CubaBrief: Confronting Anti-Blackness in “Colorblind” Cuba. Banning speech that harms Cuba’s ‘prestige’ is the govt’s latest attempt to silence critics

Sapiens, a digital magazine focused on anthropology, has published an article on race relations in Cuba titled “Confronting Anti-Blackness in ‘Colorblind’ Cuba” by Elizabeth Obregón that alludes to pre-1959 Cuba’s multiracial history, but departs from it to discuss matters in the island today.

When Ms. Obregón states that ” Cuba’s national identity as a place of racial mixture and harmony has a long history,” it is worthwhile to revisit one of the more important figures.

Juan Gualberto Gómez, a founding father of a free and independent Cuba.

Juan Gualberto Gómez, a founding father of a free and independent Cuba.

Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer (July 12, 1854 – March 5, 1933), who together with José Martí conspired to revolt against Spain in the 1890s, 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. 

The wars of independence against Spain (1868-1878) and (1895-1898) were led by multiracial leadership and multiracial rebel armies that played an important role in forging Cuba’s national identity.

Standing, left to right: Manuel de la Cruz, Jose Maceo, Guillermo Moncada. Seated: Juan Gualberto Gomez, Jose Marti, Jose D. Poyo. Key West, Florida.

Standing, left to right: Manuel de la Cruz, Jose Maceo, Guillermo Moncada.
Seated: Juan Gualberto Gomez, Jose Marti, Jose D. Poyo. Key West, Florida.

Following independence on May 20, 1902 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.

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 dominance by most Cubans, regardless of their racial origins. 

Gómez Ferrer consistently campaigned to defend Black Cubans from discrimination, oppression, and violence. He wrote extensively until his death in 1933.

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.

Books were published about Juan Gualberto Gómez Ferrer in Cuba on the centenary of his birth in 1954 during the Batista dictatorship.

Much of this history was erased or radically distorted after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

Fidel Castro took credit for advances made by black Cubans during the pre-revolutionary era, and contrasted it with the “Jim Crow segregationist laws” that “were just starting to be dismantled in the U.S.” In 1962, Fidel Castro “claimed to have eradicated racism in Cuba.” The black led Central Directory of Societies of Color, had already been eliminated, along with the rest of independent civil society by then, and since the revolution had ended racism, per Fidel Castro, to question continuing racism was considered both counter-revolutionary and a criminal offense.

All dissent in Cuba was criminalized with crimes such as oral and written enemy propaganda being punishable by prison. The regime has updated these regulations repeatedly to tighten control. The Washington Post editorial board on August 20, 2021 described the latest round of restrictive laws.

On Aug. 17, the Cuban government published the text of Decree-Law 35, which declares from the outset that the telecommunications and digital pathways of Cuba must serve “as an instrument for the defense of the revolution” that Fidel Castro launched six decades ago. Also published were government resolutions that include an annex defining 17 categories of threats and levels of danger. The first one, listed as a “high” danger, is “dissemination of false news, offensive messages” and anything that would harm Cuba’s “prestige.” This category also forbids content that threatens “the constitutional, social and economic precepts of the State, incite mobilizations or other acts that alter public order.”

Anything that would harm the Cuban government’s “prestige” is a criminal offense, and it has been applied over the years against black activists who have spoken out against racism in Cuba, and continues to the present day.

Let us perform a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909, after 55 years of struggle and social advancement on race matters in the United States found itself disbanded after President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, declaring racism eradicated in the United States, and African Americans claiming that it still existed in America jailed for diminishing the “prestige” of the country.

This is what Fidel Castro did in 1962 with the Central Directory of Societies of Color, and black dissenters in Cuba. In dismantling and declaring illegal black civil society in Cuba the Castro regime ended the era of black advancement in Cuba, and ushered in a period in which black voices had to parrot the official party line or face imprisonment, exile or worse.

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.

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.

In the United States this is called evidence of systemic racism, but in Cuba to make the same claim over Twitter today is punishable, and back in 2013 for saying it in The New York Times got an official editor of a publishing house for the regime fired.

Sapiens, September 2, 2021

A man holds his grandson inside the doorway of a fruit and vegetable shop in Havana, Cuba. Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A man holds his grandson inside the doorway of a fruit and vegetable shop in Havana, Cuba. Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Identities

Confronting Anti-Blackness in “Colorblind” Cuba

In the 1960s, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Communist government claimed to have eradicated racism in Cuba. An anthropologist explores how racial hierarchies persist despite these official narratives, shaping family dynamics and significantly limiting opportunities for Afro-Cubans.

By Elizabeth Obregón 2 Sep 2021

I sat waiting for Yudell* to finish his shift at the paladar, or small-scale private restaurant, in the central Vedado neighborhood in Havana. I’d already interviewed a few of the workers there. As I bided my time at a corner table on the outdoor patio, two of the waiters began to tease Yudell, yelling across to me, “Don’t believe what he says! He will probably tell you that he is Negro because he is a racist!”

Yudell timidly looked at me across the patio and chuckled. Growing up Cuban American, I had been to Cuba on past occasions to visit family, but this time I was there to conduct ethnographic interviews on processes of racialization for my dissertation in anthropology. I knew from experience that I had to tread carefully when entering conversations about race in Cuba.

In Cuba, a place where the revolutionary Communist government has claimed to have eliminated racial inequality, directly speaking of race is more than taboo; it is counterrevolutionary.

When we sat down for our interview a little later, Yudell proudly described himself exactly as his co-workers had said he would: “I am Negro” (a Black man). We talked about the persistence of colorism in Cuba, a system of discrimination based on skin color. Yudell chose not to self-identify as a Mulato (a mixed-race person) or a Moro (a dark-skinned person with a thin nose and “good hair”), since he saw such taken-for-granted racialized categories as a way for individuals to distance themselves from Blackness.

People stand under a poster showing slogans of the revolution accompanied by an image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Elizabeth Obregón

People stand under a poster showing slogans of the revolution accompanied by an image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Elizabeth Obregón

Yudell’s self-identification, in other words, served as a form of protest in a society that perpetuates anti-Blackness while claiming to be “colorblind.”

Anthropologists point out that even though race has no biological or genetic basis, racialized identities are socially real. In Cuban society, even though people may claim not to see color, in practice through ranking and valuing an intricate combination of skin tones, hair textures, nose shapes, eye colors, and so on, they produce and maintain dozens of informal racialized identities.

The myth of racial equality in Cuba has become even more untenable recently. This summer, Cubans have taken to the streets in major cities all over the island to demand liberty and denounce economic hardships exacerbated by the pandemic. Afro-Cubans, who have been less likely to benefit from the reforms that have reshaped the Cuban economy since the 1990s, have largely spearheaded these demonstrations. To say these protests are rare is an understatement; in Cuba, where merely criticizing the government can land people in prison, the last large-scale protest occurred in 1994.

Yet, even in the recent protests, explicit discussions of race are noticeably absent from most calls to action. Meanwhile, in Cuban family settings, the focus of my research, race is often openly discussed, but racial inequality is not.

So, why does racial inequality remain so difficult to name in Cuba?

Part of the answer lies in nationalist notions of mestizaje, or racial mixture, that make racial inequality difficult to discuss throughout Latin America generally. In Cuba, the narrative goes, everyone can trace their roots to a mixture of African and Spanish blood. To be Cuban is to be Mestizo (racially mixed).

Cuba’s national identity as a place of racial mixture and harmony has a long history, but these ideas were reshaped and came to be closely tied to the state’s revolutionary communist politics after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Fidel Castro and his government championed social and racial justice in the 1960s, during a time when Jim Crow segregationist laws were just starting to be dismantled in the U.S. By 1962—two years before the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act—Castro claimed to have eradicated racism in Cuba.

Castro exploited ongoing racial tensions by denouncing the “race problem” in the U.S. and inviting African Americans to visit revolutionary Cuba. This narrative of international Black solidarity became even more pronounced during Cuba’s involvement throughout the 1970s and ’80s in anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggles on the African continent, including Angola’s War of Independence and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Tellingly, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, one of his first trips was to Cuba, where he met with Castro to thank him for being “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”

But Cuba’s international fight for racial justice masked the continued inequality on the island. Since the revolution had supposedly eradicated racism, discussions of racial inequality were deemed divisive. Castro’s government dismantled race-based organizations and clubs—including clubs where Afro-Cubans had historically gathered to network and advocate for their communities.

This façade of racial harmony would soon come undone after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, when Cuba entered an economic crisis known as “El período especial en tiempos de paz” (special period in times of peace). In response to the economic crisis, Cuba welcomed mass tourism and introduced a small private sector largely funded through remittances sent by family members abroad.

These changes have reshaped economic relations on the island and revealed the stark racial disparities that had never really gone away.

Today racial hierarchies persist in daily life. But individuals who speak out about racial inequality may be socially policed—as Yudell was—or face more serious consequences.

In the tourism sector, job ads often use racially codified language, such as: “Seeking employees with buena presencia.” As everyone in Cuba knows, “good presence” refers to those with whiter skin tones and straight hair. These requirements limit access to tourism jobs for people with darker skin tones and reinforce the constructed superiority of Whiteness.

But it’s at home where most Cubans first learn of racial discourses and hierarchies—and their place within them.

Cuban families are incredibly racially heterogeneous, and even biological siblings may be racialized differently from one another and their parents. Family members commonly compare and constrast physical features, such as distinguishing between pelo malo (“bad hair,” referring to coarse, curly, or kinky hair) and pelo bueno (“good hair,” referring to straight and fine hair).

For some people, this means hearing denigrating comments about their appearance from their own immediate family members. Some may even internalize racial hierarchies.

This was true for Alina, one of my interviewees, who was born in Guantanamo in the early 1960s. One of eight siblings, Alina told me confidently that she happened to “get the pelo bueno.” The rest of her siblings, she said, were Mulato Jabao—a term that refers to people with stereotypically White, European features but with visible African ancestry. They had “greenish-bluish eyes,” Alina said, but then gestured disapprovingly to show they had “bad hair.”

Alina was not only proud of her “good” hair and light eyes, she considered herself one of the “White” siblings—and separated herself from the others whose darker skin made them Mulato.

As we spoke, however, I couldn’t help but notice the eye rolls and scoffs from those who were within earshot. Later they informed me that Alina, too, would be considered a Jabá (the feminine form of Jabao).

Families invested in ideas of social and racial mobility may even encourage children to find partners with lighter skin tones to “adelantar la raza” (literally translated as “improve the race”). These practices resonate with earlier policies of blanqueamiento, or biologically “whitening” the population, which gained pseudoscientific legitimacy in Cuba and elsewhere during the eugenics movement of the 20th century. These ideas led the Cuban government to encourage European immigration and heavily restrict non-White immigration in the early 1900s.

Today ideas of blanqueamiento get promoted informally through off-color remarks. If a family member dates someone with darker skin, for instance, a parent might say, “You don’t want children with bad hair, do you?!” Or, according to one of my interviewees, family members who have lighter skin than their siblings might be described as having “advanced more than the others.”

These offensive comments are not passive or harmless. They inform understandings of race, shape social interactions, and influence family decisions. Learned examples of anti-Blackness that get perpetuated in intimate settings help support longstanding and unjust systemic inequalities.

Though racial hierarchy remains entrenched in Cuba, some academics and activists on the island are pushing for change.

Within the last year, even before the most recent protests in July, Cuba has witnessed a string of small-scale demonstrations fighting for freedom of artistic expression and sometimes highlighting the disproportionate struggles faced by Afro-Cubans. In February, for example, the song “Patria y vida,” written and performed by Afro-Cuban artists on the island and abroad, became the latest anthem of resistance. Some have interpreted the song as a call for racial justice.

In parallel, a relatively small group of academics have been actively calling on the state to formally address continued racial discrimination and allow Afro-Cuban history to be taught in schools. The activist group Comité ciudadanos por la integración racial (CIR; Citizens for Racial Integration Committee) has made similar calls. However, the state has responded by repeatedly detaining CIR members and attempting to discredit the organization.

My ethnographic work, echoing scholars of Latin America and elsewhere, suggests that those of us fighting for racial justice in Cuba should not forget to challenge more intimate settings as well. Anti-Black biases filter through family narratives and help maintain racial hierarchies across generations—contributing to the persistence of inequalities.

Looking more closely at how families talk about race can help dispel Cuba’s official narrative as a colorblind “racial democracy,” where all races are treated equally. 

* All names of interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.

https://www.sapiens.org/culture/anti-blackness-cuba/

In case you missed it.

The Washington Post, August 20, 2021

Banning speech that harms Cuba’s ‘prestige’ is the government’s latest attempt to silence its critics

People shout slogans against the government during a protest in Havana on July 11. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

People shout slogans against the government during a protest in Havana on July 11. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Opinion by the Editorial Board

When protests broke out July 11 on the streets of Cuba, the spark was a Facebook video showing a demonstration in one town. The protests stemmed from pent-up anger over electricity blackouts, food shortages, political repression and a crippling wave of covid-19 that has overwhelmed hospitals. Now comes the dictatorship’s answer: making it a crime to hurt the “prestige” of the country on social media.

On Aug. 17, the Cuban government published the text of Decree-Law 35, which declares from the outset that the telecommunications and digital pathways of Cuba must serve “as an instrument for the defense of the revolution” that Fidel Castro launched six decades ago. Also published were government resolutions that include an annex defining 17 categories of threats and levels of danger. The first one, listed as a “high” danger, is “dissemination of false news, offensive messages” and anything that would harm Cuba’s “prestige.” This category also forbids content that threatens “the constitutional, social and economic precepts of the State, incite mobilizations or other acts that alter public order.”

The broad categories leave room for arbitrary prosecution of anyone who voices criticism online, and the July 11 video is clearly the kind of content the new law intends to criminalize. The penalties aren’t described, nor is it clear yet how the law will be implemented, but it was surely no accident that the new law comes at a time when the United States is considering ways to broaden Internet access to people on the island.

The government also has tools that it has often used — including in recent days — to disrupt Facebook videos and other social media in real time.

But some will not be silenced. Journalist Yoani Sánchez, a pioneering blogger and outspoken critic of the regime, wrote on Twitter, “No repressive regulations are going to make me shut up on social media.” Meanwhile, Cuban doctors and other health-care workers are in revolt — and online. They were infuriated by a comment from the prime minister, Manuel Marrero, who accused health workers in Cienfuegos of “neglect” in the battle against the pandemic, which has taken a devastating toll in recent weeks, with hospitals overwhelmed and medicine and oxygen in short supply. In two separate online videos, doctors and other health workers struck back. “Our patients need help,” warned a resident, Julio C. Hernández. Will the voice of these doctors, pride of the revolution, now be squelched?

Since the protests, hundreds of people have been detained and investigated for participating. Among them is José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, one of the most widely known opposition figures. A court last week decided that Ferrer must serve a four-year sentence for a previous conviction on a charge — which he denied — of assault. He had been serving under house arrest.

A single day of free speech on the streets, July 11, seems to have thrown the regime into a frenzy of repression, confronting dissent everywhere, online and in the streets. In so doing, the successors to Castro, who died in 2016, should ask themselves: Why are people so desperate? Why are they so determined to continue speaking up?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/20/banning-speech-that-harms-cubas-prestige-is-governments-latest-attempt-silence-its-critics/