Ending Systemic Racism Is the Revolution Cuba Needs

Pedestrians in Havana. Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times
Pedestrians in Havana. Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times

Cuba under Fidel and Raúl Castro saw its share of No. 3 men. Occupying the country’s most visible position of power after the Castros meant that getting the boot was always a possibility, and perhaps even an inevitability.

Humberto Pérez, who assumed this role as planning minister in the mid-1970s, was removed from his post a decade later, without official notice, when the government decided to introduce new economic reforms. Carlos Aldana, the Communist Party’s head of ideology and foreign policy during the post-Soviet depression known as Cuba’s “special period,” was dismissed, seemingly overnight, for committing “serious personal errors.” Roberto Robaina, a former foreign minister, was swiftly removed from the Communist Party for discussing with foreigners what a post-Castro Cuba would be like.

The next on the power line today is President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who even became the No. 2 man to Raúl Castro after Fidel Castro died in 2016. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Díaz-Canel, as the heir to the Castros, is on a path to ascend to the very top. Raúl Castro, who still leads the country’s most powerful institutions — the armed forces and the Communist Party — has chosen Mr. Díaz-Canel to preside over two of Cuba’s highest governing bodies, the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. At the same time, Mr. Díaz-Canel’s rivals perceive him to be an uninspiring, nonthreatening figure. What is also notable is that Mr. Díaz-Canel, like every No. 3 official before him, meets an important standard: He’s white.

The dominance of the white political leader and the disenfranchisement of black Cubans have always been a part of the island’s history. However, with Raúl Castro ceding power, the nascent post-Castro era has an opportunity to finally integrate black people into Cuban society and address the deep racial and economic inequality that persists today. Afro-Cubans are more and more removed from the social progress that is slowly being made — expanded access to digital technologies, an economy opening to foreign currency, a shift to more private enterprise — and intended for white Cubans.

A recent study looking at inequality in Cuba revealed a segregated society: 70 percent of black and mixed-race Cubans said they didn’t have access to the internet, compared with 25 percent of white Cubans. The racial wealth gap was also vast: While 50 percent of white Cubans had a banking account, only 11 percent of black Cubans said they had one. Moreover, white Cubans received 78 percent of remittances to Cuba, and they controlled 98 percent of private companies.

The discrimination and racism inherited from nearly four decades of slavery during Spanish colonialism have endured 57 years after the founding of the Cuban Republic in 1902, and have not been resolved in the 60 years since the 1959 revolution. A pressing issue for leaders in a post-Castro Cuba will be to keep black people from being pushed to the margins of society. Paving a path forward will require truly understanding the historical conditions that have long excluded Afro-Cubans from political life — whether it was under a representative democracy, authoritarianism or socialism.

In May 1912 an amendment banning race-based political mobilization was signed into law, setting off protests that resulted in Cuban troops killing nearly 3,000 Afro-Cubans, many of whom had fought in the independence wars against Spain. The massacre and the repression that followed set the course for black political participation in Cuba. The Independent Party of Color, which had formed in 1908 and was the sole political force fighting for the rights of black Cubans, disbanded.

After Fidel Castro rose to power, it did not take long for him to crush any hopes for the reappearance of black Cubans on the political stage by doing away with the Central Directory of Societies of Color, an organization that comprised more than 500 collectives. He also made sure to ban social clubs, cultural centers and other public forums that black people might use to bring attention to racial injustice. For the Castro brothers, revolutionary policies would be enough to reduce inequality and improve access to health care and education for black Cubans, many of whom were impoverished.

While the revolution did create several organizations with popular support, it ultimately failed to address or grapple with racial inequality in any meaningful way. The government sticks to its official line that systemic racism has been eradicated by the revolution. Whatever issues remain are said to be rooted in people’s individual prejudices.

Although Cuba was never formally segregated, white and black Cubans both understand the nature of their coexistence, which can be described by a saying that goes back to colonial times and still rings true: “Together, but not one; everything in its place.”

According to Cuba’s 2012 census, the nation comprises three racial categories — white, black and mixed-race — with white Cubans making up 64 percent of the population, black Cubans making up 9 percent and the remaining 27 percent being mixed-race. In reality, Cuba is divided into two groups: the white one that wields political power, and everyone else.

Afro-Cubans have forged their place in Cuba’s culture nonetheless. Their impact is evident in Cuban arts, music, sports and cuisine. Narratives derived from Afro-Cuban traditions have helped shape the world’s imagination of the island nation. But that cultural influence does not translate to political influence.

In Cuba, it is apparent that those who have always possessed power are reluctant to share it. So when Mr. Díaz-Canel, as the country’s new president, announced last year that he was appointing black officials to three out of six Council of State vice-presidential positions, it prompted criticism from skeptics. Some saw it as a move that would not do much to tackle racial disparities.

Nobody expected Mr. Díaz-Canel to force Cubans to integrate and become “one,” but he had a chance to take a symbolic step and create a more inclusive Cuba for the island’s future generations. On Oct. 10, the National Assembly voted to reappoint Mr. Díaz-Canel as president, providing him with the power to nominate someone before the end of the year for the newly created position of prime minister.

By choosing an Afro-Cuban prime minister, Mr. Díaz-Canel could have positioned himself as more than the ineffectual successor of the Castros. Such a move would have been actually a double blow to the current system by proving to Cubans that black people can and will occupy positions of power in their country, and showing Raúl Castro that it isn’t too late to start a true revolution in Cuba. Unfortunately, his choice was Manuel Marrero Cruz, the long-serving minister of tourism, the paradigm of a white bureaucrat.

The so-called journalists of the state media always praising the single party Cuban political system were quick to emphasize that the new prime minister is not a member of the political bureau, the inner core of the Communist Party. As the leading figure for years of an activity run with dollars and financed by foreign visitors, Mr. Marrero represents actually the part of the economy hardly reached by black people. So we have now a clear guess of the business built slowly by the white power in Havana: away from the party, but not closer to the black part of the population.

Jean-François Fogel is a French journalist, who worked for the France-Presse Agency, the newspaper Libération and the weekly Le Point and is the author of, among other titles, A Press Without Gutenberg.

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