Cuban raciality up for discussion

In Cuba, the metaphor of the revolutionary utopia presumed that, with the mass creation of social equity programmes, racism and racial discrimination would disappear spontaneously. Unfortunately, the irruption of the 21st century has rapidly demonstrated that the epistemology of racism does not disappear in a natural manner because its historic incidence in the cultural thinking requires a mechanism of specific dismantling endorsed by a production of knowledge that is not always visible or accessible to those who, from social activism, do the most to organise antiracist proposals.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños_IPS

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has awoken multiple interests about diverse subjects regarding Cuban society. In that context, raciality seems destined to take up the media’s attention, especially outside the island.

For the national press the issue seems to maintain the historical suspicion, while other subjects like the economic opening, different exchanges – including the cultural – are taking up prioritised spaces. The silence on the issue of raciality perhaps has logic, since it is not a matter that is still on the Cuban national agenda.


The risk, however, is that the lack of an appropriate treatment in Cuban publications, supplemented with those made abroad,does not always represent the reflection of reality, at times despite the good intentions. Another variable is that, on occasions, the analysis is concentrated on persons or groups that do not sympathise with the Cuban revolution and the void in raciality provides them with an ideal space to emphasise the criticisms. At times, from Miami, they maintain the traditional focus that denies the existence of racism or there are those who take advantage of the presence of racial concerns to try to discredit the Cuban State and society. It would be necessary to repeat once again that racism and racial discrimination, unfortunately, form part of the planet’s current conflicts.


In the United States, some persons with certain naivety presumed that the arrival to the White House of an Afro-descendant figure, on its own, could mean the end of racism in U.S. society. Regrettably, the most recent events have taken care of showing the presence of a police violence that seems to focus above all on Afro-American youth;a conflict in which the culprits, like in remote times, are exonerated of serious crimes like murders in public view.raza-negra-mujer


In Cuba, the metaphor of the revolutionary utopia presumed that, with the mass creation of social equity programmes, racism and racial discrimination would disappear spontaneously. Indeed, in the first decades, after the revolution in 1959, it seemed that racial discrimination would really be dismantled based on policies of inclusion, with the incorporation of millions of Afro-descendant women and men to study and work. Many examples demonstrate their presence in sectors like education, public health, sciences, culture, sports and others.


Unfortunately, the irruption of the 21st century has rapidly demonstrated that the epistemology of racism does not disappear in a natural manner, because its historic incidence in the cultural thinking requires a mechanism of specific dismantling endorsed by a production of knowledge that is not always valid nor accessible to those who, from social activism, do the most to organise antiracist proposals.


In this sense, it seems that for the antiracist social movements the struggle for racial equality will not be an easy task, even in nations with programmes that promote a greater social equity. Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean still drag the negation of racism based on the cultural model of the Hispanic world, whose pretext for the mixed race says that we are all equal, though racialised inequalities account for poverty and discrimination in large sectors of the Afro-descendant population. Apropos, this space provides the opportunity of bringing up the controversy about this terminology.


Why Afro-descendants?


In recent times it is possible to observe the advance of an agenda that defines the impact of racial discrimination in Cuba as an urgent matter which the revolution will have to assume as part of its historic proposal of social equity. Some voices that are more concentrated in the terminology of Afro-descendant than in the conflict of racial inequalities associated to racial discrimination are appearing in this favourable scenario. It is a view that has prevailed throughout time, with different nuances, despite Fidel Castro’s call in 1959 to combat that social injustice.


It is clear that the issue of raciality is one of extreme complexity, not just for Cuba but also for Latin American and Caribbean societies;in the first place, because of the impact of the slave regimen on the population of African origin and their descendants. Later, because of the way in which the republics conceived in an excluding manner the citizen participation of native peoples and Afro-descendants.raza-negra1


While the arrival of the revolution dismantled the most exacerbated forms of racial discrimination, it did not go into depth about certain specificities that would enable a much more profound and sustained racial inclusion. Actually, this is also a generalised challenge for the rest of the continent’s countries, which neither have been able to dismantle the different manifestations of racism.


Cuba’s current challenge would thus be to transform the social inequalities associated to racial discrimination, precisely based on its institutional stability and structural advances in decisive areas of Cuban society. That endeavour would mean breaking away from the historic myth according to which to publicly analyse the historic and current causes of racial discrimination would weaken national unity, when actually making raciality visible would make it possible to consolidate more the work of the revolution.


Cuban society has given irrefutable proof of its political understanding of the most complicated social subjects. That vocation for solidarity makes it possible to deduce that the appearance of a group of antiracist actions would have the required social backing and would contribute to a greater opening for an issue that has remained outside the national agenda.


It is important to specify that Afro-descendant is not synonymous to Afro-American and has a very different genesis. Afro-American emerged in the United States in the struggle of the African diaspora to obtain civil rights and improve their living conditions and opportunities in the face of racist policies in the context of the 1960s. Afro-descendant emerged in 2000, as part of the preparatory political consensus for the world meeting held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.


The objective of the Afro-descendant agenda is to change the extreme poverty of more than 200 million persons of African origin in the American continent, according to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in the areas of greatest vulnerability and inequalities. This proposal which has an international character in Cuba played a decisive role to ensure its fulfilment and the island is a signatory to that programme.

Why does the term annoy some persons? The most frequent cause that promotes political suspicions is identifying as synonymous the U.S. terminology of Afro-American with Afro-descendant. We could find another of the reasons in people’s lack of knowledge about the regional debate held during the entire decade of the 1990s, in which Cuba did not participate because at that moment it considered that it was a problem that the country had already completely resolved.


From a historic vision, African slavery was the decisive economic mechanismto expand colonial power in the largest of the Caribbean islands, at the expense of the physical and spiritual abuse of the population of African origin, which at one point got to represent the great majority on the island. Already by the start of the 20th century, the power classes tried to modify that racial composition through large-scale migratory processes from Europe, to impose the white as the legitimate social archetype paradigm.


As to the current debate about whether the Afro-descendant terminology is valid or not valid, some persons express in a naïve way that we are all Afro-descendants because Africa was the cradle of humanity. But based on that focus the essence of a conflict whose main cause are the inequalities associated to raciality remains hidden, a cultural and psychological process that is not exempt of pain for those who have believed that Africanism expresses inferiority.


Medicina_MG_3208 copyOther pretexts that try to justify the social inequalities in the sphere of raciality appear in the cultural discourse that concentrates its focus on the legacy of Africanism indissolubly united to Cubanness, which, while it is absolutely right, makes the social conflict invisible in representative segments of Cuban society, where poverty and raciality are inseparably linked.


An important matter in the deconstruction of the consequence of racism, as a global cultural phenomenon, is that it determines the relation between raciality and power, based on the impact of racial discrimination on the sphere of social participation. It is important to stress that the phenotypical identity does not spontaneously mean the assumption of an antiracist ideological position, but rather that it is the evolution of the social conscience that determines the political position of persons and groups.


The Afro-descendant terminology’sobjective isto not be part of ethnic classifications, with stereotyped signs, created by the colonial system, and simultaneously it hopes to find a conciliatory means that goes beyond skin colour, like the historic stigma of discrimination. The final aim is to construct an encompassing political agenda capable of transforming structural racism into spaces of racial and social equity.


In their daily life people will continue calling themselves according to their traditions, that is, they will identify themselves as Afro-Cubans, Afro-Colombians, Afro-Brazilians or simply blacks, dark, mulatto, whitish blacks, according to their individual perspectives and their status or feeling of personal identity.


Like all contemporary movements, in the interior of the Afro-descendant leadership, the groups organise their projects against racial discrimination based on diverse contexts. Some opt for neoliberal programmes that facilitate personal benefits, and other groups get involved in progressive and socialist proposals.


It is important to take into account that the Afro-descendant proposal also involves emotional aspects. For those who since childhood were victims of pejorative forms and humiliating actions, the terminology is a form of restoring their cultural and political identity, from the essences of a self-esteem that colonialism tried to destroy. In short, Afro-descendant means fighting for the right of a citizenship that was denied to them. It is possible that for those who do not suffer every day the stigma of being classified as inferior because of the colour of their skin or other traits, Afro-descendant can mean a mere rhetoric.


In the continental struggle, the most progressive Afro-descendant sectors consider that Cuba represents a fortress against neoliberalism because the country precisely has the best institutional and social conditions to assume the subject based on the social advances obtained. This reflection seeks to promote a greater understanding of the proposals that seek to organise more progressive programmes, fundamentally in countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and other organisations to eliminate the social inequalities related to raciality.


Afro-descendant has started to form part of an already generalised social practice in the entire region, which means assuming a commitment and a responsibility based on a conceptual humanist equality in the emancipatory search for the inclusion of the historically oppressed groups in the new political contexts of the 21st century.


Impact of exclusion makes it more difficult for them to create organisational spacesraza-negr


When the popular speech repeats the phrase “divide and conquer,” attributed to NicoloMachiavelli, to a certain extent gives a feeling of impotence in the face of circumstances that express fracture, separations and lack of unity. But in the context of human beings who have been victims of exclusion, the effect of that manipulation to create ruptures obtains better and faster results.


It’s a question of vulnerable social structures due to the discriminatory processes with the corresponding aftereffect of pain, which is not always a fully conscious process. In those circumstances, the construction of a status of unity in the subordinate group leads to diverse dangers, because the impact of inferiorisation in social scenarios that do not recognise their rights usually marks the “syndrome of void.”


In this sense, it is almost spontaneous or natural that it be difficult for the persons who suffer the discrimination for diverse reasons to find rapid and solid organisational forms. Colonialism, with its devastating impact, is responsible for maintaining the lack of self-confidence in persons and in those who surround them, as a consequence of the exclusion to which they have been submitted, which implies that they prefer the solitary struggle.


The fear instilled in the historic memory, due to the systematic exclusion, leaves such damage in the self-esteem of the affected segments that it promotes a spiritual and psychological inability to overcome the stage of isolation and to be able to design collective strategies. The history of African slavery demonstrated that it was only when the enslaved persons were able to consolidate projects of collective struggle that they overcame the coloniser.


In current Cuban society, it is difficult for the persons of African origin brake away from the anti-black racist project, anchored for centuries, in which the consensus to give space to an antiracist project lacks the required understanding, while other discriminations are finding the opportune structures to change the negative impact of institutional and personal exclusion.


In the face of anti-discriminatory social actions, at times the proposals are received as deceptive actions based on an accumulated experience of projects prepared precisely to maintain the fragmentation, because they do not have all the indispensable political, or institutional, structure to jump the historic and contemporary barrier of racism.


The closest proof of this is the antiracist projects that emerge from different spheres that disappear in the short term because they are dissolved or self-dissolved since they do not have the indispensable social accompaniment to create the structural base that the situation demands. The lack of consensus, in institutional spaces as well as from the very sector discriminated against, represents serious impediments for the group that attempts to take over the social space due to them.


The Cuban section of the Regional Afro-descendant Alliance for America and the Caribbean (ARAAC), created in 2012 with the support of the Culture Ministry, has not been able to escape from this “syndrome of void.” Because of the weak and at times incoherent institutional perspective as well as because of the lack of a structural focus to the interior of the very group, where at diverse times the focuses repeat the same sequences of mistakes that for several centuries have characterised this problem, creating a discouraging vicious circle.


In that sense, it is clear that achieving a common programme demands a great deal of time and also a high dose of patience and understanding. The question is that it is not about an accidental phenomenon but rather the result of a deliberately designed exclusion to hinder the consolidation of a common strategy. A social process where the social stereotypes that disqualify persons of African origin have been placed in the social imagination, precisely so that the non-white persons continue being in a subordinate position and do not achieve the immersion in the decision-making spaces.


This is a phenomenon that at times is repeated with disparaging words or discourses from inside the very group.


A substantive difficulty has been the impossibility of making the proposal grow by extending it to other territories and sectors of the country due to the lack of institutional legitimacy. Because for some persons and institutions if the required institutional endorsement does not exist, any proposal that deals with raciality creates doubts if it does not have the regulatory official backing.


A no less important matter has been the lack of the minimum financial resources to organise mass activities. An important factor of the mistakes was to not make known the website created with a quality design, but which was never publicised because its socialisation has depended on a more than two-year institutional process, The history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries showed that the Cuban Afro-descendant population was unable to organise the space for political participation that was due to it because of its contribution to the nation’s emancipation.


Concentrated on achieving independence, the Afro-descendant leaders in the 19th century thought that, with their enormous effort to free Cuba, their social space in the country’s leadership would be guaranteed once the Spanish regime was toppled. They weren’t able to forecast that, behind the scenes, a sector of the moderate independence fighters was conceiving their exclusion and that the alliances with the non-white fighting vanguard would become only an interim military strategy in the face of the disappearance of leaders José Martí and Antonio Maceo.


This is a conflict that currently requires an analysis that must be submitted to a more in-depth political vision. The events clearly show the presence of an anti-black racist thinking, just 12 years after the constitution of the republic. The history of the early 20th century shows clear proof of the massacre of 1912, when not only the members of the Colour Independent Party were murdered but also hundreds of persons simply because there weren’t white; researchers of the subject estimate that the casualties of that armed conflict in the eastern region of the country could surpass the figure of more than 3,000 persons.


This is a chapter of Cuban history still not sufficiently studied but that makes it possible to understand the consequences of a very deep pain in generations very close to ours, as part of a premeditated programme which sought the exclusion of the non-white vanguard of the Liberation Army and where the “pretexts” offered reasons to conserve the status quo of exclusion.


Through literary essays, newspapers from the period and other sources registered in the National Archive of Cuba, it is possible to see how the Cuban proposal of the republic was designed to maintain the population of African origin out of the decision-making spaces, not just because they were Afro-descendants, but rather because its agenda contained a radical independence matrix. The proposals, at times with signs of supposed integration as was the case of the Constitution of 1940, lacked the necessary political will to transform that status of exclusion.


These are proposals that fail because of lack of social consensus. A recent example of the “syndrome of void” faced by Cuban raciality lies in the very speech of the historic leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, when in Match 1959 he declared that racial discrimination was one of most complex and difficult problems the revolution had to face;a proposal that again showed the presence of lack of consensus in the face of the subject of racial discrimination in the Cuban social imagination and the unwillingness to construct an anti-discriminatory programme and of racial inclusion in the national agenda.


In this sense, ARAAC Cuba, similar to other groups in the rest of our America where the Afro-descendant population is trying to find their corresponding power participation spaces, is hindered by similar historical difficulties that slow the validity of a discriminatory thinking toward the non-white population. The barrage of conflicts that prevents that obligatory inclusion is long and complex, as can be seen in the different social contexts. Among them, in addition to the basic conflict of rejecting the inclusion of an antiracist programme, there are the difficulties in the interior of the leaderships, at times for lack of political maturity, ideologically weak discourses among its members or erratic strategies due to the lack of knowledge about the historical magnitude of racism and racial discrimination and, above all, the habits of working alone for a long time, which makes it difficult to create a framework of unity within diversity.


A serious difficulty is the perspective of the so-called discourse of the victim, also promoted from the discourse of exclusion, in which discriminated against persons usually get bogged down in blaming the system that attacks their identity, with the useful short cut that is concentrated in the engrossment. In this context, in a dichotomised manner, the discourse of the victim, inserted in the colonial history, establishes a polarisation between “them” and “us” based on a colour, which conspires against building a new communicative language that allows for initiating a project of dialogue, where together with the challenge, alternative solutions appear.


It is also important to add the tendency of supposing that only non-white persons will be able to find the strategies that the Cuban society demands to develop an antiracist programme. The mistakes and good moves of the ARAAC Cuba seem to be interpreted as new phenomena, but history shows that it is a cyclical repetition in which the social subjectivities, the cultural stereotypes and the lack of faith permanently act to prevent an inclusion in Cuban civil society that guarantees a more equitable and fairer nation, where the non-white population has access to the equity that is due to them.


The current challenge of the ARAAC is to accumulate the necessary emancipatory energyto face the external as well as internal impediments. The prolonged silence on Cuban raciality has a direct incidence, induced or underhanded, as a repetitive expression of the discriminatory Cuban history toward the persons of African origin, a phenomenon that goes beyond those skin hues that make it possible to hide the true identity.


A decisive element at present is the institutional political neglect for creating a concrete antiracist proposal, with the indispensable participation of that social sector. The projects to create a national consensus demand the participation of the Afro-descendant population as a whole. The world historic experience says it is only possible to obtain a consensus when the voice of the discriminated against persons is present, as the key piece capable of transforming the national consensus, with its decisive and enriching experience, to construct an antiracist national agenda.


This reflection hopes to be just a warning call to remember that the proposals where only elitist groups participate, without the ideas and personal stories of the discriminated against groups, does not allow for deconstructing racism and discrimination, beyond the socio-cultural aspirations that create them. Only the experiences of the discriminated against persons enablegiving access to the inclusion of those who have been excluded. It is necessary to specify that institutional projects have already existed on the island, like the so-called “Quota systems,” during the 1980s, an organic proposal that failed for the same reason: lack of general consensus and lack of knowledge by the discriminated against groups of their rights and opportunities in the face of the absence of a political discourse.


Already by the late 1990s and early 2000, inclusive proposals were again created to promote thousands of young people throughout the country who were not linked to study r work, in their majority Afro-descendants. But once again it was explained that it was a proposal against discrimination. It is impossible to transform the social conscience of any human group without the required ideological debate, because the transformation of the political conscience does not operate by omission.


Right now the social conflict of raciality has in its epicentre an important problem, which is the presence of social inequalities that are manifested in a status of poverty and raciality in sectors of the Afro-descendant populations, with an important incidence in children, women and senior citizens. But perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a look at the challenges of the 21st century, where the lack of economic as well as symbolic resources caused by racism and discrimination creates social rifts that do not disappear spontaneously, even despite an intention of change.


In plain view it would seem that the Cuban Afro-descendant population is trapped between the lack of institutional backing and the low level of racial awareness of certain segments of Afro-descendants. But the reality is much more complex because neither can the blame fall on a society that for more than half a century hasn’t had access to the debate on racism and racial discrimination; where the issue has remained practically invisible in the public spaces, with a very weak acceptance in academic spaces and practically absent in the written press, television or radio.


As we know, the formation of social awareness demands visible and sustained ideological action. But if the discourse that corresponds to raciality because of its role in the Cuban nation, permanently absent, it would then not be a happy decision to make responsible those who suffer a low self-esteem induced by the lack of pride of their African origin and reject getting involved in a struggle that doesn’t seem to belong to them.


It would be even more difficult to make demands on “Cuban white” persons because of lack of racial awareness when faced by a matter that demands a public discourse capable of transforming social awareness, where only solidarity and human understanding could involve them in an antiracist programme.


It is also true that there has been a lack of agreed upon antiracist activism, with a more forceful demand, not fearing being accused of the stigma of counterrevolutionaries, when the racial question is brought up;because the foundation of the Cuban nation has been built with a decisive part of the Afro-descendant population. From the enslaved persons who became emancipated and gave their life for independence; to “that half” of the non-white population that today continues struggling every day for their rights, though at times they do not know them as they should, but make an effort to create a better nation, more equitable and inclusive.


The challenges for Cuban society in the current socio-political context are greater because the revolution’s assistance policies reduce their possibilities, vertiginously increasing the vulnerability of those sectors. There is an urgent need to transform that painful past, which also has African slavery as an aftereffect, a matter that demands new ideological focuses.


I conclude with a question already made in other texts. Does Cuban society want to assume the conflict of raciality right now? Or does it prefer to leave it to time, as the legacy of a stain of social inequality that while it does not completely blur the great achievements of the revolution, leaves a bad taste and consolidates the presence of racism and racial discrimination as an expression of ideological void that can have regrettable consequences? (2016)








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