CARLOS MOORE: Putting context to Cuba's racial divide

Images of the first batch of Cuban-Americans arriving at Havana's international airport, since the United States' lifting of restrictions on travel and remittance-sending to the island, were clear: teary-eyed, Spanish-speaking cousins, laden with gifts and money for their relatives in Cuba, were all – white!

Such a startling visual puts a partial face on an issue that will increasingly challenge the US government's latest policy shifts aimed at coaxing Cuba to the negotiating table.

The spectacle of the white Cuban returnees, however, reveals even more by highlighting what – or rather who – is missing: dark-skinned Cuban faces.

How does one explain such a dramatically white homecoming in a country where 62-70% of the population is estimated to be non-white [1]; one where, besides their desire to dismantle the Castro dictatorship, black and white Cubans may have far less in common politically than the world has been led to believe? And what is one to make of the 1.5-million strong Cuban-American community, mostly South Florida-based, which is 85% Caucasian, and is only now begrudgingly relinquishing its dream of re-empowerment, as a predominantly white force, in Cuba?

What do these two differing racial realities – largely unacknowledged inside and outside Cuba – portend for the United States' emerging Open Door policy? In purely human terms, the warming relations between "cousins" on both sides of the Florida straights may be laudable, but certainly not devoid of long-term political implications inside Cuba.

To understand why, a new map of Cuba – the real Cuba – will have to be drawn.

From Myth to Reality

When Fidel Castro triumphed fifty years ago, Afro-Cubans were 35-45% of the total Cuban population. Four years later, fear of the new regime's sweeping socialist reforms caused 15-20% of the island's white population to flee, leaving Castro at the head of a black majority country.

From 1959 on, the steadily darkening face of Cuba created unanticipated problems for the social reformers who launched the Revolution. Yet, for half a century, Cuba hid this racial reality behind a carefully crafted image where the Revolution had eradicated racism, abolished discrimination, and established a unique "racial democracy."

Cuba's myth as a non-racial Nirvana has long been well-served by either a dearth of information or disinformation so patently biased (pro- and anti-Castro) that it was neither credible nor useful by the time it reached U.S. residents. Safely inside this information vacuum for half a century, Cuba has brilliantly manipulated the race issue to its political advantage, specifically targeting African-Americans with its message.

Now, however, that race has become real in Cuba, its citizenry is being forced to confront its own history as amassed by its own researchers, its own writers, artists, scholars, citizens and even some of its own leaders.

Having thrown their lot behind the Communist regime for half a century, precisely because of the racial and economic oppression experienced in prerevolutionary days, Afro-Cubans themselves were slow to come to terms with continuing discrimination and their growing impoverishment as a result of it; the latter was recently aggravated by the collapse of world Communism, with its negative effects on Cuba's economy.

Castro's claims of racial equality, however, were disproved as long ago as 1994 when, in the overwhelmingly black area along the seafront in Central Havana, thousands of angry, rock-throwing protesters took to the streets, shattered windows, and attacked the police in what was baptized the maleconazo. The regime shuddered; this was the closest thing to a race riot Cuba had seen since the Revolution. Fourteen years later, Cuba has even greater reason to fear the threat of racially-motivated violence.

Brought to light in 2008, the first comprehensive, officially-sanctioned document addressing the issue of race in Cuba under the Revolution, The Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba [2], paints a stark picture of the situation that exists even now in 2009 for the blacks. This graphic, 385-page document, supported by a bounty of hitherto unpublicized statistics, speaks of neglect, denial, and forceful resurgence of racism in Cuba under Communism.

The publication shows a growing impoverishment of the population as a whole, but it emphasizes that black Cubans are disproportionately affected. The old segregationist Cuba is gone, according to this document, yet, somehow the country's leadership continues to be predominantly white (71%). A majority of the country's scientists and technicians are white (72.7%), even though both races have equal rates of education.

The same whitening process affects Cuba's universities at the professorial level (80% at the University of La Habana).

In the countryside, the land that is privately held is almost totally in the hands of whites (98%), and even in the State cooperatives blacks are almost nonexistent (5%).

A robust percentage of able-bodied Cubans with jobs are white, whether male (66.9%) or female (63.8%). In contrast, the overall employment rate of blacks who are fit to work is startlingly low (34.2%). We are left to conclude that most able-bodied black Cubans are unemployed (65.8%).

How, then, does one explain what caused such racial disparities, from top to bottom, after five decades of radical change?

According to the document, Blacks overwhelmingly blamed "racial discrimination" in hiring and promotion (60.8%) for these stark contrasts, and an overwhelming majority of Cubans of both races agreed that "racial prejudice continues to be current on the island" (75%). However, among whites the disparities were attributed to blacks being "less intelligent than whites" (58%) and "devoid of decency" (69%). Tellingly, a whopping majority of whites in Cuba oppose racial intermarriage (68%), the document said.

The publication concluded that, "These asymmetric phenomena of social differentiation, as expressed, primarily, in profound cleavages in regards to differential levels and degrees of access to material and cultural wealth, to the best jobs, to positions of leadership, etc, are evidenced in every aspect of the social and spiritual life of the racial groups that compose Cuban society..." [3]

We may surmise that these "asymmetric phenomena" – as the document calls them – are responsible for the growth of a new Civil Rights movement in Cuba, fueled by growing opposition to racial discrimination and demands for racial power-sharing.

To make maters worse, new and subtle realities in the U.S. have led to the election of a black American president, and this has further emboldened Cuba's non-white majority.

The government, which in the early days of the Revolution vigorously suppressed the pre-revolutionary black movement, is clearly alarmed. Not without reason, the post-Fidel leadership has begun to fret over what it calls the possibility of "racial subversion" waged by the United States.[4]

Worry is also implicit in Party ideologue Fernando Martinez Heredia's uncharacteristically blunt admission that, "The racial question has been on the rise over these years. Once again we verify that it is Negroes and mulattoes who are, or remain, at a greater disadvantage and that racism exhibits vitality whenever solidarity ties and socialist values weaken." [5]

Clearly, Castro's regime is desperate to find a way out of its socio-racial impasse. In the context of Cuba's new demographic realities and the potential for domestic strife highlighted by the official statistics regarding black impoverishment and rampant racial discrimination, Cuba's race question is bound to move from a "non-topic" to a core Civil Rights issue in Cuban-American relations.

Viewed in this light, President Obama's new Open Door policy toward Cuba may present as many opportunities to softly dismantle the Castro regime, as for the latter to manipulate the U.S. once again into a no-win situation. The new stepped-up flow of Cuban American remittances to Cuba is a perfect example.

Race and Remittances

The world around Cuba is changing at a dizzying pace. Cuban-Americans' aggressive, confrontational politics, which were consistently successful under former U.S. administrations, are rapidly receding. In their place, a new strategy seeks to influence affairs inside Cuba through investments and other activities, in the form of remittances, that bolster the position of their relatives on the island. The question, therefore, is who is to benefit inside Cuba from this manna flowing from the U.S. to Cuba? How will it affect the majority population on the island?

Abrogating Bush-era imposed limitations, these hard cash exports to Cuba – variously estimated between $600M-$1.5B – cut two ways: they lay the groundwork for the birth of a new white, Cuban middle-class and potentially aggravate racial cleavage on the island. Understandably, the relatives of white Cuban-Americans will disproportionately benefit from the free flow of remittances and family visitors to the island following the latest change in U.S. policy.

Socioeconomic disparities, measured in this instance by money and family support, between white Cubans and the black Cuban majority will inevitably increase. Moreover, given certain conditions, these remittances could morph into start-up investment capital for its recipients.

Ordinary Cuban are no fools; they know that in the capitalist Cuba that is slowly but surely emerging, only they would be capital-less. Therefore, a more free-flowing faucet of remittances can only serve to intensify the existing estrangement between Cuba's two basic populations. In the circumstances, the realignment of forces now taking place in and out of Cuba, in anticipation of the Castro Brother's demise, may be causing anxiety among Cuba's majority, whose worsening condition may not be mitigated by remittances from abroad.

Paradoxically, for the Brothers Castro who are master manipulators, both results could be a win-win by actually enhancing their continued domination.

After all, these returning "cousins" are blood relatives who exhibit little if any desire to see Cuba governed by its current non-white majority (two thirds of Cuba's elite, including the Castros and Vice-President, Ramiro Valdes Menendez, is reported to have close relatives in South Florida); and the government pockets 20% of their huge remittances.

It is entirely conceivable, then, that Havana understands such a two-pronged benefit. Therefore, the Castro regime may welcome cash-wielding Cuban-Americans as the ideal tourists and benefactors who will pose minimal disruption to the country's Communist order.

In Castro, the Blacks, and Africa [6], I sought to demonstrate how, from its inception, Cuba under Fidel Castro used the race question as propaganda to consolidate domestic black support and isolate its external enemies – namely the U.S. and the Cuban-American exiles.

By portraying the U.S. as the quintessential homebase of Ku-Klux-Klan-type racism, and by successfully courting the Black Power movement, the black churches, and even the Congressional Black Caucus, Havana punched deep holes into Washington’s armor.

Havana has perfected the divide-and-conquer game to an art and, as pointed out in Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castros's Cuba [7], may be preparing to do it again. On the one hand, it could leverage Cuban American remittances to grow Cuba's middle class sector of white entrepreneurs and land-holders while supplying its coffers with the much sought-after hard currency; for that reason, too, it makes sense to insist that Havana cut in half the taxes levied on remittances (currently 20%). On the other hand, the regime could simultaneously foster the growth of a a pro-regime black leadership that could be deployed to whip up sentiments against such "privileged whites." The outcome would be a permanently divided civil society, at war with itself. The status quo would remain safe.

Relief Valves

Post-Fidel managerial elites also fully understand that another strategy for preserving their power is to consolidate support among the majority population, which implies broadening black participation in the political leadership, the economy, the media, and the cultural institutions.

Creating the appearance of expanded opportunities often serves as relief valves by diverting attention and lowering the pressure for fundamental, long-term change. That means playing the race card to prolong its two-headed dictatorship is more than a temptation – it is a necessity.

To hang onto power, Cuba's elites will see the efficacy of promoting a controlled, well-groomed discourse on race as part of their new liberalizing package. Key to this effort will likely be a carefully stage-managed opening of the racial Pandora's Box, skillfully re-directing black resentment along channels that will not threaten the power elite in the Communist Party. That strategy would call for the Raulista leadership to foster customized black political movements and manipulate them to undercut the rising militancy of black youth, until now expressed through a widening hip-hop counterculture and a renewal of the island's long-banned Civil Rights movement.

Raul Castro seems to have taken notice and it is quite likely that the election of a black American president, whose popularity among Cubans is uncomfortably vast, may have drastically reduced his room for maneuver. Comparatively, a recently released independent opinion survey, conducted in March 2009 by Cubabarometro, a self-reliant opinion-gathering unit headed by the pollster, sociologist Dr. Darsi Ferrer, concluded that, "In the political sphere, the unpopularity of Mr Raul Castro as a leader was evidenced, as was a pronounced divergence between the policy and political interests of the authorities and the feelings and expectations of society at large." [8]

In 1961 Fidel Castro outlawed 526 black organizations known as Colored People's Societies – the backbone of the Cuban version of a Civil Rights movement. Now, fifty years later, a budding black movement in Cuba is gaining momentum and these organizations may have to be re-authorized. Currently, more than thirty separate groups identify themselves as committed to ending racial discrimination in Cuba; that will force the Raulista leadership to devise manipulative strategies designed to undercut this rising socio-racial consciousness.

Symbolic gestures by Cuba's "new-old regime” – as many Cubans designate Raul's government – may not be sufficient alone to stem the growing concern over racial disparities in Cuba, however, as part of a conglomeration of tactics, the whole may prove more effective than its parts for preserving power. So far they include:

setting up a National Commission to honor the memory of the victims of the state-inspired genocide committed in 1912 against Cuban blacks;

allowing the existence of a black, pro-regime debating club, significantly named "Cuban Color," lodged in the premises of the regime-controlled Union of Cuban Writers and Intellectuals (UNEAC), and staffed by black sycophants;

establishing a semi-secret Commission on Race, headed by Cuba's black Vice-President, Esteban Lazo, which is arguably not the best example of the racial transparency many Cubans are clamoring for.

One thing is for sure: Cuba’s white minority rulers are truly conscious now that they are sitting on a volcano. But, an internal explosion inside Cuba, triggered by the deleterious effects of fifty years of discriminatory policies against Afro-Cubans, could propel a sudden exodus, to the southern U.S. and neighboring Caribbean countries, of as many as 2 million Cubans.

Thus, it is in the interest of the U.S., the Caribbean and the larger region, to envision and construct countermeasures to respond to the very real possibility of future turmoil in Cuba. All of this pleads for a drastic change in Cuba map-reading, by Washington policymakers, Cuba's immediate neighbors and governments in the hemisphere at large.

A Change of Course

Since Communism was installed in Cuba, five decades ago, the U.S. has sought to effect change in that country through the predominantly white Cuban-American community, the so-called anti-Castro "exiles." Consequently, American policy has focused on satisfying the self-interests of this strategically-located community of mostly right-wing Cubans.

But another chief failure of U.S. policy is one of which no one speaks: how the U.S. has consistently refused to engage black civil society inside of Cuba by espousing its struggle for civil rights and power-sharing. Consequently, U.S. policy on Cuba has studiously ignored those Cubans – black Cubans – whose civil, human, and democratic rights have been most trampled. The U.S. government's obsessive bid to re-empower white Cuban exiles has required that America's policy carefully overlook the racial composition of Cuban society. And, over the years, the U.S. has attempted to build an island constituency by acting solely through surrogate Human Rights Groups that refuse to address racial oppression in Cuba while they, too, systematically disregard the growing black Cuban Civil Rights movement.

Radio and TV Marti represent another opportunity.

Few may point to TV Marti as a successful model worthy of replication, and Radio Marti has been mired in controversy. Their failure to achieve the desired impact is largely attributable to broadcasting content crafted by white Cuban-Americans with low or no sensibility for Cuba's current demographic reality.

Unless their content is re-oriented, these programs will continue to be ineffectual at best, or at worse, a source for padding the pockets of Cuban-Americans and organizations who profiteer greatly from their anti-Castro posturing.

The almost total absence of Afro-Cubans in conceptualizing, crafting content for, or implementing these U.S. programs designed "to bring democracy to Cuba" guarantees they will have virtually no impact on Cuban civil society.

This same absence mirrors and explains to a large degree the failed Cuba policy of all previous American administrations.

Fortunately, notwithstanding the reputed electoral swing-vote clout of Cuban-Americans, the Obama administration seems sufficiently sophisticated to understand that this predominately white community can no longer be the axis for the U.S. government's Cuba policy. Likewise, a wide range of American policymakers and citizens are sharing and voicing this view.

For all, understanding the true nature of Cuban society, its internal tensions and long-standing sociorracial cleavages, as well as the profound aspirations that move its majority people, will ensure that the U.S. crafts policies toward Cuba that will serve the best interests of the U.S. and also will empower Cuban civil society. Otherwise, inadvertently or otherwise, such policies would prolong the dictatorship's choke-hold on power.

Now, as never before, the U.S. has an opportunity to craft a sound and comprehensive Cuba strategy which has as its core a true concern for all Cubans.

This strategy cannot continue to address the Cuba that right-wing Cuban-American whites have concocted out of their hunger for the restoration of the hierarchy of entitlements they once possessed to the detriment of the Cuban masses. Nor can an effective strategy be created in response to the bogeyman Cuba, as personified by Fidel Castro and his creaking, rapidly disintegrating vessel of oppression. Rather, the focus of the U.S. government's strategy must be the real Cuba, the entire Cuba, the Cuba of the present and the future that defines itself as a fully empowered, autonomous participant in world affairs, with the U.S. and the rest of the world, in the 21st century.

Winning the hearts of Cubans

Here, in the 21st century, black Cubans constitute an overwhelming majority of the population and can no longer be ignored. Embracing this new reality in the U.S. government's Open Door Policy will build on the wide-scale goodwill that Obama's presidency has already created inside Cuba.

A proactive realpolitik towards Cuba requires not solely opening up free travel for all Americans, lifting the economic embargo and restoring full diplomatic relations between both countries. It must also incorporate specific U.S. demands whereby the Castro regime is made to understand that it, too, must lift the internal political and racial embargo imposed on the majority population since the early years of the Revolution.

This could be accomplished in a number of ways.

Lifting the ban and allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba, can only produce positive results. An International Monetary Fund study has estimated that 3.5 million Americans could flock to Cuba annually as soon as existing travel restrictions are lifted. Under that scenario, Cuba would be flooded with capitalist consumers. One can safely estimate that at least half-a-million of these prospective tourists will be African-Americans who, in addition to being frolicking, fun-seekers looking for adventure, would likely also be goodwill ambassadors for socioracial change on the island.

African-American visitors would show up not only with a shared history of racial injustice, but also with a sense of entitlement and a history of seeking justice. These travelers will bring with them new ideas about Civil Rights, political democracy, and the respect for the rule of law; Cuba's white minority regime could face serious trouble.

Allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba would help spread the news about a changing America, where demographic shifts point to a social order where minorities are gaining power and wealth while creating the basis for a truly multiracial society within a form of democracy unknown to Cubans.

No doubt, the Fidel/Raul regime has looked down the road and seen the possibility – if not the probability – of such a future. The regime cannot help but devise an array of self-preservation schemes. Among them, divide-and-conquer is high among their tried and true strategies. The U.S. could easily become a highly useful pawn unless it clearly assesses and takes steps to avoid the predictable racial impact of its Open Door policy.

It makes sense, then, that African-American civil society must now be encouraged to freely interact with its Cuban counterpart. Resources now reportedly being squandered on demonstrably ineffective pro-Cuba democracy programs that are dominated by white Cuban-Americans must be redirected to fund such efforts. Special grants must be envisioned for African-American private businesses, historically Black colleges, black churches, professional organizations and NGOs that specifically commit to help Civil Rights organizations inside Cuba.

The Black Congressional Caucus must be encouraged to carry out specific fact-finding missions, as it does elsewhere, lend an ear to Cuba's Civil Rights organizations, and otherwise assist the developmental and empowerment efforts of black civil society on the island.

The creation of a U.S.-based African-American/Afro-Cuban Foundation that would assist civil society in Cuba in overturning the deleterious effects of decades of compounded racial discrimination against the black population, in both pre and post-revolutionary Cuba, would resuscitate much goodwill inside of Cuba. The tens of millions of taxpayer dollars now spent on programs to foster democracy in Cuba that have proven ineffective, could usefully be channeled into such an African-American/Afro-Cuban Foundation. All U.S. companies that trade with Cuba or invest on the island could fund these activities through a tariff designated specifically for these initiatives.

The U.S. could further spur changes inside and outside Cuba by using leverage from bilateral engagement. To foster Cuba's democratization, the U.S. could pressure Havana to allow the creation and legal incorporation of a National Afro-Cuban Foundation for Social and Economic Development, directed and controlled exclusively by Cubans of African descent with no regime affiliation.

At least half of the State's current 20% tax levied on all Cuban-American remittances (which should be halved) could be earmarked by the Cuban state to fund such foundation's activities. As annual remittances amount to $1.5-2B, they would provide a steady fund for mitigating the disparities historically and currently suffered by the Black Cuban population. After all, these disparities are a carry-over from pre-revolutionary days that Castro's regime inherited; therefore, white Cuban-Americans may not be exonerated from responsibility for their present-day effects.

One thing is certain: 8.5 million black Cubans inside Cuba and 1.5 million predominantly white Cuban-Americans, concentrated chiefly in South Florida, are inescapably part of Cuba's present and future. So, too, are they integral parts of the future of the U.S., at home and in the region.

Political realism points to a table that is large enough to seat us all. The fact that 35% of South Florida's Cuban-Americans casted their votes for Obama, is an encouraging sign; there too, a new perspective may be growing that may no longer conflict with the deep aspirations of the majority on the island.

Now, as never before, the U.S. has an opportunity to craft a sound and comprehensive Cuba strategy which has as its core a true concern for all Cubans.

For a great nation that has achieved something no one thought possible until it happened, surely seeing a free Cuba hangs in the realm of possibility. But, for president Obama to fulfill the pledge he made to the Cuban people during his presidential campaign, he must ensure that his new Open Door policy towards Cuba is not counterproductive to Cuba's majority population.


Ethnologist and political scientist Carlos Moore is the author of the newly released, Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Moore is an honorary research fellow in the University off the West Indies School for Graduate Studies and Research in Kingston, Jamaica.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.


[1] According to the U.S. State Department, Cuba’s Afro-Cuban ("black" and "mulatto") population comprises 62% of the total, whites (37%) and Chinese-Cubans (1%). See: U.S. Department of State, "Background Note: Cuba" (People). In: Accessed: April 13, 2008. Some anthropologists inside of Cuba estimate the black/mulato proportion at 70%. Therefore, in this article, "non-white", "black"and "Afro-Cuban" are used interchangeably.

[2] Esteban Morales Domínguez, Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba, La Habana: Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2007.

[3] Ibid., p. 159.

[4] See: Esteban Morales Dominguez, "Anti-Cuban subversion: the race issue" ("El tema racial y la subversión anticubana"), La Jiribilla, 8-14 September 2007. Source: Accessed: April 13, 2008.

[5] Fernando Martínez Heredia, speech on December 27, 2007, at the inaugural ceremony for the National Commission for the commemoration of the Centennial of the founding of the Independent Party of Colored People (PIC). He is the chairman of that Commission. His speech was published by La Jiribilla, February 2-8, 2008. See: HYPERLINK Accessed: April 13, 2008.

[6] Carlos Moore, Castro, the Blacks and Africa. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies (CAAS), University of California, 1988.

[7] Carlos Moore. PICHÓN: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008.

[8] CUBABARÓMETRO, La Habana, Cuba. 12 de abril de 2009. Presentación de Estudio Sociológico. Dir: Calle San Bernardino 265 entre Serrano y Durege, localidad Santos Suárez, municipio 10 de Octubre, La Habana, Cuba. E-mail: