, Deschamps, Chailloux, Ortiz, Portuondo, and others, had produced important texts on the subject. And they managed to keep it within the debate in the press of the time, even in Diario de la Marina.

But that momentum was not maintained and by the triumph of the revolution, it had almost disappeared.

But, since the 80s, many publications of books, articles, essays, documentaries, and research in some universities began to reappear. Cinema frequently brought up the subject, as well as plastic arts, theater and literature. Discussion groups and community projects arose, which today deal with the racial issue and have given it a growing presence in the national culture and life. In fact, it had been years since the subject had such an important place in the national debate.

Miguel Díaz Canel, who dealt with the issue before becoming president and continues to do so now, together with the Aponte Commission of the UNEAC. The Aponte Commission replaced the group “Como agua para chocolate” (Like water for chocolate), led by Gisela Arandia. She was the initial promoter of the racial debate in UNEAC. Already, previously, the racial issue had been taken to the party and later located in the National Library, but it was, finally in the UNEAC, where it found its definitive location. And now it is unfolding. Through the work of the aforementioned Aponte Commission.

All this movement has concluded, with the appearance of a Governmental Resolution, above mentioned, where the guidelines for the attention and treatment of the racial topic at national level are proposed. With the presence, also, of all those groups interested in the subject. Aspects of participation, which still require development.

However, I consider that, although we have made progress, we are still far from giving the racial issue the impetus it requires. There are still many situations to be resolved.

Although our society is culturally mestizo, the presence of racism, racial discrimination and a certain [amount of] white hegemonism are still felt in the following matters:

-Inequalities, persist within the racial population structure, formed by whites, blacks and mestizos. This is not a burden, but a phenomenon of social dysfunctionality, which even Cuban society is capable of reproducing.

-Differences in access to employment also persist. With privileges for the white population, in the most important and better-remunerated jobs: tourism, corporations, state positions, etc. Not so in political positions, especially within the party, Popular Power and Mass Organizations, where the participation of blacks and mestizos is becoming more present.

-Differences by color, in the access to possibilities of higher studies, Universities, masters, doctorates, etc.

-Racism, prejudice and discrimination against the black and mestizo population, which tends not to manifest itself aggressively, but are still present.

-Marked presence of an insufficient number of interracial marriages. With a marked tendency towards racial mixing among young people, which is indicative of the fact that young people are shedding their prejudices.

Discrimination in the mass media, mainly on television, in which white faces have dominated, and only recently have black and mixed-race faces begun to appear. In response to a recent specific claim made by Army General Raúl Castro in the National Assembly.

-Our written press barely reflects the problems of the racial issue. There is no systematic treatment on the subject. Nor is there any promotion of writers who deal with the subject. Almost never in our press there is an article that deals with the subject.

-Our Political and Mass Organizations do not debate the racial issue. They do not promote its discussion, nor do they consider it in their work agendas.

-Discrimination in classical ballet.

-Racist jokes and expressions abound in cabaret activities.

-Only recently, the teaching of history has begun to reflect the place of blacks and mestizos in the formation of our national history. And teachers are being prepared to address it.

-Until very recently, the bibliography used, with honorable exceptions, and very well known, did not reflect the role of the black and mestizo population in the construction of our nation. Now a strong and arduous bibliographic work is being carried out by the Ministries of Education, aimed at solving this insufficiency of vital consideration for the teaching of history.

-There is neither a Social History of the black nor of the black woman, produced in Cuba.

-Even dealing with the racial issue, at any level and in any social space, can generate certain discontent, prejudices and discomfort.

-It is only recently that our national assembly has begun to present a structure that almost faithfully reflects the racial composition of Cuban society.

-For those who deal with the subject in a systematic way, their discussions are not disclosed, always remaining in the frameworks of groups and interested persons.

-In Cuban schools there is no mention of color, leaving it to personal spontaneity to deal with the problem.

-In our universities, the racial issue is hardly studied. Nor does it appear in the teaching curricula.

-Our academic research hardly refers to the racial issue sufficiently and it is practically absent from the student scientific work.

-Only recently, we have begun to observe that an effort is being made to attend to the racial composition of workgroups, activities, or situations in which the black and the mestizo should be represented. This can be seen with particular emphasis on television.

-In reality, our statistics, social, economic and political, are colorless. Throwing centuries of national history into the dustbin. They fail to appreciate where the problems lie.

-Our economic statistics do not allow to cross color, with variables of employment, housing, wages, income, etc. This prevents us from investigating, in-depth, how the standard of living of the different racial groups is advancing. Especially those who were previously disadvantaged.

We consider that as long as the racial issue is not treated systematically and coherently, at a comprehensive level, and is reliably reflected in our statistics and in our media, we cannot aspire to socially advance the country on the subject.

Our inherited culture is racist; that is to say, the practice of racism is cultural, instinctive, responding mainly, but not only, to inherited mechanisms that work, not infrequently, unconsciously.

Therefore, until the issue enters education, is strongly discussed socially, is part of the systematic work of the media and is statistically considered, we cannot expect it to become part of the culture, nor can we aspire to advance in it, banishing it from the usual forms of behavior of citizens in our country.

The fact is that the absence of attention, almost generalized, for a long time, of the racial issue, has very negative consequences. This is because its knowledge, understanding and consideration at the social level, as something that harms the Cuban nation. This is a very serious problem to overcome if we want our society and its culture to advance in an integral way, guaranteeing the success of the social project of the revolution.


Esteban Morales Domínguez (born in Matanzas, Cuba, 1942) has been an active participant in the Cuban revolutionary project for the past fifty years and is one of Cuba’s most prominent Afro-Cuban intellectuals. He is a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, has held numerous academic posts, and has been awarded three times by both the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Higher Education. He is the principal or co-author of fifteen books and has published more than a hundred theoretical articles; his 2007 book, Desafios de la problemáticas racial en Cuba (Challenges of the Racial Question in Cuba) was the first book-length academic publication on this subject by a scholar based in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

Featured Image: Cuban trumpet solo by Riccardo Maria Mantero Reuse. This image was marked with a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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