In Cuba, to acknowledge one’s racial origin and history is considered taboo, and, in many cases censored—an after-effect of former President Fidel Castro declaring post-Revolution Cuba free of racism. However, for some artists and activists, living in this post-race society has served as the ultimate form of censorship.
“To me, Cuba is very, very racist, one of the most racist countries in the world,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, 30, a contemporary artist and activist, referring to the lack of freedom of expression given to Cuban citizens in denouncing the de facto racism that still exists in the country.
Alcántara, a prominent member of Cuba’s growing artist-activist community, creates visual and performance art with the help of art curator, Yanelys Núñez Leyva, 28. Their art addresses social issues in Cuba such as racism, homophobia, the right to free speech, and gender violence.
For them, art functions as a form of conversation between the people and the politics that affect them, often transcending historical lines to address past topics and policy changes made throughout Castro’s regime. One policy change that is often discussed in present day is Castro’s condemnation of racism and subsequent efforts to eradicate it on the island.
On March 23, 1959, in a speech at the Havana Labor Rally, Castro condemned racial discrimination, and vowed equality for all in the workforce. A vow that he upheld by creating anti-discrimination laws for both the workplace and schools, launching a yearlong literacy program (Campaña de Alfabetización) that reduced illiteracy rates among all Cubans from 20 percent to 3.9 percent.
From 1979 to 2003, Castro also worked to increase the amount of Afro-Cubans in government positions from 12.9 percent to 25.8 percent. In 1979, there were only 4 Afro-Cuban members on El Consejo de Estado (the State Council), and by 2003 Afro-Cuban membership on the Council consisted of 8 individuals. Nevertheless, this number has remained relatively stagnant in comparison to the approximately 70 percent white civil and public leadership, according to a 2007 report by economist Dr. Esteban Morales Dominguez. Currently, 5 Afro-Cuban members sit on the 31-member Council.
“Blackness is expressed artistically, but not politically in Cuba,” said Elias (who asked that his last name not be used), overseer of Callejón de Hamel, one of the first spaces in Havana, Cuba, dedicated to Afro-descendants and Afro-religion.
The Yoruba-based religion, Santería, is embraced wholeheartedly throughout the island, with Callejón de Hamel hosting a festival dedicated to rumba and the orishas (the gods and goddesses of Santeria) every Sunday. This event brings in both tourist and citizens alike to learn about Santería’s origin and partake in rumba, a dance with African roots. Casa de África (Africa House), a small and independent museum located in the heart of Old Havana, showcases art from the continent of Africa as well as hosts weekly workshops on Cuba´s African heritage and culture.
“Many Cubans know the importance of the Afro-Cuban tradition because part of the religion that exists in Cuba in this moment is the Afro-Cuban religion [Santería],” said Ernesto Moricette Pichardo, 22, a Cuban of Haitian descent. In fact, visitors to the island can easily find artifacts paying homage to the gods and goddesses in restaurants, stores, and in the homes of some Cubans.
Throughout Cuba there are monuments dedicated to prominent civil rights figures and Cubans of color, such as Antonio Maceo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. In Vedado, the Fernando Ortiz Foundation is dedicated to providing citizens and visitors with information about Cuban ethnology and racial discourse.
Despite the celebrations honoring Cuba’s ties to Africa, Afro-Cuban religion, monuments dedicated to prominent civil rights figures in both Cuba and America, and the election of their first Black parliamentarian president, Esteban Lazo Hernández, in 2013, Cubans of color still feel that they are misrepresented and do not have a space to either organize or express themselves.
Two years into Fidel Castro’s regime, he announced at the Meeting of Confederation of Cuban Workers that the Revolution had effectively eliminated racism from Cuba—thus, making any mention of racism, or discrimination, in the country counterrevolutionary, and punishable by law. “When you have 300, 400 years of racism in Cuba, a system of racial discrimination… in two years, it is very difficult to say there isn’t any [racism]. I believe that there was an advance [toward] something better in 5 to 10 years, but when you make it a fact that you can’t talk about racism in Cuba the problem remains for 60 years like an atomic bomb,” Alcántara explained.
Art is one of the ways that Cubans have begun to express their concerns about racism and discrimination in the country, despite, in recent years, a more intense government crackdown on artists and activists.
In November 2017, both Alcántara and Leyva were detained by Cuban officials for having construction materials and were questioned about their upcoming involvement with #00Bienal de La Habana, an alternative artistic and cultural event to Cuba’s official Bienal XIII, which was postponed to 2019 due to budget constraints from the effects of Hurricane Irma.
Also in November 2017, a music video by rapper El Individuo, Rafael Bon Lemus, titled, “Mi Raza”, was censored by Cuban television for addressing racial themes and promoting awareness amongst Afro-descendants.
For many Black and mixed-race (mulatto or mestizo) Cubans, racism is still prevalent in their lives through the economic constraints of the country’s two currency system. Those receiving remittances, usually white or lighter-skinned Cubans, coming from outside of the country, and Cubans who are able to work in the tourist industry benefit the most from this system. A 2004 study spearheaded by economist Angela Ferriol reported that Black and mulatto Cubans made up almost half of the lowest income bracket, while also representing approximately 94 percent of the state sector. The study also found that only 8 percent of this community received remittances, and none of them reported receiving hard-currency tips or salary.
The lack of Black or mulatto Cubans whose income derives from tips in the tourism sector appears to stem from racially-based hiring practices, as reported in a 2001 study by Harvard Professor Alejandro de la Fuente. He stated that it was possible businesses tended not to hire darker-skinned Cubans, instead seeking out those with a “pleasant aspect"—or lighter skin.
These hiring practices have been internalized by some Afro-Cubans. Independent studies conducted in 2017 by the Comité Ciudadanos por la Integración Racial (CIR), a civil rights organization in Cuba, show that when surveyed on their opinions of who would be better suited for certain jobs, a group of 70 Black and mestizo women believed that hard labor and janitorial roles were better suited for Black women. The results from the survey further stated that white and lighter-skinned Afro-Cuban women belong in roles geared towards hospitality and tourism.
“In Cuba, there isn’t a movement for Black thought. It doesn’t exist,” Alcántara said. He, along with other Cubans of color, acknowledge that the lack of Black pride in Cuba is related to Cuba’s cultural structure of associating Blackness with something that is ugly and undesirable. There is some desire in Cuba, as well as in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, to “adelantar la raza” or whiten the race.
He added: “When I can say that I am Black, publicly, in an official newspaper… that is the first step of change.”
(This story was updated on March 4, 2018, to include additional data.)