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 Why black cubans support the revolution
Joe Ryan, September 1994 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Despite all the propaganda about how hard life is in Cuba, an article in the Aug. 21 Los Angeles Times revealed that there was certainly one section of the population that unconditionally stands by the revolution – Cuba’s Black population. And nearly 60 percent of the population in Cuba today is either Black or Mulatto (self-defined).

“Everything I have, I owe to the revolution,” Andres Castillo told L.A. Times correspondent Ingrid Peritz. “Blacks, especially of my generation, know we were made by the revolution. So we’re willing to put up with hardships now.”

Castillo, whose father was an illiterate country salesman, is the editor of a Cuban science magazine. All the gains that Blacks have made in Cuban society since 1959 – in terms of equality and an end to racial discrimination – he credits to the revolution.

Even a superficial examination of the demographics of who leaves Cuba confirms who the big winners were. Over 95 percent of Cubans who fled after the 1959 revolution were white. For the rich elite, and the prosperous, overwhelmingly white middle class, the revolution the curtain on a life of privilege. For the overwhelming working-class Black population, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution signified an end of centuries of racism, discrimination, and repression.

The history of Cuba is basically a history of revolutions, and Black Cubans played a decisive and influential role in all of them.

Similar to the historical experiences of Black Americans, race relations in pre-revolutionary Cuba were based on the legacy of slavery, an institution that was only abolished in 1886.

Blacks and Mulattoes played significant roles in the wars for Cuban national liberation, constituting a large proportion of the fighters in liberation armies that fought for independence from Spain in 1868-78, and later, in 1895-98.

After the United States intervened in 1898, robbing Cubans of what would have been a military victory over their Spanish occupiers, the liberation army was disbanded by U.S. authorities and replaced by the Havana police and a Rural Guard. Both of these police organizations were strictly white in composition.

Racism and repression institutionalized

In the ensuing years, Cuban homegrown racism would be nurtured, refined and “improved” by the strong U.S. presence on the island.

Black Cubans were denied the equality they fought and died for during the liberation war of 1895-98. Demobilized Black liberation fighters were excluded from important administrative appointments, denied access to government jobs, and became targets for discrimination and racism under the new regime. Although they attempted to fight for their rights through the existing political parties, they got nowhere. In 1908, they organized an association of Black voters called the Colored Independence Party.

When an election “reform” law, enacted in 1910, prohibited the organization of political parties along racial lines, Black Cubans were forced to take up arms against the administration of Jose Miguel Gomez.

The ensuing race war in 1912 resulted in thousands of Blacks being killed in pitched battles, race riots, and massacres. Known as the “Little War of 1912,” it led to a nationwide extermination campaign against Blacks that reached near-genocidal proportions. The Cuban Black community never fully recovered from its defeat in the race war of 1912.

This laid the basis that enabled Cuban capitalists to establish an insidious pattern of job discrimination against Blacks that lasted right up to the 1959 revolution.

One Cuban historian gives a graphic description of the conditions faced by Black working people in pre-revolutionary Cuba:

“Blacks could not be tramway conductors, salesmen in department stores, . . . or employees of commercial and foreign (U.S.) enterprises. The found the doors closed to jobs as nurses, typesetters, hat makers, etc. Even in industries such as tobacco, the best paid jobs were closed to Blacks. For him, the only jobs – such as dockworkers – and the most menial positions such as bootblack, newspaper sales, . . . etc.”

However, the Black population was able to make some modest gains as a result of the nationalist revolution of 1933. The law that at least 50 percent of all jobs in commercial, industrial, service, and foreign-owned enterprises had to go to Cuban citizens. Black Cubans used this new law to create some cracks in the systematically-erected barrier of institutionalized job discrimination.

Repression of Blacks also extended itself to political representation. While Blacks and Mulattoes represented nearly 30 percent of the Cuban population in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, they occupied only 5 percent of the seats in the Cuban House of Representatives.

“Jim Crow” racism, enforced through unwritten laws, restricted Blacks to specific beaches, parks, “walk-throughs,” neighborhoods and schools. They were disproportionately represented at the bottom of the economic scale, had a higher illiteracy rate, and a higher rate of unemployment.

Blacks, Mulattoes and poor whites were effectively excluded from a decent education through underfunding of public schools and a proliferation of private schools that catered to the educational needs of the rich. In Havana, upper-class social clubs excluded Blacks as a matter of policy.

Like their counterparts in the United States, Cuban capitalists denied the existence of racism and discrimination and conveniently avoided every bringing up the subject. They would hypocritically point to the platitudes of rights and equality in the Cuban constitution, and call attention to individual Blacks who occupied official government and military positions. Meanwhile, a brutally repressive police apparatus was always standing by to make sure that the victims of racism were never permitted to organize protests against institutionalized inequality.

All this changed with the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959.

One of the first symbolic acts that indicated a new day was coming in Cuba occurred one the first day Fidel Castro’s army entered Havana – tanks crushed the fences that had been erected on Havana’s hotelfront beaches to designate where Blacks couldn’t go.

Making racism illegal

In March 1959, only two months after the conquest of state power, Castro broke the conspiracy of silence on racism in Cuba by confronting it head on. In a speech given in Havana, Castro stated:

“One of the battles we must prioritize more and more everyday . . . is the battle to end racial discrimination at the workplace. . . . There are two types of racial discrimination: One is the discrimination in recreation centers and cultural centers; the other, which is the worst and the first one we must fight, is racial discrimination in jobs.”

But Castro didn’t stop there. His speech was aimed like a dagger at the old, racist structures of Cuba that had created two separate societies – one white, one Black. His first step was to abolish the old private school system and establish a well-funded public school system that was completely integrated.

“There is discrimination at recreation centers,” Castro said. “Why? Because Blacks and whites were educated apart. [But now] at the public grade school, Blacks and whites are together. At the public grade school, Blacks and whites learn to live together, like brothers. And if they are together at the public school, they are later together at the recreation centers and all places.”

Economic and social conditions for Blacks improved dramatically when the revolutionary government decreed the Agrarian Reform and Urban Reform Laws, which gave the land to small farmers, and lowered rents in the cities by 50 percent. Laws were enacted and enforced prohibition discrimination in jobs, schools, housing, and medical care. In Cuba, race prejudice would be a punishable offense.

A study by sociologist Maurice Zeitlin of industrial workers in Cuba in 1962 illustrates how quickly Black working people embraced the revolution. He found that 80 percent of Black industrial workers expressed enthusiastic support for the revolution versus 67 percent of white industrial workers.

Black workers, Zeitlin noted, frequently referred to the impact of the revolution on race relations in spite of the fact that no question was raised by the interviewer about this issue.

One outcome of the revolution has been the accelerated process of inter-marriage between the races. As Los Angeles Times writer Ingrid Peritz observed, “Cuba’s racial profile has turned several shades darker since 1959.”

Numerous inter-racial couples can be seen strolling the streets of Havana. Observers see this as the “most foolproof index [available] of a qualitative change in a society that in the past was based on a color-class system.”

The Cuban government has also essentially conducted a campaign to increase the number of Blacks, Mulattoes, and women in the mass organizations of the revolution.

In 1977, Blacks represented 36 percent of the membership of the National Assemblies, 400 percent increase over the level of Black and Mulattoe representation in state institutions before the revolution.

In 1986, as part of a “rectification” campaign to combat bureaucratic deformations, Castro launched an affirmative action campaign to increase the number of Blacks, Mulattoes and women on decision-making bodies in the Cuban Communist Party.

At a seminar of the London based Minority Rights Group, Black Cuban social researcher Lourdes Casal presented a balance sheet of what was accomplished in Cuba to end racism and discrimination.

“It can be unhesitatingly affirmed that racial discrimination has been solidly eradicated from Cuban society. Nobody is barred from access to jobs, education, social facilities of any kind, etc., for reasons of their skin color.

“The egalitarian and redistributive measures enacted by the revolutionary government have benefited Blacks as the most oppressed sector of the society in the pre-revolutionary social system.

“This does not imply that all forms of prejudice have been banned or that the consciousness of all the people has been thoroughly transformed. . . . The difference is that there is a tremendous cost in expressing such prejudicial opinions publicly.”

It should come as no surprise that Black Cubans are indeed the staunchest supporters of the Revolution. For them, the socialist revolution in Cuba represented a profound triumph for their democratic and economic rights. They won’t relinquish these conquests without a fight to the finish.

Replying to a question about what it would be like if the revolution was defeated, Andres Castillo told the L.A. Times, “It would be like it used to be. More discrimination, more hunger. Blacks would simply be worse off. And we don’t want to go backward.”

Blacks in the United States can certainly testify to what that would be like.

This article was written by Joe Ryan, and first appeared in the September 1994 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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