CubaBrief: “From the Castros to COVID”, An ASCE Virtual Conference and the keynote lecture on Racism with Equality in Cuba

Today at the featured event of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, the Carlos Diaz Alejandro Lecture was given by Professor Alejandro de la Fuente, Harvard University, who spoke on “Racism with Equality? Measuring Racial Inequality in Cuba, 1980-2010.” Professor Carlos Seiglie, of Rutgers University, moderated the lecture. Professor Tanya K. Hernandez, of Fordham University Law School, discussed Fuentes’s lecture. Questions were also taken from the online audience.

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Professor de la Fuente during his presentation exposed profound racial disparities in present day Cuba that cannot be blamed on “remnants” of the bourgeois past. He pointed out observations that he also made in The New York Times in the May 28, 2019 Oped “How Did Seeking ‘Strong Men of Color’ Ever Become Acceptable in Cuba?” in which he revealed patterns of institutional racism in the Cuban revolution:

“A common scene plays out in Havana: four female Spanish tourists arrive at one of the city’s many nightclubs in the company of two Afro-Cuban men. “You’re in, but they’re not,” the bouncer tells them. “The house reserves the right of admission.” The tourists protest, citing such practices as those of “a racist country,” but in the end their companions are denied entry. They’ll have to try their luck elsewhere. Cuba’s social policies benefited most of the population, regardless of color, but it’s clear they did not succeed in putting an end to racism.

The club’s bouncer, Yúnior, is also black. He is a prime example of the contradictions and racialized tensions that characterize contemporary Cuban society. After completing his studies in accounting and finance at the University of Havana, he secured a teaching position at the university. But his salary, equal to about $20 a month, wasn’t enough to survive on. So he went to work in the private service sector where his physical attributes — especially those society attributes to his skin color — were more valuable than his education. Blackness is equated with brute force. Accounting and finance are for white people.

Private employment practices are openly racist (and sexist), as illustrated by the advertisement through which he found his job: ‘Seeking qualified experienced personnel: wait staff (good looking blonde or brunette women, who speak foreign languages) and security and protection (strong men of color).’

Afro-Cubans make up at least 36 percent of the country’s population, according to the 2012 census. Yúnior’s experience proves that they are able to find jobs in the declining public sector that require advanced training, and that historically implied a certain social recognition. But those salaries are unsustainable.”

Racist attitudes persist in Cuba under the Castros and this is reflected in rates of interracial marriage being lower in Cuba than in Brazil that has a much higher level of inequality than the Caribbean island, and has not undergone a communist revolution.

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On the economic front the glaring differences between black and white Cubans are shocking with 95% of Afro-Cubans having the lowest incomes compared to 58% of white Cubans.

“A private sector, which generates the best-paid jobs on the island, has flourished since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But Afro-Cubans have faced mounting racism and been excluded from these opportunities. The argument is that to work in the service sector, one must have a “good presence,” a quality supposedly incompatible with melanin.

A recent report found that while 58 percent of white Cubans have incomes under $3,000, among Afro-Cubans that proportion is as much as 95 percent. Afro-Cubans, moreover, receive a very limited portion of the family remittances from the Cuban-American community in South Florida, which is mostly white. There are two conflicting national visions within Cuba, but only one vision is white and has access to dollars.”

Departing from the ASCE presentation it is worth briefly exploring slavery and racism during the colonial period and the first years of the Republic.

The Castro regime has attempted to portray the pre-existing political system as responsible for the racism that continues to the present day.  Cuba’s colonial history that stretched over four centuries of Spanish rule and slavery is a terrible legacy. However, Cuba’s racial legacy was different to what emerged in the United States. Yucatan Times on July 26, 2020 published an excerpt of their new book, To be free, to be black- Race, Freedom and Law in Cuba, Louisiana and Virginia, by Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross that explored these differences.

The association between whiteness and citizenship, so crucial to the ideology of white supremacy and white democracy in the United States, did not hold in Cuba. A free person of color in Cuba could be a holder of rights, participate in public life, and enter into an interracial marriage; in the run-up to the Civil War, a person of color in Virginia or Louisiana could do none of this. Legal traditions, the actions of the enslaved, imperial institutions, politics, and the ups and downs of history shaped widely divergent trajectories.

Ironically, the strong Iberian legal legacy on slavery had opposite and unexpected effects in the New World. The colonizers arrived in Cuba with a body of legal and institutional precedents that already constituted blacks as socially abject subjects. At the same time, manumission [giving freedom to a slave] was a well-established practice in Mediterranean Spain, applied to individuals of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. The Iberian peninsula’s legal traditions contributed to the fact that racial differences were introduced into the law more quickly in Cuba than in other jurisdictions. They also helped to install the practice of manumission and the self-purchase of freedom, institutions that functioned independently of the race (…)

(…) The initiatives of the slaves themselves proved to be equally important in the course of history. In all three jurisdictions, the enslaved made use of legal reforms that were not intended to benefit them but enabled them to open up spaces for themselves and gain greater freedom. They filed lawsuits to achieve their liberty using laws with other motivations; exchanged information with other people of color, sometimes separated by vast distances; worked and gathered goods to buy their freedom and the freedom of others; and demanded additional rights after paying part of the purchase price for their freedom. In Cuba, slaves, freemen, and alibis [those who bought their freedom] transformed the customary practice of coercion into a right that was eventually enshrined in legislation. Similar efforts by people of color in Virginia and Louisiana did not prosper in the same way.

In this process, the size of the community of free people of color appears to have been vital. Many slaves who bought their freedom did so with the economic support and legal backing of free black relatives and neighbors. The larger the community, the higher the chances of achieving independence. Residential communities of free Blacks were also safe havens for runaway slaves and critical spaces for disseminating important freedom-related information, from the sharing of the details of lawyers who could assist in freedom trials to the sharing of news about the actions of abolitionists (…)

Afro Cubans played a leading role in Cuban independence, and especially in the Second war of Cuban Independence (1895 – 1898). Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer (July 12, 1854 – March 5, 1933) who together with José Martí conspired to revolt against Spain, also played an important role in empowering Afro Cubans. 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.

Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer

Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer

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

Martín Morúa Delgado (1856-1910) was a contemporary figure to Juan Gualberto.

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 while 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 embraced 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 workplace in 1950.

The arrival of the Castro regime in 1959 led to the end of all independent Cuban civil society, and this included the mutual aid associations that had been founded prior to the establishment of the Republic in 1892.

How far would have African Americans in the United States have progressed if the NAACP, and other civil society organizations had been abolished in the 1950s and that black Americans had to rely on a white savior to end racism in America? This is what happened in Cuba with Fidel Castro.

Black dissidents who denounced racism in Cuba, and advocated for democracy received worse punishment for not being grateful to Fidel and Raul Castro and all the revolution had done for them. One of these leaders, Manuel Cuesta Morúa ( born 1962 ), a Cuban dissident, is a descendant of 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, who has spoken at international gatherings, and carried out campaigns in Cuba to empower Cubans in the island.

Manuel Cuesta Morúa

Manuel Cuesta Morúa

On October 30, 2009 Brazilian scholar and civil rights pioneer Abdias Nascimento of the Brazilian Black Front issued an open letter to the Cuban government calling the dictatorship out for a “clear case of political intimidation against those, in Cuba, who raise their voices in protest against racism, discriminatory practices, and all kinds of intimidations meted out to citizens who dare call for the establishment, in their country, of a State that is respectful of Civil Rights, of the right of citizens to freely congregate and form organizations and to freely demonstrate their opposition to discriminatory practices of which they feel they are a target for one reason or another.”

Today the inner circle of power in Cuba is all white and male, and their high profile victims in recent weeks have been black Cubans.

Tomorrow is the last day of “From the Castros to COVID: An ASCE Virtual Conference“. There is still time to register, and for those interested in viewing these presentations, after the fact, they will be made available to ASCE members. Below is the agenda for the day.

August 15, 2020

10.30 am –Noon   5. Roundtable on Currency Developments

Chair:  Joaquín Pujol, International Monetary Fund (retired)

Experts: Roberto Orro, Caribbean Analysis Unit, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Pavel Vidal,Universidad Javeriana de Cali, Colombia

Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, Centro Cristiano de Reflexión y Diálogo, La Habana

Rafael Romeu, DevTech Systems

Lorenzo Pérez, International Monetary Fund (retired)

2.30 pm –4 pm     6. Student Panel

Chair: Mario González-Corzo, Lehman College, CUNY

Adriana Vitagliano, Oxford University, “Remittances and Protest: The Case of Cuba.”

Denisse Delgado, University of Massachusetts, “The Cuban Diaspora’s Participation in the Economic and Political Changes on the Island.”

Isabelle DeSisto, Harvard University, “Atoms for Autonomy: Explaining the Cuban Reaction to the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident.”

Discussants: Enrique Pumar, Santa Clara University

Michael Strauss, Center for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies (Paris)

4.00 pm –4.30 pm  CLOSING REMARKS

ASCE President (2020-2022) Gary Maybarduk, U.S. Department of State (retired)