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Reflections On Race & The Status Of People Of African Descent In Revolutionary Cuba
By Eugène Godfried, 2001
This article first appeared on The Black World Today.


   Se concede este certificado a Eugene Godfried por su distinguida participación y la presentación de su trabajo, “Broadening Black participation in Revolutionary Cuba (1986-2006)”, en la 32ª Conferencia de la Asociación de Estudios Caribeños realizado del 28 de mayo al 1 de junio de 2007 en Salvador da Bahia, Brasil.

"Broadening Black participation in Revolutionary Cuba" was first published on Black World Today and AfroCubaWeb as Reflections On Race And The Status Of People Of African Descent In Revolutionary Cuba, in 2001.

November, 2000

Dr. Fidel Castro’s speech at the Riverside Church on September 8, 2000 provided the leader of the Cuban revolution the opportunity to again publicly take an official stand on the question of race in revolutionary Cuba. He spoke about the current social conditions of the people of African descent living in that Caribbean nation.

I have been observing official Cuban policies and positions with regards to blacks in that country for over 30 years. I say Dr. Castro again took a stand because this was not the first time: he also did so on several other occasions, including the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in1985, where I personally participated as an official guest. There he openly admitted that racial discrimination still existed in his country and that measures needed to be taken against it. Unfortunately, his speech was not published in the final report. This is contrary to the practice of other Congresses before and after this one, where the reports were published in booklet form. I don’t know what conclusion ought to be drawn out of this experience of sheer omission. This type of carelessness could strengthen some critics who say that the leader of the revolution is occasionally being censored by certain retrograde elements who are serving him as advisors.


In September, 2000, the President of Cuba again raised the topic of racial discrimination and marginalization, admitting that the Revolutionary process is not a perfect model that has solved all problems of inequality and injustice. In itself this was a victory by Fidel Castro over all those tendencies surrounding him who seem to wish to silence the dialogue on this issue. His words were as follows:

"….I am not claiming that our country is a perfect model of equality and justice. We believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, or racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in 40 years….."

When the Cuban President speaks of ethnic minorities, he refers to the peoples of African descent and other nationalities, perhaps the remnants of the Indigenous Tainos, the Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Arabs, etc. On the other hand, there must be a so-called ethnic majority, which could be the Iberian Spanish immigrants in Cuba.

There is much to be said concerning this categorization in terms of numbers: majority and minority. The very first question that should be raised is by what criteria can one determine that the Iberian Spanish element, in racial terms otherwise classified as "whites," are in the majority in Cuba? Vague concepts like this create tensions before any discussion gets underway and obstruct a positive evolution of the assessment and definition of official policies with regards to existing ethnicities in Cuba. Emphatically, I want to say that the official circles responsible for defining the guidelines in social and political practice in Cuba need to take this matter very seriously and reflect on this matter of the percentages. This is especially true of classifications commonly employed such as "whites," "mulattos," and "blacks."

Some official documents consider a "mulatto" as being "white". Other documents define Chinese as "white" and yet on other occasions as "black." One can find still other sources, such as the Ministry of External Affairs, that include black and mulattos on the same side of the list resulting in a 63% figure for the segment of African descent, an estimate one also finds in American sources, both governmental and scholarly.

Percentages that are sometimes officially applied, such as whites 70%, blacks 19 %, mulattos 11%, are clearly inadequate. These likely come from the 1980-1981 census, where people were asked to identify themselves along ethnic lines, and are disregarded by most Cuba scholars. Such percentages necessarily lead to partial policies followed by inequality in proportional social relations as a result. Consequently, leading figures directing major policy-making bodies need to accommodate themselves on these patterns of visions and in order to be inspired to have a critical and self-critical attitude when addressing themes regarding the position, participation, and mobility of the people of African descent in the Cuban society.

Dr. Fidel Castro continues saying:

"…There has never been nor will there ever be a case where the law is applied according to ethnic criteria. However, we did discover that the descendents of those slaves who had lived in the slave quarters were the poorest and continued to live, after the supposed abolition of slavery, in the poorest housing.

There are marginal neighborhoods; there are hundreds of thousand of people who live in marginal neighborhoods, and not only blacks and mixed race people, but whites as well. There are marginal whites, too, and all this we inherited from the previous social system….."

Certainly, blacks and whites co-exist in marginal neighborhoods with difficult material conditions such as deficient housing, limited urban infrastructure, and episodic transportation. The President has made a bold statement and has exposed the matter with openness and frankness. It is clear that people of African descent still face marginality in housing conditions in the traditional urban quarters of the capital of Havana -- in areas such as Jesus María, Belén, Colón, Canal, Los Sitios, Pueblo Nuevo, Cayo Hueso, San Leopoldo, Pogolotti, Romerio, to mention a few -- or in others across Cuba such la Marina in Matanzas, La Loma del Chivo in Guantanamo, or Los Hoyos and La Maya in Santiago de Cuba.

Cultural Marginality

But housing is just one part of the story. At present the most burning question remains cultural marginality as a consequence of the supremacy of the Iberian-Hispanic values and norms in education, culture, economics and politics.

In the Pedagogia 99 Congress that took place in Havana in February 99, Dr. Castro stated:

"We thought that to decree absolute equality and civil rights would have been sufficient to wipe out these traces. However, today we still observe that poorest sectors are still those descendants of slaves.

Before the triumph of the Revolution, there existed on the island a culture of poverty and wealth, where the middle class was fundamentally white and were better prepared and had better material conditions. People with a better educational level influenced their children because they taught them, they looked over their homework, and they demanded of them. In the same way, poverty was transmitted.

For all that everyone was made equal under the law, for all that assistance was rendered, the best grades came from those families headed by professionals. This does not mean there were no advances in these years, but that despite the equality in opportunities for all, it is difficult to carry out a revolution because it implies a change of the society."

Dr. Castro is indicating that there are less favorable results among the students who are of African descent as compared to those of Iberian – Hispanic origin. In several discussions with professionals on this topic wondering why these results are obtained by the students of African descent, I was told that "será porque los negros son más brutos," meaning, maybe because the blacks are more stupid. Sincerely, I do believe that expressions of this type are a consequence of a lack of awareness by those who have expressed them. A wider look in the Caribbean area shows us that extensive studies sponsored by the UNESCO have been carried out to address the "eurocentric" character that typifies the content, aims and objective of the educational system in various countries. The same situation has been looked at in anglophone, francophone, and germanophone countries, where language differences and a focus on European cultural values and norms have caused serious lags in the education of youths of African descent with consequent high dropout rates.

To tackle this problem we must admit to ourselves the eurocentrism that exists in education in Cuba and define policies directed to acknowledge the multicultural manifestations of the entire society. Efforts ought to be made to meet the student of African descent from within his and her own life experience. This method is applicable for education programs in both intra and extra mural projects, as well as for adult education.

Socio-economic marginalization has to do with the fact that people of African descent do not participate fully in all types of job opportunities, especially in the recent reorganization of the economic system whereby new job opportunities have been created in the privileged ‘dollar market’. When speaking of the dollar market, I am referring to the hotel sector and the commercial sector that depend on foreign currencies for their operations, and any other work site that legally handles foreign currencies. These will deliver some economic interest to the worker who is active in that sector and who thus will be able either directly or indirectly to have access to revenues in foreign currencies. This situation is creating social tensions and sentiments of disgust among broad sections of Cubans, naturally, but especially among those of African descent as they feel excluded. It is also the visual part of the problem with which foreigners and friends from abroad are confronted when they come and visit this Caribbean island and notice that the representation of blacks in hotels and business corporations is extraordinarily low. This is the case even in provinces like Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, where the African portion of the society is the highest in comparison to all provinces of the island. Let me illustrate this with one example out of many.

In the summer of 2000, I had the pleasure of leading a Carnival Group from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to Santiago de Cuba’s Carnival. The major criticism of the Caribbean and North American visitors, who were then lodged at Hotel Santiago, was that the only Sub-Saharan African Cuban worker that they had seen that day in the lobby of the hotel was a young woman sweeping the floor in her uniform. The group asked question on top of question and I as the ‘host’ had the difficult task of answering them!

Another concern to many is the fact that it is plain to see that people of Iberian – Hispanic descent has more access to the now free dollar market, which gives these citizens a remarkably privileged position. This is partly explained by taking into account that they receive financial support from relatives abroad.

As far as financial support on an organizational level, it is worthwhile mentioning that those organizations and institutions that clearly represent cultural manifestations related to the Iberian – Hispanic segment of the Cuban society, for example, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, can easily count on donations from Spain. On the other hand, organizations of people of African descent, such as the Ballet Folklorico Nacional, are facing dire financial circumstances due to lack of resources.

As we continue our discussion of cultural marginality it is necessary to point out that the constant struggle between Europe and the Africa that we find in all societies that have known the plantation economy is also manifest in Cuban society. The methods imposed to find a solution to this conflict has been the assimilation of the African component to the values and norms of the European component. This has meant that African cultural manifestations either had to make way for new concepts or be considered folkloric. This has been the case with African religions, the Rumba manifestation, and the Son rhythm – complex in popular dance music.

Religious expressions of Yoruba, Bantu, Calabar and Arará origin have survived all adversity and are now openly performed. The eurocentrism of official cultural policies caused African religious manifestations to be regarded as "exotic" therefore folkloric, and so we witness these manifestations being used for tourist consumption in bars and nightclubs. Naturally, this is an offense to the religious sentiments of the people of African descent, who do not express their opinion, but nevertheless observe and reflect. This is a typical African way of responding to such social manifestations.

As the Rumba complex, comprised of the genres Yambu, Columbia and the Guaguanco, is lived out in popular quarters by dancers and musicians predominantly of African descent, this complex has suffered a lot of threats towards its disappearance. It was not to the taste of the elite before the revolution and neither to certain sectors after the triumph of the revolution. At the same time, Theatre Rumba, which was already well developed before the revolution, continues to exist as entertainment in nightclubs, theaters, and tourist resorts. Whatever criteria there could exist to justify the disappearance of popular rumba, still people of African descent have experienced another "no" to one of their authentic cultural manifestations.

The problem of cultural marginality is complex. For example, how can one explain why the ‘SON’ rhythm - complex was neglected or almost destroyed by measures taken early on by the revolution? The Cuban ‘SON’ is one of the highest expressions of African rhythms fused with hispanic melodies. What explanation could be given as to why the African sound and timbres had to disappear in the newly created musical styles, such as nueva trova, to benefit Iberan - Hispanic tastes? How is it that certain music producers on radio-stations, all of them of Iberian Spanish descent, could have gone so far in downgrading the musical styles of Arsenio Rodriguez, Chappottin, and Estrellas de Chocolate as being "musica de negros" ("suena muy negro") and therefore to be eliminated from the air? The SON – rhythm complex began in the 19th century and is comprised of the genres: changui, nengon, guiriba, guajira, guaracha, danzon, danzonette, mambo, son montuno, charanga, and the cha cha cha. Its roots are in the War of Independence against Spain, one of the greatest slave revolts of this hemisphere.

Buena Vista Social Club and the international success of SON is a triumph of African flavor with the sound and timbre of the most authentic representation of Cuba’s cultural identity. It is also an important warning to all those forces inside Cuba who have once intended to falsify history by destroying the African component of the national cultural heritage of Cuba.

The State of Self - Awareness of Blacks in Cuba

How do blacks in Cuba react to eurocentric manifestations which provoke cultural lags?

Cuba’s history is rich in the experiences of slave and maroon revolts in the Colonial period, of which Aponte’s uprising in 1810 was one of the more significant.

In the twentieth century the rebellion of 1912 whereby the leaders of the Partido Independiente de Color along with 6,000 other blacks were slaughtered should never be forgotten. It had a determining effect on black self esteem and on black white relations.

Upon all these pages of struggle written by blacks in Cuba, the question arises whether Cubans of African descent are conscious of their African origin and how do they see their society. This has been a question that many visiting friends have been posing over and over again to black Cubans. They received astonishing responses, sometimes much to their annoyance.

Many individuals still agree with Jose Marti’s statement saying ‘more than black and more than white, we are Cubans’. This statement of Marti intelligently bypasses the nationality question and leaves the Africans in Cuban society without an answer to 500 years of severe psycho-social problems caused by European colonialism. Today, a black Cuban can still tell you he or she is not black nor African. A black Cuban can easily tell you "nuestros antepasados, los espanoles," meaning, our ancestors the Spaniards. A Cuban man or woman of African descent on many occasions can think that it is logical and better to marry a white person in order to "adelantar la raza" meaning advancing the race. So many a times, a black person can address the other as "negro," which anywhere else in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe will immediately cause severe conflicts. Naturally, the praise of European somatic features above African ones is still common among blacks in Cuba. Women straighten or process their hair and blacks many times call each other and think of themselves as "feo," ugly. Cuba’s borders have been closed to the influences of the Black Power movement and the entire Black Awareness Movement which was so active in the sixties. That’s why it should not be a surprise to many observers to know that while the problem of self-hatred and internalization of European values and norms by people of African descent has found a solution in other countries of the region, in revolutionary Cuba this problem has yet to be solved on a significant scale.

We need to be optimistic for there is a growing movement in Cuba of people of African descent in cultural matters around Africa and the African Diaspora. The African survivals in Cuba are among the strongest in the hemisphere and have been taken up by the younger generation, though not always with the rigor that their elders wish for. A significant number of youth are admirers of Bob Marley, the Rastafari, and the Reggae movement. Over the past two to three years, Hip Hop and Rap music exchanges have been promoted between the USA and Cuba. The Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, even declared that Rap was part of the national patrimony, making evident what was already a major movement among Cuban youths.

Plastic Artists are successful in promoting Black consciousness but face resistance from certain sectors who even try to dismiss them by nicknaming them ‘black fundamentalists’. Their experience is of great interest as their exhibits, such as the Queloides exhibit in la Habana in 1999, turn into group dialogs on race. One of their observations has to do with the difficulties in getting whites to discuss these issues and overcome their state of denial. So long as the discussion centered on white racism, no headway was made, but when a discussion of racism and self hatred on the black side was engaged, then the situation became more fluid.

Ongoing dialog between Fidel Castro, Caribbeans, and Americans

President Fidel Castro Ruz has on numerous occasions successfully circumvented his own advisers and dealt directly with the problems of race and the status of Cubans of African descent when addressing foreigners, including Americans. Still more attention needs to be given to this matter and more talks undertaken concerning the racial situation based on a cultural perspective right across present day Cuban society.

We need to take into account important historical factors such as the fact that Cuba was the penultimate country on the American continent to abolish the system of enslavement of Africans in 1886. After Cuba became independent in 1898, the neocolonial era, introduced and supported by segregationist United States ruling cliques, knew several moments of racial tensions and upheavals like the 1912 massacre which cost the lives of over 6000 Cubans from African descent. Around the same time as this 1912 massacre, the neocolonial Cuban governments, backed by transnational corporations such as the United Fruit Company and others, decided to import thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean islands as a further step against Cubans of African descent. These workers came in from Haiti, Jamaica, Tortola, Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, Saint John, Jos Van Dyke, Anguilla, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Saint Martin, Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. This process was initiated around 1910 and lasted up to the early fifties. Those immigrant workers were subjected living in subhuman conditions worse than in the days of slavery.

While listening to Dr. Castro’s September speech, it became clear to me that many friends and visitors from the United States have been talking with the leader of the Cuban revolution on the situation of blacks, people of color or simply Cubans of African descent. We know that prestigious organizations of African Americans such as TransAfrica and the Grass Roots Malcolm X Movement, along with representatives of the Black Caucus in Congress, have met with the leader on several occasions and the topic of race has appeared on the agenda.

As already indicated earlier in this article, I personally have had the pleasure of leading a significant number of visitors from the Caribbean and the United States to Cuba, who were amazed at what they observed in terms of race – relations. And we have spent many hours discussing the race situation in revolutionary Cuba on many occasions, in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Sancti Spiritus, and Matanzas. The topic is of great interest to a wide range of friends of Cuba. Up to now there has been little official approach or answer to the question of race or of the social status of Cubans of African descent from a cultural perspective. The official position thus far has mostly been a denial of racism in Cuba and the insistence that there are no blacks or Africans in Cuba, but that "we are all Cubans." This position in itself has created more harm and has contributed to raising the suspicions of analysts, scholars, and friends of the Cuban revolution from other countries with a great deal of experience in this matter, such as Jamaica, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Antigua and the United States itself among others.

The policies of generalization aiming at unifying the society against outside political aggression, mainly the United States, has had severe consequences for non-Iberian Hispanic sectors. This was possible since from a cultural perspective, those policies were of a Eurocentric, Iberian – Hispanic nature. In order to illustrate this statement, I will narrate two examples. The first one is of an association of descendents and residents from the Canary Islands which is active in the province of Villa Clara. It so happened that in the summer of 1998, I was covering a yearly Caribbean Trade Fair in the eastern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba. In a conversation with the leaders of a delegation representing the cultural heritage of the Canary Islands, these personalities were asking me to participate in my "Section on the Cultural Identity of the Caribbean", which is aired every Sunday on Radio Progreso. The reason why they placed that application to me was that according to them, in the first place they are being considered as Spaniards in a crude way, and moreover their specific case as Canarians was neglected or subordinated in order to fit into a general cultural plan in the nation. Indeed the Canary Islands has a different historical experience than Spain, who colonized this archipelago located off the northwestern coast of Africa.

The second example occurred on a work-visit to Caimanera in Guantanamo, when a high-level cultural officer explained to me the harm that the imposed generalized unifying policies caused to residents of Portugal, among others, who reside in this once very active neighborhood. Many were ruthlessly considered as Cuban and had to suppress or neglect their origin, in this case Portugal.

The official position which over-emphasized the "Cuban" citizenship of the citizens has estranged the immigrants of "white" color as well as "black" color as in the case of Haitian, Jamaican and other Caribbean and African nations.

Dr. Fidel Castro in his September speech at Riverside Church was engaged in an open dialogue with those friends of Cuba who had these concerns. This was a cordial gesture to those who have repeatedly express their sincere concern on race matters in revolutionary Cuba. The well being of the masses inside the Cuban revolution is and should be a matter of concern to forces both inside and outside of Cuba. All doors and windows should be opened up for honest, frank, and sincere dialogue among those who want to promote peace, equality and social progress.

Yet I still would want to emphasize that this positive process of dialogue should be continued, only more rigorously. Meaning to say that visitors, observers, and friends from abroad, on the one hand, as well as the leadership of the Cuban revolution on the other hand, ought to address this question with ever more depth of vision. None of us should be too soft with our own history. There is no need for shyness, since we are not responsible for having created these problems ever since the colonialists sowed their seeds on our lands and pastures.

With this knowledge of the historical processes that preceded and determined the revolutionary processes that started on January 1st of 1959, it is good to insist on an urgent attention to these matters especially by the leader of the Revolution. This cannot be the prerogative of any other sector inside the Cuban society without a guidance similar to that which he has given on the changes in the economic realm to counteract the crisis that resulted from the US blockade and the disappearance of the entire European socialist camp. The changes in the socio-economic profile of Cuba since 1990 have caused the emergence of a new social group that has occupied strategic positions in economic and political life. These descendants of Iberian – Hispanics are over-represented in the socio-economic-cultural and political profile of present day to day life in Cuba.

A diligent attention to solve this problem is required before the result of the above changes linger on too much and certain negative speculations with regards to the future of Cuba become more evident. The future of Cuba has to be determined and tailored now, with the presence of Dr. Fidel Castro, the sole uniting figure who has the confidence of the masses, in particular of the people of African descent in Cuba.

This process of change is needed urgently to safeguard the revolution in the long run. The economic blockade could be lifted and money could start to pour into the island again by the millions. There is no doubt about that, but the concern among the ‘wretched of the earth’ is: will the conditions of quasi-slavery ever be re-established in Cuba as they existed prior to 1959?

Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz asks us to be hopeful when he concludes his speech by saying:

"…I told you that our country is on its way to a new era. I hope someday to be able to speak to you of the things we are doing today and how we are going to continue to do them.

We do not have the money to build housing for all the people who live in what we could call marginal conditions. But we have lots of other ideas which will not wait until the end of times and which our united and justice loving people will implement to get rid of even the tiniest vestiges of marginality and discrimination. I have faith that we will succeed because that is the endeavor today of the leaders of our youth, our students and our people.

I shall not say more, I am simply saying that we are aware that there is still marginality in our country. But, there is the will to eradicate it with the proper methods for this task to bring more unity and equality to our society.

On behalf of my Homeland, I promise to keep you informed about the progress of our efforts."

The dialogue on this matter must continue both inside and outside of Cuba. Other countries of the Caribbean area have also known the plantation economy system dating back to the 17th, 18th and the 19th centuries. Consequently, those societies count with the presence of peoples of African descent in significantly high numbers such as in Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles. Talks on matters related to the history and social position of the people of African descent have encountered severe resistance from certain sectors in those societies which are intimately loyal to colonial and retrograde ideologies on both a cultural and political-economic level.

In this light, we should refer to the visit of Fidel Castro to Barbados in August of 1998, when he was invited by Dr. Owen Arthur, the Prime Minister. This coincided with the celebrations commemorating the abolition of slavery in the British territories. On that occasion, Barbadian officials, along with the Seraphine Cultural Center, called for extending the Pan-African movement and called on Fidel Castro to include Cuba into this movement. The call is just right as it takes into account that Cuba is the home of a significant number of Africans in the diaspora.


We need to be hopeful and wait for the ‘other ideas’ that the leadership of the Revolution would want to expose in the near future, with regards to the improvement of material and non-material living conditions of the people in Cuba who descend from Bantu, Yoruba, Benin, Calabar, Igbo, Mandinka, Wollof lands, Abyssinia and other lands in Mother Africa.

The history of these sons and daughters of the rich continent of Africa is the anti-history of the eurocentric portions of the Cuban, therefore Caribbean society. History has blessed us with the shining example of Antonio Maceo y Grajales, who in 1878, in his ‘Protest of Baragua’ had made clear to General Arsenio Martinez Campos, representing Spanish rule and eurocentric sectors of Cuban society, that there will be no independence without the total abolition of the system of enslavement of Africans…

The history of liberation in our continent has shown us that some elements among us were and still are prepared to break a little bit with colonial Spain, France, Britain, The Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, in particular, and colonial Europe in general, but not entirely, especially not culturally! And that is precisely where our nations, even though independent or semi-independent, have to continue persisting in reflecting on and talking about our situation along with Cuba and find a way together in order to deal with the globalized world.

Eugene Godfried
Caribbean specialist
Cuban radio - journalist
Radio Havana Cuba – Radio Progreso

The views expressed herein are those of Eugene Godfried and not necessarily those of Radio Havana or Radio Progresso

This article first appeared on The Black World Today (
in several sections:

Part I -
Part II -
Part III - The State Of Self - Awareness Of Blacks In Cuba
Part IV -

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