News and Facts about Cuba

Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism Between Two Fires

Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism Between Two Fires
They’re caught between a government that denies the existence of racism
and fellow black Cubans who lack racial consciousness.
By Sujatha FernandesTwitterTODAY 8:00 AM

A “home for sale” sign in Santiago de Cuba. Far fewer Afro-Cubans get
remittances from family overseas, and residents of eastern Cuba, more
heavily Afro-Cuban than the west, migrate in large numbers to find work
in the capital. (AP Photo / Ramon Espinosa)

On May 4, the Network of Afro-descendant Women convened an urgent
meeting of activists, academics, and members of organizations fighting
against racial discrimination in Cuba. At the meeting, held at the
Jurists’ Union Center in Havana, the longtime anti-racism activist
Gisela Arandia presented a document calling for government action in
response to a series of incidents on the island following Barack Obama’s
visit in March. These included several racist articles published in
Cuban periodicals, an employment ad on Cuba’s Craigslist site,, soliciting white applicants, and then a poster that
appeared on a central street in the middle-class suburb of Vedado with a
swastika and the note “Kill the black.”

According to the Cuban novelist and activist Alberto Abreu Arcia, who
was present at the meeting, there was much debate about the document,
with some arguing that it was too conciliatory, that the events needed
to be placed in the context of growing racialized poverty and renewed
diplomatic relations with the United States, and that it should be
accompanied by concrete proposals for change. Even so, many agreed that
these events were not isolated incidents but rather that they make
visible the racism that has not only survived but been strengthened due
to an official policy of silence on issues that have supposedly been
solved by the revolution.

Cuba today finds itself at a crossroads, with the specter of economic
openings bringing the prospect of greater social inequalities,
especially racial inequality. This moment has a parallel in the early
1990s, when the turn to and global markets in the context of
economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a
deepening racial divide and more overt racial discrimination. At that
time, black people in Cuba had no organizations from which to address
this racism. As the Cuban revolution had desegregated whites-only
spaces, launched an anti-discrimination campaign, and opened up avenues
of social mobility through employment and for Afro-Cubans in
the 1960s, most of the race-based organizations that had represented
them were simultaneously deemed unnecessary, and some closed of their
own accord. In the past decade or so, there has been a re-emergence of
anti-racism organizations across the island, with some fifteen groups
forming in fields from legal rights to youth, culture, communications,
and barrio-based community organizing. These organizations are vital
during the current period of openings with the United States, as Cuba is
more exposed to a market , and the potential inequalities it brings.

The 51-year-old writer Roberto Zurbano has been one of the island’s most
vocal critics of racial inequality. In March 2013, when he was head of
the publishing house of the venerated Casa de las Américas, Zurbano
published an op-ed in The New York Times about how blacks are being left
behind in the new market-driven economy. His piece was titled in
Spanish, “The Country to Come: and My Black Cuba?” After a series of
edits, the Times published the final piece with its own heading, “For
Blacks in Cuba the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” As a result of this
pejorative headline and the article itself—an affront to the leadership
of Casa not so much because it was published in the Times but because
Zurbano’s byline included his position at the cultural
institution—Zurbano was demoted from his position as head of publishing,
although he still works at Casa.

In much of Latin America, race has not been used as a primary marker of
identity; this is even more the case in Cuba.
Zurbano’s experience reflects the balancing act being performed by many
anti-racism activists in Cuba, who find themselves, as he says, caught
between dos fuegos, or two fires: on the one hand a government that
still denies the existence of racism and, on the other, black Cubans who
lack a racial consciousness. In many parts of Latin America, race has
not been used as a primary marker of identity; this is even more the
case in Cuba, where the post-revolutionary leadership declared that
equality between blacks and whites had made racial identifications
obsolete. That has made it harder to organize and mobilize Cubans along
racial lines.

Yet in the face of these obstacles, anti-racism organizations have
continued to grow. Five years ago, Afro-Cuban leaders, along with
anti-racism activists across Latin America and the Caribbean, decided to
create a transnational anti-racist organization with local chapters
across the region. In September 2012, Latin American and Caribbean
activists, with the support of the Cuban minister of culture, Abel
Prieto, officially launched the Regional Afro-descendant Articulation of
Latin America (ARAAC) at the Ludwig Foundation in Havana. Leaders across
the region felt that the Cuba chapter should be a point of coordination
for regional work, given the profile and growing strength of anti-racism
work there. After the New York Times incident, ARAAC defended Zurbano’s
right to raise issues of racism in Cuba, affirming that the black
population suffers disproportionately from poverty and lack of social
mobility. Afro-Cuban activists navigate a tricky terrain within Cuba,
but are growing in profile and size.

* * *

The revolution sought to remove barriers for Afro-Cubans, but racism
didn’t disappear; it was relegated to private spaces.
Zurbano was born six years after the 1959 revolution. He came from a
poor family of Jamaican descent, the youngest of five children. At the
age of 2, he was sent to live with his grandmother in the Nueva Paz town
of rural Mayabeque province, where she taught him to box and to read.
Only one part of his family benefited from the revolution. The lack of
education on his father’s side meant that they were not able to take
advantage of the possibilities opened up by the revolution for black
people. His mother’s side, though, was better prepared to benefit from
opportunities for educational advancement, professional development, and
access to material goods and services. Almost all of his relatives on
his mother’s side of the family became professionals in healthcare,
education, engineering, and the military.

As in the United States, racism in Cuba dates back to the colonial era,
when the Spanish colonizers wiped out the indigenous population and
brought African slaves to the island to work on the plantations. Even
after the abolition of slavery in 1886, black Cubans were denied equal
access to education and faced segregation and barriers in employment,
with greater concentrations of poverty. The 1959 revolution sought to
remove barriers for Afro-Cubans in areas of education, , and
healthcare, reducing poverty and creating social mobility for many
Afro-Cubans. However, as seen in the case of Zurbano’s family, not all
black Cubans were able to take advantage of these opportunities, and
racism did not disappear. It was simply relegated to private spaces.

At the age of 26, Zurbano became the vice of Brothers Saiz
Association (AHS), a group of young writers and artists in Havana
province. At that time, the association was considered irreverent and
counter-cultural, and government leaders decided to remove him from the
post. He was transferred to the military, where he served two years in
the infantry. During this time, Zurbano defied the authorities and the
regimentation of military life, spending much of his time in a cave used
by runaway slaves in the hillocks of Managuaco. It was here that he
developed his interest in Africa, reading novels and essays by African
intellectuals. After leaving the military, Zurbano developed a
friendship with an African diplomat and began to question why the
strategic alliances of Cuba with Slavic socialism seemed to preclude a
deeper engagement with Pan-Africanism and the Marxist writers of the
Caribbean, such as C.L.R. James.

In the mid-1990s, Zurbano became vice president of the national AHS and
discovered the nascent cultural movement of hip-hop, where young black
rappers from the poor and marginalized barrios of the cities were
raising issues of racism in Cuban society. The Cuban hip-hop movement,
which I detail in my book Close to the Edge, emerged at a time when
black youth were increasingly feeling the effects of racial
discrimination in the post-Soviet era. While this generation had
benefited from the extension of education, housing, and healthcare to
black families, they came of age when the revolutionary years were
giving way to times of austerity. Black Cubans were being excluded from
employment in tourism, saw declines in their standard of living and
housing, and were constantly harassed by and asked for their IDs.
Racism had become more visible. In this context, the militancy of
American rap music appealed to Cuban youth. Afro-Cuban youth began to
proudly refer to themselves as black.

Zurbano saw the rappers as the vanguard of the Cuban anti-racist
struggle. They were public and vocal about racism, and they opened up a
space for debate and reflection about it in Cuban society. Cuban
intellectuals such as the historian Tomás Fernández Robaina helped to
develop the racial consciousness of the rappers by holding workshops on
black thought. At this time, during the 1990s, Afro-Cuban visual artists
such as Alexis Esquivel, Manuel Arenas, Elio Rodríguez, and Roberto
Diago were also raising issues such as the manifestations of racism in
the tourist economy. Arenas’s painting Carné de Identidad (ID Card), of
a black man showing his ID card, set against the Cuban national emblem,
recalled the rappers’ protests against police harassment of black youth.
The establishment accused these rappers and artists of being “radical
blacks,” even as their work resonated both locally and globally. Over
time, though, the rap movement won an important space, one that was
helped along by prominent allies such as the American actor Harry
Belafonte, who spoke personally with about the importance
of the movement.

* * *

While the anti-racism struggle in Cuba was spurred by the efforts of the
younger generation, its leadership also includes an older generation of
black Cubans who remembered the pre-revolutionary years and view the
current manifestation of racism with a different lens. These Cubans,
mostly older professionals, recall the hardships of the pre-Castro era
and take pride in their advances under the revolution, even as they seek
to educate others about the need for a racial consciousness in the
ongoing fight against racism.

Norma Guillard, 70, came from a poor family in the eastern province of
Santiago de Cuba. Her parents, a dressmaker and tailor, had only an
elementary education. The oldest of five children, Guillard was put in
charge of her siblings when her mother left the house early to go to her
factory. Guillard was 13 at the time of the revolution, and at the age
of 15, she joined the Conrado Benítez Brigade and became a literacy
teacher. She was one of 105,000 youth who left their homes and went into
the countryside, where 76 percent of the population was illiterate.
Guillard recalls that it was a difficult moment; the US government was
launching repeated offensives to try to overthrow the newly installed
Cuban government. Guillard was placed in the zone of Aguacate in
Guantánamo, very far from her home. In this zone there was a
counterrevolutionary insurgency, which killed a member of her brigade.

Guillard was rejected in her first home placement because of the color
of her skin and was then placed in a mixed-race family. Despite the
racism and hardships of rural life, the literacy campaign was a kind of
liberation for Guillard from the constraints of social norms and gender
expectations. After her placement ended, she went to Havana on a
scholarship to study Russian. She was housed with other students in the
homes of wealthy exiles who had left the country after the revolution.
During this time, she also confronted the machismo of male students who
wanted the female students to wash and iron their clothes, which
Guillard refused to do.

Guillard went on to become a social psychologist, with a focus on
women’s empowerment, anti-racism, and LGBTQ activism. In the mid-1990s,
she was one of the pioneers of a small network of women known as Magín
(Image), which sought to engage in feminist activism and advocacy
outside the direct control of the state-sanctioned women’s federation.
In the midst of the post-Soviet economic crisis, these activists found
the federation—and its lack of a feminist perspective—unequipped to deal
with issues such as the revival of sex tourism, the growing gender gap,
and the negative portrayals of women in the media. The women activists
promoted certain radical perspectives on gender and sexuality in Cuban
society, such as the rights of women to engage in sex work, as long as
they retained their dignity and self-respect. After operating for a few
years, Magín was dissolved by the Communist Party in 1996; this was part
of a broader crackdown on independent groups that year, but was also due
to a fear by the government that women organizing independently
presented a risk of division in Cuban society. For the women, this was a
machista line of thinking: that they needed to be saved by the men who
understood how politics worked and how women could be seduced by the enemy.

In the new millennium, this experience was to be repeated with the
anti-racist organization Color Cubano (Cuban Color), which was started
by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Guillard
participated in activities of the organization, although she wasn’t part
of the leadership. Zurbano joined it in 2002. As the organization
reached a moment of intense activism in the mid-2000s, the Communist
Party put pressure on UNEAC, which eventually dissolved Color Cubano and
created a new organization, Comisión Aponte, from which several of the
original anti-racism leaders were excluded.

In spite of these setbacks, anti-racism activists continued to find
spaces to work. Guillard directed the Section of Identities and
Diversity in Communication in the Cuban Society of Psychology, which
provided a venue for discussions about racial discrimination. And it was
around this time that Zurbano joined the Casa de las Américas as
director of the publishing house, where he edited dozens of titles by
black authors from Cuba and around the region.

* * *

The contemporary anti-racism struggle in Cuba is a product of this
history. It is multi-generational and transnational. The groups that
have emerged over the past decade span from the urban centers of Havana
to the eastern region of Santiago de Cuba. The spaces for their social
activism are still limited, but leaders—many of them black women—are
making efforts to engage Cubans from a range of social backgrounds and
in multiple settings, from policy to activism.

In November 2012, the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Barrio Network of
Afro-Descendants) was started in the Havana barrio Balcón Arimao. The
organization was founded by three women, Maritza López, Hildelisa Leal,
and Damayanti Matos, with the aim of supporting anti-racist activism in
the marginalized barrios of Havana and creating projects to promote the
economic vitality and solidarity of the majority-black residents. The
Red Barrial is based on a horizontal style of organizing, local
leadership development, and collective decision-making, drawing on ideas
of popular education and taking inspiration from radical Brazilian
educator Paulo Freire and Martin Luther King Jr. Working closely with
the female-led organization Grupo Afrocubanas, the Red Barrial seeks to
bring together local barrio residents—mechanics, religious leaders,
architects, and doctors—to discuss old and new forms of racial
discrimination and ways to fight it.

Another project begun in 2012 is the legal-cultural organization Alianza
Unidad Racial (Racial Unity Alliance). Started by the lawyer Deyni Terri
Abreu, it focuses on civil rights, citizen education, and penal rights.
The Alianza offers free legal workshops and has won several
anti-discrimination cases, including one of a black man who had suffered
employment discrimination. It has also defended black Cubans in cases of
excessive police harassment. While black Cubans constitute about 10
percent of the population, the Cuban social scientist Rosa Campoalegre
argues that they are greatly overrepresented in the criminal justice and
penal systems. Black youth are constantly stopped by police on the
streets, asked to produce ID, and without cause. As a legal
organization, the Alianza has faced some challenges, given that the
state-approved national organization of lawyers is usually required to
provide legal representation in court cases. As a result, the Alianza
has generally been limited to court accompaniment, legal advice, and
cultural work, such as training people in how to dress and present
themselves in court.

These various organizations come together under the umbrella group
ARAAC, which counts on the participation of many longtime anti-racism
activists in Cuba, including Zurbano, Guillard, Arandia, and Abreu, as
well as the historian Robaina. Arandia saw the formation of the Cuban
chapter of ARAAC in 2012 as a major advance in the struggle for racial
equality in Cuba. While ARAAC evolved out of the earlier struggles on
the island, Arandia also saw it as marking a different moment, when
various groups could come together in a new structure to change public
policy, reach out to broader social sectors, and build alliances with
Afro-descendant groups across Latin America and the Caribbean.

In response to official rhetoric, which holds that talking about race
divides the nation, the activists of ARAAC argue rather that it is
silence about race that divides the nation. Activists have been bolder
in staking out their autonomy from the state. Gisela Morales (Giselita),
who stepped down from a paid position in ARAAC, argued at the May 4
meeting that she did not want to take money from the state and that
ARAAC should be independent: “If the citizens decide to meet, they don’t
have to ask permission from the state, and no one can dissolve a process
that the citizens decide to take forward.”

* * *

Spurred by the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States, we are
now living in a moment of heightened anti-racist struggle globally.
Groups such as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) in Australia
and the New Urban Collective in Amsterdam have taken inspiration from
#BlackLivesMatter. This moment presents new opportunities for the
anti-racist movement in Cuba. Cuban activists recognize the vast
differences, of course: that while police brutality and murder of black
youth is all too common in the United States, in Cuba police rarely use
arms or kill unarmed black people. But the disproportionate surveillance
and harassment of black youth on the island does provide grounds for
transnational solidarity. The other opening has come from the United
Nations–sponsored International Decade for People of African Descent,
which began in January 2015 under the themes recognition, justice, and
development. The conversations, gatherings, and networks generated from
it could give momentum to anti-racism organizations and their demands in

Anti-racism organizations in Cuba may fall outside the radar of the
international news media because they don’t fit the profile of the
typical groups, such as those calling for of speech
and denouncing the government. Rather, groups like ARAAC are part of a
lineage of activism that exists within the parameters of the Cuban
revolution, recognizing its progress in fighting structural
discrimination and seeking to preserve the social and economic benefits
that Afro-Cubans have won. Their allegiance to the ideals of the
revolution has helped Afro-Cuban activists to navigate a path for
independent dialogue within the constraints of the political system. But
the threat of closure or sanction is always a possibility, as is the
reality of racist backlash, as seen in recent events. One article
published last month on the Cuban website El Heraldo Cubano denies the
existence of racism in Cuba and attacks the Alianza Unidad Racial and
another organization, Cofradía de la Negritud (Brotherhood of
Blackness), as counter-revolutionaries funded by the US government. But
these organizations and activists openly define themselves as
anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and decolonizing. That does not
endear them to the kinds of US democracy-promotion programs sponsored by
USAID and the Obama administration.

There is now more than ever a need for these anti-racism organizations
on the island, as recent openings to the United States and an expanding
market economy have generated greater racial and economic inequalities.
Given the concentration of black Cubans in substandard housing, their
lack of access to capital, including remittances from abroad, and the
prevalence of racist norms in hiring for the tourism industry,
Afro-Cubans are much more poorly placed to take advantage of openings
for social mobility and economic improvement. Black-led anti-racism
organizations provide the best chance for ensuring that Afro-Cubans are
not left behind as normalization proceeds.

SUJATHA FERNANDES TWITTER Sujatha Fernandes is a professor of sociology
at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City of New York.
She is the author of several books, including Cuba Represent!, Who Can
Stop The Drums?, and Close to the Edge. Her forthcoming book, Mobilizing
Stories: The Political Uses of Storytelling, will be published next year.

Source: Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism Between Two Fires | The Nation

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