Paul D’Amato, Editor of the International Socialist Review, in a 2007 article on “Race and Sex in Cuba,” maintains that Cuba does not represent true socialism (see “Who defines socialism?” 4/20/2016). In accordance with this point of view, he focuses on the imperfections of Cuban society.
D’Amato presents a portrait of a Cuba as far whiter and far more racist than the Cuba that I know. He cites the 1981 Cuban census, indicating that the nation at that time was 66% white, 22% mestizo, and 12% black. These figures are so inconsistent with visual scrutiny that one would think that there was an error, that the figures for whites and mulattos had been inverted. Regardless of the figures, there is also the fact of the pervasive influence of African culture on the island, as is indicated by the significant extent to which persons of all colors indulge, somewhat superficially, in African religious practices; and by an historical consciousness that identifies slave rebellions (as well as indigenous resistance to the Spanish conquest) as precursors to a revolutionary process that was launched in 1868 when a slaveholder freed his slaves and called upon them to take up arms with him in opposition to Spanish colonialism. I recall that on one occasion a Cuban leader, who looked more or less white, introduced his nation to my students, who were white, by referring to Cuba as an African-American nation.
Even more surprising was a 1995 study of three Havana neighborhoods, cited by D’Amato, that found racist attitudes among whites: 58% believed blacks to be less intelligent; and 68% were opposed to interracial marriage. I have never heard anyone express such attitudes, and they are completely inconsistent with the prevailing consciousness among the people. When on rare occasions people made comments that could be interpreted as prejudiced, they were casual cultural and social observations that were not offered as a justification for inequality or as implying that social investments that benefit Afro-Cubans should be eliminated. In Cuba, it is assumed that the state has a moral obligation to act decisively to protect the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race or color.
In the United States, whites repeatedly are saying that their opinions on the role of government and on social issues have nothing to do with race, a denial that comes across as a ploy, conscience or not, for racism in a subtle form. Cubans, however, truly do not think in racial terms, except as a skin color that is useful for descriptive purposes, similar to height or weight. Currently there is, for example, public discussion of a lack of discipline at the workplace as well as a lack of revolutionary consciousness and work ethic among some youth. These issues are not seen in terms of race. They are understood as issues of popular culture, involving the daily habits and practices of people of all colors, and of the need for revolutionary transformation of certain characteristics of popular culture.
D’Amato maintains that the Cuban Revolution argues that the issue of race has been completely resolved. This is not the case. The 1962 Second Declaration of Havana, which he cites in support of this claim, asserted that racial and gender discrimination in Cuba have been abolished. The document did not intend to assert that all issues of race and gender had been fully resolved. Indeed, it would have been absurd to maintain that a declaration could eliminate problems that were centuries in the making. Let us recall the context of the time. In the United States, the battles of Birmingham and Selma as well as the rebellions of Watts and Newark lay ahead, and the issue of gender equality was not included in public discourse. In a world in conflict over these issues, Cuba was proclaiming its political will to fully implement civil, political, social and economic rights for all, regardless of race or gender. The 1962 Declaration of Havana was not a propaganda ploy or a clever maneuver by a white leadership to bury reflection on the problem of race, as D’Amato implies. The Declaration was a clear proclamation of commitment to fundamental principles, nothing more and nothing less, an affirmation enthusiastically and proudly supported by the people of all colors. To treat it otherwise is to indulge in cynicism and to not see the simplicity and decency of the Cuban people; it is to attribute to them a capacity for cynical political manipulation that they do not possess.
The concepts of institutional discrimination, symbolic racism and laissez-faire racism were developed in the United States in the post-1965 period, after the attainment of significant gains with respect to civil and political rights. These concepts reflect the US racial context. White society had made concessions, but the great majority of whites did not arrive to understand and appreciate the African-American perspective on the American experience, the meaning of democracy, or the global structures of white domination. As a result, most whites, although moving away from blatant forms of racism, continued to be racist in subtler ways, as was reflected in the unequivocal rejection by white society of black demands for decisive state action to protect the social and economic rights of all US citizens and for a more democratic foreign policy. And it is reflected in the fact that the economic inequalities between blacks and whites are roughly the same today as they were prior to the civil rights gains of the 1960s. But concepts formed in the US context should not be applied to Cuba, which in the same post-1960s era had a fundamentally different experience with respect to race.
In revolutionary Cuba, there was full commitment by the government and the people for the protection of the civil, political, social and economic rights of all; and blacks, mulattos and whites were participating together in the development of a national anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-racist project. No one thought that the issues of race were fully resolved, and no one used a false claim to this effect as a pretext for rejecting separate black organizations, as D’Amato claims. Separate black organizations were rejected as a strategy because the Cuban experience of struggle had shown that interracial organizations were more effective, inasmuch as interracial organizations, and not separate black organizations, had brought down the dictator and had put power in the hands of the people (see “Black political organizations in Cuba” 4/18/2016); because the separate black organizations that existed at the time of the triumph of the revolution were reactionary rather than progressive, and they did not participate in the overthrow of the dictator; because it seemed unnecessary to have black organizations, given full black participation in the popular organizations and popular power, and given that the revolution already possessed the political will to fully implement the rights of blacks; and because there was concern that separate black organizations would undermine the unity of the people, especially in a context in which powerful external enemies were prepared to exploit any possible division to bring the Cuban Revolution down.
D’Amato argues that, with hindsight, the “color-blind” approach of the revolution and its emphasis on the unity of the people were erroneous, because problems of race still exist. But such a claim is reasonable only if it were to be expected that a revolution after fifty years ought to have fully resolved a complex economic and cultural problem that had been centuries in the making. The Cuban Revolution should be credited for its significant reductions in racial inequality with respect to income, education, and political empowerment. Complete racial equality has not been attained, and this invites reflection on how a level of racial inequality could persist in the context of a society that is fully committed to the elimination of racial discrimination. Such reflection is indeed beginning today, although other issues have a higher priority among the people, such as the satisfaction of material needs and the new imperialist strategy of the United States to finally bring the Cuban Revolution to an end.
D’Amato’s highly selective discussion of race is rooted in his belief that Cuba is not socialist and that the Cuban Revolution does not have the characteristics that a socialist revolution ought to have. But what should a socialist revolution in a neocolonized underdeveloped Caribbean nation look like? This will be the subject of our next post.
Key words: race, Cuba, racism, prejudice, racial inequality, socialism