Race in Cuba: The Eternal ‘Black Problem’

Leonardo Padura, The Root, July 27, 2010

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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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.

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“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.

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The curious, contradictory and painful part is that various historians and sociologists also agree that the persistent “black problem” is still with us today, in the 21st century, urgently and tensely waiting for a definitive solution that never comes, in spite of laws, decrees and official edicts that paternalistically (but that are, deep down, racist) try to stipulate ethnic representation in certain affairs of state, government and the Communist Party. As if a few more dark faces in the official apparatus could really be an answer to the profound problems that have so much to do with economics and social thought and so little to do with the utopian volunteerism of our leaders who, in the end, are simply practicing politics with their “anti-discrimination” decrees.

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.

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