During the last day of his historic visit to Cuba in 2016, President Barack Obama gave a televised speech in Cuba that made the Communist Party uneasy. Speaking about the troubled histories of both the US and Cuba with race and slavery, the President addressed how both countries were built on the backs of slaves from Africa and how it was time to leave racism behind.
Barely one week after Obama’s visit, Fidel Castro had terse words for the President. In response to the President’s three-day visit and speech, the iconic dictator wrote an extensive letter to “Brother Obama” accusing him of ignoring the Communist Party’s accomplishments on race relations. In the letter, Fidel insisted that all racism in Cuba had ended with the Revolution.
During the Revolution, Fidel Castro made race discrimination one of the Communist Party’s main issues. As soon as he was in power, Castro condemned racism in his speeches and moved to eliminate it. He enacted laws that eliminated racial discrimination in public spaces, employment, and education and gave blacks and whites the same rights throughout the island. In a speech condemning the United States in 1962, Fidel claimed “Cuba was the Latin American country that had… eliminated discrimination on the basis of race or sex.”
After this speech, racial issues were considered to have been definitively solved, and the topic became taboo. Questioning the Revolution’s triumph over racism came to be considered a subversive act. With racism and discussing racism both banned, gauging the problem is difficult. But when you hit the streets of Cuba, you can see that the Party’s claims of success fall short.
Miguel, an elderly man who had lived in my neighborhood for over 50 years, currently lives in a historic nineteenth-century mansion that has been converted into a solar—a makeshift apartment building divided up to house more than ten families. When I visited the house, Miguel, who lives in part of the top floor, told me, “Only white families live in the top floor and we have to lock it to keep the other kind away.” This was my first encounter with racism in the island, but not the last. Miguel’s comments continued throughout the rest of the visit.
Once my upstairs neighbors warmed up to me, they warned me to stay away from the rest of the black people living in the neighborhood. They claimed that I should not interact with them or be seen with them because they could only bring me trouble. In another occasion, I couldn’t bring my black friend and guide to an interview, because the person we were interviewing did not approve of black people in his house.
Oddly enough, in a country that claims to have done away with racism, anti-racist activists find themselves considered dissidents. Because the rapper Soandry del Rio’s music addresses racial issues, some of his songs are banned. Another example is Cuba’s Citizens Committee for Racial Integration (CIR), a civil non-profit that promotes integration and seeks to eradicate racial stereotypes in Cuba. Because it tries to raise awareness about racial issues, the organization is now one of the largest dissident civil rights groups in the island. Most CIR members have been detained at least once.
One hundred and thirty years after the end of slavery in Cuba and 53 years after the Castros took power, racial inequalities are still present in the island. The Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami estimates that the black population of Cuba is around 62 percent, yet most professionals are white—including 72 percent of scientists and 80 percent of professors. Furthermore, the black population has double the unemployment rate and receives lower wages. While whites have positions of privilege and make up 71 percent of the Cuban leadership, blacks make up 85 percent of prison inmates.
By turning racism into a taboo topic and designating protesting racism as a counter-revolutionary act, the Party has allowed discrimination to go on without trying to fix it. The sad paradox is that those who suffer its consequences are not allowed to protest it.