CubaBrief: The New York Times Recognizes Systemic Racism in the Castro Regime but Leaves Some Important History Out

The New York Times on Saturday published an opinion piece by French journalist and essayist Jean François Fogel that reports that Cuba under the Castro dictatorship is “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.”  

However Fogel fails to give an accurate representation of what came before the Castro revolution, and ignores the protagonism of black Cubans in the struggle for independence, and in Cuba’s Republic. While the journalist cites the 1912 massacre of nearly “3,000 Afro-Cubans, many of whom had fought in the independence wars against Spain.”  He fails to mention the prominent role of Black Cuban political leaders in achieving independence, their leadership in the Republic, and their opposition to race based political parties that inadvertently led to the 1912 massacre. For the sake of brevity will highlight two leaders that had a role in independence and the first decades of the Republic, one who was active in the 1950s, and a present day activist.

Juan Gualberto Gómez

Juan Gualberto Gómez

Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer (July 12, 1854 – March 5, 1933) who together with José Martí conspired to revolt against Spain. In 1892 he founded the Central Directory of Societies of Color, a network that would spend the next sixty seven years pushing for Black advancement in Cuba.  Gómez Ferrer was captured on February 28, 1895 and imprisoned by the Spanish for three years. Upon his release he went to New York and continued the struggle for Cuban independence from exile. “In December 1898, he accompanied Major General Calixto García to Washington, D.C. as a member of the commission sent to negotiate for the funds necessary for the Cuban Liberation Army and recognition of the rebels.”  In 1900 he was elected to represent Oriente in the Constituent Assembly. Following independence Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer  was deeply critical of “the Platt Amendment” stating that it had “reduced the independence and sovereignty of the Cuban Republic to a myth.” He held seats in the Cuban House of Representatives (1914–1917) and Senate (1917–1925), representing the province of Havana.  Gómez Ferrer consistently campaigned to defend Black Cubans from discrimination, oppression, and violence. He wrote extensively, and books about him were published in Cuba on the centenary of his birth in 1954.

Martín Morúa Delgado

Martín Morúa Delgado

contemporary figure to Juan Gualberto was Martín Morúa Delgado (1856-1910). He published newspapers, magazines, and novels that opposed slavery and racism while advocating integration and independence for Cuba from Spanish rule. Morúa Delgado was Cuba’s first black Senator following Cuba’s independence from Spain while still under U.S. occupation in 1901. He would go on to be Cuba’s first black Senate President in 1909, and passed away in 1910 in the position of Minister of Agriculture. 

Cubanidad, the ideology of a Cuban identity that transcends races, was first put forward by Jose Marti in the independence struggle, would continue in the Republic, and by the 1930s embracing African culture as intrinsically part of Cuban identity was seen as a way to resist American imperialism by most Cubans, regardless of their racial origins. 

In the 1940s concrete successes were finally seen by many Cuban blacks on the political front. The network of mutual aid associations that Juan Gualberto Gómez had established in 1892 and their constituent parts would play an important role in obtaining anti-discrimination planks in the 1940 Constitution, and additional reforms against racism in the workplacce in 1950.

None of this is hinted at by  François Fogel in his opinion piece in The New York Times, or is there any mention made of Cuba’s most notorious non-white leader.

Unlike Fidel Castro, Fulgencio Batista had been elected president of Cuba in free and competitive elections in 1940. He served out his presidential term from 1940 through 1944. President Batista had been discriminated against and denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club on account of his being of mixed race, despite being President of Cuba at the time. He left Cuba in 1944 and returned in 1948 when he was elected to the Cuban Senate, and in 1952 staged a coup that returned him to power as dictator. This opened the way to Fidel Castro’s violent take over in 1959. Nevertheless, a non-white president had been elected to hold real political power in 1940 by a free people. Nevertheless, challenges persisted in race relations leading to more radical solutions being proposed.

A more radical critique of how to confront racial problems in Cuba would be made by Juan René Betancourt. Betancourt was a lawyer by profession and member of the Sociedad “Victoria” in Camaguey and cultural secretary of the Provincial Federation of Black Societies of Camaguey. He was politically active from 1940 through 1959 and pushed for black consciousness and economic uplift through black solidarity and pushed for a more radical approach.  Like many, he initially joined the 1959 revolution, but quickly became disenchanted and critical with the communist takeover in Cuba.

Black civil society, that had played an important role in empowering black Cubans over the first six decades of the 20th century, was systematically dismantled by the Castro regime. This was a disaster for black empowerment in Cuba. Today, the results can be seen in the numbers presented by Jean François Fogel. However, Cuba watchers should be aware that this legacy has not been completely disappeared, but is to be found among those hounded and persecuted by the Castro dictatorship.

Juan René Betancourt

Juan René Betancourt

In exile Juan René Betancourt would criticize Cuban exile for not having a political vision that included black empowerment, but he did cite one exception, and that was the Cuban Christian Democrats. Their ideological descendants in Cuba today are the Christian Liberation Movement.

Furthermore, black leadership would continue to advocate for freedom in Cuba. Manuel Cuesta Morúa ( born 1962 ), a Cuban dissident leader, claims ancestry from Martín Morúa Delgado, on his mother’s side, Mercedes Morúa.  He is part of the movement seeking a restoration of democracy and human rights in Cuba, has spoken at international gatherings, and carried out campaigns to empower Cubans in the island.

Manuel Cuesta Morúa

Manuel Cuesta Morúa

These individuals outlined above are not puppets put into power by a dictator, as is the case of Miguel Díaz-Canel, and others identified by Fogelin in his opinion piece, but free individuals that sought and are seeking a Cuba where black Cubans are full citizens with equal rights and opportunities along with their fellow country men and women of different races. 

The legacy of Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer and José Martí lives on in the democratic opposition in Cuba, and the Cuban diaspora around the world.

The New York Times, January 25, 2020


Ending Systemic Racism Is the Revolution Cuba Needs

Afro-Cubans have long been pushed to the margins. The leaders of the post-Castro era must work to change the course of history.

By Jean François Fogel
Jean-François Fogel is a journalist and essayist.

Jan. 25, 2020

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

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

PARIS — 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 centuries 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 six decades 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.