What fervor in the today.
What a muscle, feverish knowledge
that everything can be tomorrow.
If a racial policy appears in contemporary Cuban society, it must be well received, because of what it means for social improvement. Also because it is a sign of concern in overcoming the discontent of a black population, and to understand it as a social problem in need of attention that must be assumed as the responsibility of the State.
It would be good if such a racial policy was not contaminated with exclusions and avoided the trap of being a task that is legitimized only based on the government’s desire. Said racial policy—like all policies worth their salt—arises under the pressure of an accumulation of events, criticisms, and racial demands that begin to be observed, with less prejudice and fear, in a checkered line of Cuban time and political space. Both elements accept and—finally—understand the causes, consequences and expectations of a socially shared strategy among the institutions, communities and people that address the Cuban space; racial and racialized problems—whether racist or not—that now come up, as an urgency, from the unconscious national political towards a space of visibility and possible resolutions.
I call this deployment, which is born under another name, “racial policy,” as it is announced and configured as a body of actions willing to publicly confront each other from communicative, academic, institutional and governmental exercises aimed at achieving a structural and cultural transformation of the racial situation in Cuba; whose critical relevance was officially rejected by the official discourse between 1962 and 1998.
During that long period, the political silencing on the issue crystallized, as it was considered a task resolved in the initial program of the Cuban Revolution, as well as a possible pretext for social fragmentation. Although racism inhibits its public expressions, it continued latent in the private space and in networks of professional sociability where white people were the majority, as well as in the interstices of the social mentality where it remained subtle, even friendly—but still exclusive—with jokes and hurtful classifications.
During that official silence, the anti-racist discourse survived outside the public space, while racial awareness took refuge within the family and in Afro-religious circles. Black people find, as before, few ways, also silent, to face official omission.
The implications of this silence and the refusal to accept the complexity and resistance of racial discrimination in Cuba have been addressed in the last 50 years by several authors who, inside and outside of Cuba, have described, celebrated and criticized our racial problems in a wide range of conceptual proposals. These proposals range from the thinking of Walterio Carbonell, Carlos Moore, Pedro Serviat, Jorge Ibarra, Rafael Fermoselle or Tomás Fernández Robaina, to the research done by Inés María Martiatu, Jesús Guanche, Alejandro de la Fuente, Esteban Morales, María del Carmen Zabala and Zuleyka Romay.
Nor can we ignore the dynamics that the issue reached among the “unauthorized” civil society of the 1990s, where a solid base of arguments and diverse proposals was built that was sedimented in community, artistic and intellectual practices within an early social activism in Cuba that derived, already in the first half of the 1990s, in an anti-racist movement of sustained and growing level of social and political convocation within Cuba.
This movement was very organically connected to prestigious anti-racist leaders and organizations quite active within social movements in Latin America. There, Cuban participation obtained space for understanding, training and epistemic solidarity, based on the analytical contribution of our realities by leaders, scholars and other members of what I identify, without great pretensions, as an anti-racist epistemic circle or community, acting within and outside the island, from diverse theoretical and political positions, whose cultural practices give body, voice and texts to the intense debate on racism in 21st century Cuba.
It also includes several non-Cuban authors who contribute with their academic, audiovisual and promotional work on the racial question in Cuba in ways as diverse as those of Agustín Lao Montes, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Chester King, to just give three examples. This circle or epistemic community managed, without much programmatic effort, to organize a series of actions, publications and events of a community, cultural and academic nature that managed to systematize the subject and place it on the agendas of political, academic institutions—governmental or not—inside and outside of Cuba.
Meanwhile, the ideological sphere of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), academic politics and intelligence organs show concern about the issue without recognizing the long duration of the racial conflict during the revolutionary period or the deformation of the emancipatory assumptions of the Revolution generated in the period of political silence that tried to dissolve the anti-racist criticism. If in the opposition political organizations it was difficult to find a broad presence and—much less—black leadership, already in the mid-1980s the monopoly of white people within the opposition was fractured, markedly racist or refusing to accept racial issues in previous decades.
The racial problem emerged during the diversification that took place in those years within the political opposition parties in Cuba, but this opposition racial reconfiguration was read in a too local key and prejudiced in the face of the growth of black opponents. Consequently, it was not seen within the scheme of imperial domination that, beyond the United States, offered other ideological outlets and discourses to the so-called “Cuban dissidence,” which ranged from social-democracy to the politics of identity and representation that, at the time, put representative democracy in crisis.1
Later, after the angry response to the black opponents, it was easy for the designers of the subversive policy against Cuba to insert them emphatically into their programs. The racial problem ended up being a longed-for justification incorporated into subversion; I say “longed for” because this imperial desire had not found an opportunity, not even through the disputed presence of African-American leaders, refugees in Cuba and considered criminals in the United States. Some of them have testified to their presence in Cuba as an ideological conflict in the face of the treatment, for them racist, that they suffered during their stay, and they denounce little possibilities of contacts with Cuban blacks, whom they criticize for their little racial awareness, along with other different racial views, but not opposed, which finally failed to be useful for the anyone’s emancipatory cause.
I will not dwell on the weight that U.S. policy has on Cuban domestic policy. I will deal with it in a future text for what the hidden chapter of the Afro-American exile could reveal about the terror of the Cuban government to a racial policy. It is an issue that the Afro-descendant left itself refuses to air, for reasons that cannot be clarified here; it would be necessary to inquire about the role of Cuba at the moment that it was closest to assuming a Pan-Africanist strategy aborted with Che’s death. I am only trying to explain why a racial policy in Cuba is not defined only based on the racial situation within the island, but based on global coordinates—scarcely considered—that are organically related within the Caribbean-United States-Africa triangle, where Pan-Africanism continues being one of the essential keys to understand and conceive a racial strategy from regional and global perspectives.
But all this geopolitical environment corresponds to a recent past where various and early criticisms of the racist heritage of the Revolution were dismissed—wielded by Juan René Betancourt, Sixto Gastón Agüero, Walterio Carbonell and Carlos Moore—which seemed to also discard the critical and self-critical perspective.
That early criticism had various ideological reasons, some of them hostile to the Revolution, but others truly respectful of the revolutionary perspective of those white middle-class men, capable of renouncing and criticizing themselves as a class, but not questioning their white privilege. Or did they mistakenly think of emancipating blacks and whites in the same way, despite their different pasts? The truth is that, when the narrow vision on the racial question decided to freeze the Cuban anti-racist tradition, instrumentalize its events, dates or important figures and disconnect us from Pan-Africanism, it also ended up simplifying the complex racial equation that the Revolution had come to enrich—more than to hinder—, as the decreeing of the end of racism finally turned out to be. The immediate consequence was to renounce a racial policy, among others that were, then, boldly designed.
The racial conflict in Cuba has historically been thought from a biased viewpoint, which superimposes marked interests of class, group, tendency or ideology over the historical needs of the black population, without respecting and incorporating their own demands and agendas, reducing it to class, gender or religion conflicts, without assuming the complexity of the racial in ideological, cultural and economic terms, not just political.
When any possibility of discussing the complexity of expectations, situation and knowledge of this group is closed, a social debate is lost that, starting from the racial, could illuminate issues such as diversity, representation or citizenry. The debate was closed at the same time as the doors of the Sociedades de Color and other black institutions that played a representative, identity or emancipatory role during the Republic. There was not even the institutional space that other groups of Spanish, Jewish, French, Arab or Asian descendants maintained and today re-emerge with evident autonomy, in the hands of another generation of descendants.
Not debating the specificity of the social disadvantages and inequalities suffered by the black population made it impossible to recognize the true difference between such inequalities and to try practical ways of solving them by listening to and involving those affected themselves. By denying this group the affirmative action enjoyed by others such as the farmers (for whom three Agrarian Reform laws were drawn up) or women, who were supported by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) with various emancipatory programs, blacks lost the emancipatory shortcut that the aforementioned groups had, whose current status illustrates the social use achieved by these affirmative measures, together with the universalist measures that favored the advancement of the whole of society. Today’s statistics show how, 60 years later, the most disadvantaged or absent—both in the rural sector and among women—are black people.
Realizing a historical void allows us to read said void not as an absence, but as an intervention on what has generated that void. Hence, a racial policy must be aware of the historical dispossession on which it works, of the effect generated by specific actions within the sector and of other social and economically transversal actions that generate other modes to be used for the advancement of this group.
The actors that intervene in the execution of this policy will be key, since they will define its conceptual and political design, will establish the objectives, priorities and scope, recognizing quantitative and qualitative, material and spiritual, ideological and economic conditions—some territorially located and others that are mainstreamed with multiple intentions and effects—through the synthesis of research carried out in recent decades. They will also take care of the establishment of the stages, methods and work teams, as well as creating the capacities, approaches and scientific and practical tools with which to measure the impacts, show achievements and delve into the new problems that will appear during the process.
It is worth highlighting the importance of the political and conceptual assumptions that base a racial policy. The theoretical model chosen by Cuba will define the depth, scope and social impact of such a policy, which could assume more than one model, combining diverse disciplines and methodologies, and taking into account the complexity of the racial problem. If we continue to assume the imprecise term of “vestiges” to identify the type of racism that must be faced, the lack of rigor and common sense will bury the emancipatory effort under a tombstone of suspicion and manipulation of the crudeness and complexity of a subject capable of reproducing and renewing itself, precisely, by that paternalistic, ahistorical and decontextualizing way that turned racism into the great ideological ghost of the Revolution.
On the other hand, if the theories of Fernando Ortiz continue to uncritically preside over the Cuban vision on the racial question, we will stumble upon ideas and concepts, dismissed in rigorous anthropological and sociological texts, such as “melting pot” or “miscegenation,” to just give two controversial examples, without renouncing the unquestionable contributions that the Ortiz legacy will continue to offer, along with other classical scholars on the subject.
I am not interested in limiting which theories or authors this involves, only suggesting the critical exercise faced by the theoretical and methodological vastness of this field to define the theoretical perspectives and the epistemological options that should guide the desired political strategy.
A racial policy in Cuba: for what and for whom?
It would be healthy for a racial policy to assume a participatory and collaborative concept of institutional, citizen and political actors and forces, exchanging information, actions and results from the same platform, without expecting a paradisiacal work environment, but rather one of understanding the complexities and tensions proper of a process of cultural and material transformation, which will also be a pedagogical space, of political construction, cultural creation and collective growth.
In any emancipatory political practice, it is necessary to permanently review the way of establishing its hegemony, handling differences and heterogeneity, usefully dialoguing and consciously incorporating everything that contributes to common success. This vision could generate a social model of responsible exchange between diverse actors—unusual in our reality—so that it will understand the level of criticism and resistance to this proposal, useless without the necessary political will.
I state that a racial public policy in Cuba is, above all, the result of non-governmental actions, positions, pressures, organizations and exercises that, in a fragmented, informal and emergent way—but diverse, growing and active—overflowed the frameworks of understanding and political permissibility of the Cuban State for more than a decade. These actions, although dispersed or lacking a centrality that imposes its interests and projections, are carried out in community, cultural, religious, digital, aesthetic, health, business, social organizations and many other avenues of citizen racial awareness generated and articulated, with a certain autonomy, as instances of racial micropolicies, multiplying their effect, need and social visibility in 21st century Cuba.
Add to this that, after the World Conference against Racism (Durban, 2001), international organizations have systematized the review of commitments, signatures and compliance of governments with the covenants and resolutions referring to racial discrimination within the framework of human rights, thereby exerting pressure on the signatory countries of international treaties and conventions, where Cuba participates, presents its achievements and difficulties, while receiving proposals and considerations, incorporating an international dynamic that, insufficiently addressed in the national press, expresses an international framework of legal obligations that imply the responsibility of the State in the face of its racial situation and the corresponding adaptation of public policies that express the responsibility contracted at those levels.
Nor will it be an overstrain to which the country’s authorities will dedicate themselves with all energy and resources as if it were the “Ten Million-Ton Harvest.” Quite the contrary, since the shortcomings of the Cuban reality are no more overwhelming than in other Latin American countries, where governmental racial policies and strategies, ministerial and territorial decrees have been established, along with affirmative action laws that have achieved social, political, legal, economic and cultural effects of a certain temporality and social impact, despite structural limitations, public and private institutions with long-standing and/or exclusive budgets, in the face of elitist walls and inevitable class and cultural resistance that accompany racism everywhere.
If in our social context there are not many of the structural problems that impede or make difficult the policies of social and racial equity in the continent, we think that this task will not be as overwhelming as it is thought, although it will be an effort of great sensitivity and complexities for which it will be necessary to train and gain awareness of the difficult problems that we must acknowledge and solve.
Anyone who has visited in recent years the museum complex dedicated to the rebel slave in Triunvirato, Matanzas, will have noticed how Nelson Mandela’s visit to Cuba, his speech and other absent meanings are reduce in the old foreman’s house, where the Cuban military footprint in Africa is exhibited in respectful synthesis, together with the list of those who fell there, also fighting against racism.
The poor and dilapidated exhibition dedicated to the true runaway slaves—which constitutes the cultural and emancipatory nucleus of the rebellions, wars and revolutions that have taken place until today in Cuba—indicates another greater absence that must also configure the bases of a consistent racial policy: the need for an epistemological setting, perhaps decolonial or otherwise, that recognizes, restores, and consolidates the values of anti-racism as a public exercise and thought.
Race is trending today, not only in the beauty products market and in the cultural industry. Also in the political market, where it was not necessary for the United Nations to declare an “International Decade of Afro-descendants,” hardly noticed in Cuba; rather, it was enough that the inaugural speech of the new American president spoke about systemic racism in the United States and invited a young African-American poet to read her verses for the prices of African turbans, clothes, books and authors to skyrocket on Amazon.
The old pains are capitalized on and some scars will be made up so that the accumulation of so much dispossession and mistreatment dissolves in websites, shows, speeches and other publicity performances, propaganda and politically correct claims on a frankly incorrect and uncomfortable subject such as racism.
This new imperial impulse will mark the codes of the international discourse on racism and will try to erase the great discussions that brought thousands of anti-racist leaders in September 2001 to Durban, South Africa. Those discussions that—particularly in Latin America—were crucial for the first world conference against racism, precisely where apartheid failed to vanquish a cause or a man like Nelson Mandela, who did not allow, during his presidency, to pay racists back in kind. It was not only due to his moral greatness, but to his profound vision of the future of humanity, a future without oppression, but neither do we have to victimize ourselves to achieve the justice and dignity that we are due.
Racial awareness and pride should not be the heritage only of blacks, as feminist thinking does not only correspond to women or the celebration of diversity should not be shared by minorities only. It is also about decolonizing social struggles and not fragmenting their libertarian meanings, rights and purposes after culturalist visions and other narrow approaches that diagnose complex realities, local and global interactions. These require intersectional and transversal proposals to our needs as human beings; capable of understanding politics as intervention assisted by various actors, responsible participation and the joy of sharing and reaping knowledge, hope and results, before tomorrow.
1 Many of those opponents today reside in Miami, a historically racist city that offers Cuban blacks a perception of racial harmony, despite the hostility suffered in that city by other blacks, American or Caribbean.