Cuban Racial Formations

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Cuban Racial Formations








Racial formations in Cuba can be traced to the conquest of Cuba’s original inhabitants, the Guanahatabetes, Ciboneys and Taino. The historian Juan Perez de la Riva estimates that after the first Spanish landing, the indigenous population declined from between 100,000 and 200,000 to only about 4,000. Further, the conquest of Cuba’s indigenous population set the stage for Cuba’s incorporation into the growing Atlantic slave economy.


Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566), a Spanish Dominican friar, documented the atrocities committed against Cuba’s indigenous peoples. He recorded the story of Hatuey, the best-known indigenous rebel-hero, who is now celebrated for his resistance and martyrdom at the hands of the Spanish, who eventually burned him at the stake. When indigenous people were subjected to servitude, many fled to the mountains or hung themselves in despair. According to Perez de la Riva, “after 1550, when the indigenous population had been reduced to some five or six thousand, mestizaje surely became the main cause of extinction of the indigenous ‘race”’ (Chomsky et al. 2003, p. 24). Thus, Perez de la Riva argues, mestizaje, or race mixing, rapidly absorbed Indo-Cubans into the white population.

The Cuban-born historian Jose Barreiro refutes the widely held notion put forth by Perez de la Riva and Cuba’s best-known early twentieth-century intellectual, Fernando Ortiz, that Cuba’s indigenous population was eliminated in the 1500s. Barreiro studied isolated eastern Cuban populations in the 1980s and 1990s, and he found an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 people who could be identified as indigenous. Hence, Barreiro argues that Indo-Cuban communities must be considered part of Cuba’s hybrid nature of ethnicity. Even though Ortiz ignored the existence of the Indo-Cuban population and indigenous identity, he introduced the word transculturation to describe the diverse origins and nature of Cuba’s population. Barreiro suggests that Ortiz’s concept of transculturation be broadened by incorporating the Indo-Cuban population along with Cuba’s European (primarily Spanish), African, and Asian communities.


During the nineteenth century, Cuba’s demography was transformed by the implementation of a slave economy. The production of sugar shaped African slavery in Cuba. The Cuban historian Hortensia Pichardo notes that whites were a minority between 1841 and 1861 (1973, p. 367). By 1869 the Cuban population had grown to 763,176 whites, 238,297 free people of color, 34,420 Asians, and 363,286 African slaves. There are a few significant accounts that document the resistance deployed by African peoples subjected to slavery. According to Louis Pérez Jr., slave uprisings occurred throughout the early colonial period. The large-scale plantation revolts that took place from 1825 to 1845 in the province of Matanzas were so frequent that Spanish authorities referred to them as “La Escalera” (“the escalation,” or “the ladder to revolt”). Government officials responded by arresting, torturing, and executing thousands of slaves and free people of color.

A notable document, published in 1964, is Miguel Barnet’s oral history of Esteban Montejo (1860–1973), who escaped plantation life and survived alone in the mountains of Cuba until the end of the nineteenth century. He was among a number of slaves who escaped on their own and survived in nearby caves and mountains. Others, along with indigenous peoples, formed runaway-slave communities called palenques in areas outside of Spanish control. According to Aviva Chomsky and colleagues, “For over three hundred years, the palenque was a form of resistance to the slave economy and European culture. Africans of different ethnicities, cultures, and languages joined together under the ideal of freedom” (Chomsky et al. 2003, p. 65).

Prior to the late nineteenth century, the sugar plantation system was based mainly in western Cuba. The eastern part of the island had a smaller, but much more heterogeneous population that consisted of free Mulattoes and free blacks, primarily from war-torn Haiti. The expansion of the sugar economy and slave labor into eastern Cuba, along with black migrants from other parts of Cuba and the Caribbean, contributed to a stronger Afro-Caribbean identity than existed in western sectors of the island. Many slaves who worked in urban settings and escaped did not flee to palenques, but instead passed as free persons inside the city. Those who escaped were urban slaves who had carried out tasks in the city. This explains why they remained in the city, for they were familiar with it, while the countryside was an environment completely foreign to them.

Caribbean sugar planters sought new sources of cheap labor after the demise of African slavery. It is estimated that between 60 and 200 Chinese indentured laborers were brought to Cuba during the mid-nineteenth century. Perez de la Riva cites harsh conditions that led to a suicide rate of about 500 per 100,000 among Chinese “coolies.” In general, Chinese laborers were granted freedom after eight years of working for the extremely low salary of 4 pesos per month. Given that the trade in Chinese laborers was not regulated, it is highly possible that many lived their lives in servitude, or what Evelyn Hu-Dehart calls “neoslavery,” because “the coolie system resembled plantation slavery” (1994, p. 48).

Hu-Dehart also notes that the inclusion of Chinese people into Cuban slave society disrupted the Creole ideological code of dividing society into black and white, or slave and free. During the coolie period, official censuses considered free Chinese to be white, thus distinguishing them from both free blacks and black slaves. In some cases, when Chinese married free Cuban women, they were registered as white in the matrimonial registry. Regarding the Chinese population as white perpetuated racial hierarchies in which Afro-Cubans were considered inferior to Chinese.


The Ten Years’ War, a separatist uprising led by Cuban-born Creole elite of eastern Cuba, lasted from 1868 to 1878. The leaders of this uprising, including Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, were considered reformist rather than revolutionary, though they sought an end to slavery and Spanish colonial rule. Cuba’s elite, however, chose Spanish colonial rule over social equality, thus prolonging Afro-Cuban slavery. The American historian Philip Foner has argued that racism contributed to the failure of the Ten Years’ War to bring independence to Cuba and end slavery. However, “The Cry of Yara” eventually led to the demise of slavery in the late 1880s and made “pro-independence the dominant political ideology” (Brock 1994, p. 17).

In 1895, Cuban nationalists defined a “nation” as a society where black and whites had to live together in order to avoid replicating the independence struggles in Haiti and the United States. Jose Marti (1853–1895) is recognized for defining Cuba’s nationalism by acknowledging and celebrating the country’s multicultural heritage. Considered the “father of the Cuban nation,” he wrote ideologies of an antiracist and anti-imperialist nationalism while exiled in the United States. Marti’s essay “Our America,” published in 1891, became one of the most influential documents for Latin American intellectuals and popular movements, helping to create an identity recognized for its differences from that of Europe and the United States.

During this time period, growing U.S. involvement and investment in Cuba’s sugar industry impacted Cuba’s conceptualizations of and struggles for independence. The Spanish-American War (1898) may have freed Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, but Cuba became a U.S. colony in 1898 rather than an independent nation. Cultural images of Cuba constructed by U.S. media sources reveal the imperialist pretensions of the United States following the defeat of Spain in 1898. According to John J. Johnson, “Cubans were portrayed as black caricatures of infants, carefree children, or rowdy, undisciplined youths, requiring constant guidance from the United States” (quoted in Chomsky, et al., 2003, p. 135). The struggle for Afro-Cuban equality and self-determination could not be successfully waged under the auspices of U.S. imperialism.


On May 20, 1902, the Republic of Cuba was inaugurated under the presidency of Tomás Estrada Palma. However, Cuba’s independence was unstable due to a series of U.S. military and political interventions and occupations from 1902 to 1934, economic dependency on the United States, and treaties such as the Reciprocity Treaty, which was signed in 1903 and constrained economic initiatives by consolidating Cuba’s sugar monoculture. In addition, the Platt Amendment, which was appended by the U.S. Congress to appropriations bill in 1901, painted Cuba as a fragile state and served as a constant reminder of U.S. self-declared authority to play a role in Cuban affairs. Article 7 of the Platt Amendment allowed for the establishment of a U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. (In the early twenty-first century, this base remains in place as a reminder of Cuba’s neocolonial past.) Such political agreements between the United States and the Cuban elite only ensured privilege, wealth, and social inequalities.

The Cuban nationalist motto of “With All and for the Good of All” did not resolve the problems of national independence and racial inequality. Afro- and Euro-Cubans held very different interpretations of Marti’s antiracism, particularly of his association of Cuban nationalism with the eradication of racial discrimination. Euro-Cuban and Afro-Cuban elites considered race-based organizing a threat to national security, while the El Partido Independiente de Color (PIC, the Independent Party of Color), founded in 1908 by Evaristo Estenoz, associated racism with colonialism and insisted on the association of independence with racial equality. In 1912 government troops and white militias massacred the PIC leadership, including thousands of Afro-Cubans. The massacre was ordered by President José Miguel Gómez and led by José de Jesus Monteagudo.

Anti-imperialist agendas grew throughout Latin America as a response to U.S. interventions in Central America and the Caribbean during the 1910s. During the 1920s Cuban intellectuals such as Julio Antonio Mella developed a critique of the country’s social and economic conditions that focused on an anti-U.S. imperialist ideology. This ideology was strongly associated with the emergence of Afrocubanismo, a movement among white Cuban intellectuals who “discovered” Afro-Cuban culture and developed an analysis that placed this culture at the center of Cuban identity.


The decade of the 1930s was marked by the first wave of feminism, a reformist movement of resistance. The goals and ideology of the Cuban feminist movement were shaped by Cuban culture, history, and the class position of the women who led the movement. Cuban feminists based their claim to political and social rights on their roles as mothers. According to K. Lynn Stoner, they advocated that “a feminism centered on motherhood, cooperative with patriarchy, and respectful of class ordering” could humanize traditional male spheres (Stoner 1991, p. 183). As a means of differentiating Cuban feminism from U.S. feminism, the socialist-feminist activist Ofelia Dominguez Navarro stressed that Cuban feminists emphasized their patriotism and commitment to complementary, rather than equal, roles for women and men.

As elite white Cuban women dedicated themselves to social change, many Afro-Cuban women were employed as domestics, others were unemployed, and a substantial number were prostitutes. Much of Havana’s prostitution surged with the inception of North American tourism and an investment in real estate during the 1920s. Cuban propaganda portrayed Havana as the “Paris of the Western Hemisphere.” Following World War II, Cuba was promoted as a strange, exotic, tropical island filled with African-inspired rhythms and sexually uninhibited “mulattas.” Havana’s reputation as the “brothel of the Caribbean” attracted foreign tourists as well as Cubans, and tens of thousands of women were employed as prostitutes. Thus, Afro-Cuban women’s sexuality was commodified and racialized, transforming the tourist industry and contributing to an essentialized identity based on sexual and racial stereotypes.


Resistance to neocolonialism imposed its strongest stance in 1953 under the leadership of a young student named Fidel Castro. In 1952 General Fulgencio Batista had staged a coup and became the country’s president. Opposed to this regime, Castro led a daring, but unsuccessful, assault on the Moncada Barracks of the Cuban Army in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. The cadres of the 26th of July Movement eventually undermined the Batista regime by practicing armed resistance, engaging in sabotage in the urban centers, and distributing propaganda. In the Sierra Maestra, guerrilla-controlled zones were established with the help of country people and sugar workers in northern Oriente Province. Women such as Vilma Espine, Celia Sanchez, and Haydee Santa Maria were prominent revolutionary participants. In the early morning of January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba for exile in the Dominican Republic. Rebel forces led by Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos occupied Havana, while Fidel Castro led a victory march from Santiago to Havana.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was committed to a new anti-imperialist, antiracist ideology that grew throughout a newly defined Latin America. Cuba’s growing economic reliance on the Soviet Union through the late 1960s and 1970s shaped the path of the revolution politically and socially, thus solidifying the revolution while limiting its possibilities. Culturally the Soviet Union had little impact on Cuba, as U.S. culture attracted Cubans of all ages. Ernesto “Che” Guevara remains a very important revolutionary leader, martyr, and myth in Cuba. Guevara emphasized promoting economic change via the radicalization of peoples’ consciousness. His idea of “the new man,” however, glorified traditional male values, thus failing to engage critical analyses of patriarchy, including sexuality and gender roles. Hence, previous dialogues in associating the eradication of racism with nationalism were subsumed under the newly defined Marxist-Socialist state. The plight of Cuba’s citizens was couched in a socialist ideology, which regarded them primarily as workers without critically engaging the complexities of their lives, particularly the way the nation was divided by race, class, gender, and sexuality.

According to Louis Pérez Jr., “The subject of race in twentieth century Cuba is an elusive theme. … Therefore, the psychic, psychological, and cultural baggage that has historically accompanied institutional racism was never challenged. Race became the classic ‘non-topic’ in Cuban scholarship” (Pérez 1992, p. 59). Others, such as Alejandro de la Fuente, suggests there are at least three conceptual issues that make race and racism a complicated debate in contemporary Cuba. First, Fuente argues, issues of race and racism are highly politicized. Supporters of the revolution argue that there has been improvement in the area of race relations, whereas opponents highlight examples of racism and racial inequality. Second, race and racism must be understood within the Cuban context, rather than applying categories and ideas from a U.S. perspective. Third, structural, ideological, and cultural changes are not always complementary.

One of the most widely published critiques of race relations is Carlos Moore’s Castro, the Blacks, and Africa (1988). Moore claims that Castro’s public discourse on race relations has focused on two features: “a commitment to an integrationist stance steeped in white liberal paternalism and a system where Blacks are not allowed to define the content of their own oppression or ethnic emancipation” (Moore 1988, pp.15–16). Lisa Brock and Otis Cunningham criticize Moore, however, for using a “narrow racialisation framework,” thus ignoring how class, nation, and international political economy shape the lives of Afro-Cubans (Brock and Cunningham 1991, p. 171). Brock further argues in a 1994 article that the issue of race has been overlooked due to three notable achievements associated with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution: (1) the overall quality of life for blacks was drastically improved, (2) Cubans openly admitted and appreciated their African heritage, and (3) the Cuban government supported African liberation movements.

The Cuban Revolution has been extraordinarily successful in eliminating the legal mechanisms that upheld racial discrimination by implementing comprehensive health care, free and universal education, social security, and subsidized housing. Even though Afro-Cubans benefited greatly from the economic and social policies adopted after 1959, the persistence of a racist mentality toward Afro-Cubans in cultural and social realms remained a challenge. The Cuban scholar Gisela Arandia Covarrubias has suggested that Cubans develop national unity by investigating the contributions of Afro-Cubans to revolutionary culture and identity, and that they move toward demystifying the “colonial residue of racist sensibilities” rather than transcending or ignoring critical discourse on race and racism (quoted in James 1994, p. 5).

The Soviet Union’s intention of installing missiles in Cuba, combined with U.S. concerns about a newly defined socialist country just ninety miles from its borders, led President John F. Kennedy to impose a U.S. blockade and embargo of the island in October 1962. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the blockade consisted of a number of provisions, which have the following prohibitions: 1) exportation of all U.S. goods to Cuba, including medicines and foodstuffs; 2) importation of any Cuban goods into the United States, including food and medicines; 3) all other types of commercial activity between the two countries; 4) importation of third country products that contain Cuban materials; 5) restrictions on travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens except for official, journalistic, special professional or family purposes; 6) a restriction on third country ships visiting Cuba from docking in U.S. ports; and 7) a restriction on open trade between Cuba and U.S. subsidiaries. The embargo still holds to the seven restrictions. However, in October 2000, the U.S. Congress voted to allow direct food and medicine sales to Cuba, using third-country banks to finance the transactions. In addition, the U.S. Senate is discussing a Freedom to Travel bill calling to remove all restrictions for all Americans traveling Cuba.

The U.S. embargo toward Cuba is regarded as a blockade by many Cubans, who feel that their lives are being constantly threatened by U.S. attempts to derail the Cuban Revolution. As of 2000, the U.S. government had invested $70 billion (including the estimated loss of monetary profit by direct trade) to enforce the embargo. Despite the overall harsh and inhumane impact of these measures on the Cuban people, the extent to which this policy has been sensible or constructive is still being debated in Washington, D.C.

In 1989 the Cuban Revolution was seriously jeopardized by the demise of the Soviet Union. In particular, Cuba lost nearly 80 percent of its import capacity from the Soviet bloc. Cuba responded to the crisis by declaring a “Special Period in Time of Peace.” This was, in essence, a wartime economy, and it involved a considerable rationing of daily survival necessities. The government also responded by investing in tourism for foreigners. This investment was financed by American dollars, however, because the Cuban government needed dollars to participate in the global, capitalist economy. The tourism industry established “dollar stores” for the convenience of foreigners, and restaurants, transportation, and cultural sites were only available to foreigners, for Cubans did not have access to the currency that would allow them to participate in the newly defined tourist industry. Thus, a form of “tourist apartheid” developed, marked by a twotiered economy: Tourism was operated with dollars, whereas Cuban citizens were dependent on the peso for their daily survival in a society with very scarce resources but an abundance of material goods for foreigners or those who had access to dollars. In the mid-1990s, those who had relatives in Miami were allowed $1,200 per year in remittances. Thus, race relations were affected by remittance dollars from the United States, as the majority of those receiving money were white Cubans, creating a new privileged group in Cuba. Those who had little or no access to dollars sought ways to work in the tourist industry, mainly at hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs or as taxi drivers. Drawing from the work of McGarrity and Cardenas (1995), Lusane notes, “black Cubans appear to be excluded to a great degree from the tourist industry where access to foreign currency is critical for survival” (2000, p. 95). Consequently, many black Cubans are excluded from the lucrative tips in foreign currencies. Hence, many Afro-Cuban women, and eventually both white and Afro-Cuban men, engaged in sex work. Afro-Cuban women’s sexuality and racial-ethnic identity were once again colonized and commodified within the tourist industry, providing a stark mirror of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

The contradictions and complexities of the revolution’s stance on racism became most transparent during the special period with the inception of capitalist oriented enterprises, namely tourism. In order to better understand racism and race relations in contemporary Cuba, the revolution’s general policy on racism merits attention. The revolutionary discourse on racism argues that with the possible exception of individual racial prejudice, evident primarily among the elderly population, Cuban socialism eliminated the material basis for the reproduction of racism and that racism was eliminated within the first post-revolution generation (Lusane 2000). The Cuban Revolution eradicated institutional racism, but racial prejudice and individual discrimination continue to occur. On the flip side of Cuba’s policy in eliminating institutional racism, any expressed racial group consciousness, from black as well as white Cubans, is considered racist, a counter-revolutionary act, therefore no specific program of racial affirmative action similar to the programs and efforts to integrate women, youth, and the rural population into the new society was implemented (Lusane 2000).

In general, the Cuban people do not self-identify as either “black” or “white” Cubans, but identify in a nationalist context as “Cuban.” It is not uncommon, however, for the term “black Cuban” to be used as a descriptive by all Cubans. In recent years, among a small but increasingly race-conscious cohort of primarily exiled black Cubans, the term “Afro-Cuban” has (re)emerged. The development of a self-classification from black Cuban to Afro-Cuban indicates race consciousness. As noted earlier, race consciousness has generally been considered counter-revolutionary. If the revolution maintains a myopic view of race, there is a great potential that it could become so.

Assessing the nature and contours of race relation in Cuba is further complicated by the challenge of identifying who belongs in what racial category and the government conscious decision not to gather racially-oriented data. Consequently, it is difficult to gauge racial inequality by social indicators such as occupation, age, gender, etc. Economic inequalities that have a disproportionate racial consequences are likely to remain static or even become worse during the special period. It appears that the special period will continue for some time. The United States shows little promise of softening its position of antagonism toward Cuba and the global economy is atrocious. No doubt Cuba’s current and future economic transformations will impact race relations. How the Cuban government will respond depends on how strongly the Cuban leadership maintains that racism has been eliminated in Cuba.

Despite continuing U.S. efforts to “democratize” Cuba or penetrate neo-imperialism into a country of color that has survived nearly fifty years of economic and psychological warfare (not to mention the changing economic world order of global capitalism), Cuba has reinvented itself under severe economic and political conditions. In general, the quality of life for all Cubans has improved since the mid-1990s, and the most notable achievements of the revolution, free health care and universal education, have not been compromised. It would be unrealistic to state that Cuba does not continue to struggle with limited resources in food, transportation, medical and educational supplies, and housing. Additionally, the issue of sex workers, primarily among Afro-Cuban women and a growing number of men, calls for critical analyses of international and national discourses on gender, sexuality, racism and patriarchy. Furthermore, Fidel Castro was forced to step down in July 2006 after intestinal surgery leaving the island’s fate in the hands of his brother Raul Castro, who has kept Cuba’s Communist system intact, avoiding the collapse many Castro detractors have predicted for decades. Raul Castro tends to embrace limited free enterprise and has expressed interest in China’s model of capitalist reform with one-party political control. Cuba’s revolutionary history is still being written, however, as Cubans continue to compassionately debate and mold their future.

SEE ALSO Caribbean Racial Formations; Children, Racial Disparities and Status of; HIV and AIDS; Latin American Racial Transformations; Poverty; Racial Formations; Social Welfare States.


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Elisa Facio