Alternative names: Cuban-Africans
Location: throughout Cuba, especially Oriente province
Population: 3-4 million (est.)
% of population: 30%-40% (est.)
Religion: Catholicism, African beliefs
Post-revolutionary Cuba claims to be the most racially harmonious society in Latin America. Even before the revolution of 1959, the island was regarded by many as a model in racial harmony. However, scant records and a paucity of systematic studies both pre- and post-revolution make accurate assessment of these claims almost impossible. As in Brazil, there are few pure blacks or pure whites — most Cubans find themselves somewhere between the two extremes. As a result, the social order of the country can quite legitimately be viewed in terms of social class. Another problem is the polarization of commentators on the subject. Facts are distorted or omitted to further political argument, leaving little room for consensus of opinion.
Blacks first arrived in Cuba as slaves to work the plantations about 450 years ago. They played a prominent role in the war of independence from Spain between 1895 and 1898, constituting the bulk of the rank-and-file (though not officers) but failed to achieve equality after the subsequent victory. After attaining liberty from slavery in 1886 the struggle for racial equality was fought within the prevailing political structures and through existing political parties. The Constitution of 1901 guaranteed formal equality of all races. By 1908 an organization which later became the Partido de los Independientes de Color was formed. The Morua Amendments to the Electoral Reform Law of 1910 effectively closed the door to parties organized along racial lines and led the Independientes to take up arms. The war of 1912, often belittlingly referred to as la querrita del 12 (“the little war of 12”) saw the death of thousands of blacks, both rebels and civilians, in direct war actions and in race riots and massacres.
The Independientes were more or less erradicated by the war and its aftermath, and no other political organization of blacks emerged before the revolution of 1959. The so-called 50% law, passed after the 1933 radical uprising, established that all employers must employ at least 50% Cuban natives. Although this did not materially alter discrimination against blacks, it did improve their employment situation. Batista, a mulatto, by rebelling with rank-and-file against the army, effectively eliminated the army’s elite and paved the way for blacks to enter all ranks of the armed forces.
While the Constitutional Convention of 1940 produced a document which established full equality for all Cubans, the administration was slow to enact complementary legislation. However, there is some evidence to suggest that in the lead-up to the 1959 revolution, the position of the Afro-Cuban was improving, if not with respect to their fellow country people, then at least in absolute terms. It seems, also, that during the later part of Batista’s rule, there was a concerted effort to divert black attention from the gathering revolutionary movement — which was portrayed as mainly for the benefit of whites. The effort was only partly successful. When revolutionary forces entered the streets of Havana in 1959, blacks were represented at all levels, from officials to privates.
Since the revolution, it is true to say that, whatever the incidence of racial prejudice, actual discrimination has been eliminated. No-one is barred access to jobs, education or social facilities of any kind for reasons of skin colour. Blacks, as the lowest pre-revolutionary social order, have perhaps gained most. Early redistributive measures — the two Agrarian Reform Laws and the Urban Law, amongst others — improved the status of Afro-Cubans. Castro was at great pains to address racial prejudice in Cuban society, but has been criticized by some commentators for not introducing elements of “positive discrimination”. Although 30% to 40% of the population are of African descent, this figure is not reflected in the top echelons of the country’s power structure. However, the second echelon reveals many Afro-Cubans in relative positions of power, though no formal study has been made to verify the extent of black participation in Cuban government.
Before 1959, while discrimination was officially illegal, prejudice was rife. Public schools, which suffered from shortages of resources, were integrated, while private schools were almost exclusively white. Some 30% of high school students attended private schools before the revolution. By 1961, the private school system had disappeared and a more integrated system had taken its place. While the revolutionary government has taken measures to equalize access to health care, developing a public health system with the emphasis on prevention, some commentators conclude that racial inequality in public health remains a feature of Cuban life. Other changes since the revolution occurred in the housing sector. While no housing discrimination existed pre-revolution, Afro-Cubans tended to live in more dilapidated areas. But the revolution brought an immediate 50% reduction in rents and eventually ownership of houses for occupiers. As a result, the rate of black home ownership is high. But 30 years after the Revolution many Cubans, both black and white, may well have higher expectations and ambitions than the present system can offer.
(See also Afro-Brazilians)