Black People in Cuba

Three Black women and a Black girl, of varying skin tones, wearing uniforms and looking at the camera

Leroy Lucas

Cover for Southern Exposure's Southern Black Utterances Today cover featuring a woodcut print of a Black man's face gazing upward, by Atlanta artist Lucious Hightower

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 1, "Southern Black Utterances Today." Find more from that issue here.

A “sugar cane curtain" separates the United States from Cuba, an island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Not too many Americans have been to Cuba since Fidel Castro became Prime Minister in 1959, and relationships between that government and our own have been adverse for some 15 years. When most Americans think about Cuba, they think about Castro the "dictator," communism, political repression, sugarcane, rum or cigars, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962, etc. Not many stop to consider the fact that Cuba became a possession of the United States after the so-called Spanish-American War of 1898, and that between then and 1958 the country was almost completely controlled and dominated by the United States.

U.S. corporations owned the major industrial, agricultural and utility firms, and to protect these interests the U.S. government manipulated the Cuban government at will. Rich North Americans had turned Cuba into their "island paradise," creating vast money-making enterprises around gambling, prostitution and drugs. For the Cuban people, U.S. control of their natural resources and their lives meant poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and hopelessness. Less than half of the school age children attended school; only one rural hospital existed in the country; and corruption pervaded the government. In January, 1959, when Fidel Castro marched into Havana at the head of the popular rebel forces, the seizure of power from the U.S. and its puppets opened the way for the Cuban people to develop an independent politics and an independent economy that could meet their needs. The United States had left them a stunted and deformed country politically, economically, technologically, culturally; reconstructing it would be the country's main task for many years.

Even after the new government was in power, the U.S. government, as it does in most of Latin America and in many other countries around the world, arrogated unto itself the right to determine the political and economic direction of that society, and financed the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (with the full approval of the "liberal" President, John F. Kennedy). Determined to remain a free people, the Cubans defeated the invaders in 48 hours. Humiliated, the U.S. continued to finance other mercenaries in the Escambray Mountains until they too were soundly defeated in 1965, fabricated the "missile crisis" and imposed an economic blockade. The U.S. government has also maintained the Guantanamo Naval Base on the island — with total disrespect and disregard for the rights of the Cuban people and international law, refuses to this day to permit materials and books about present-day Cuba into this country, and otherwise distorts the truth about the progress which is being made on the island.

Politics and economics in Cuba are now organized to serve the interests of the masses of people and not the rich few. Popular democracy is a reality and racism is being eliminated. Cuba is a nation in which government corruption and inefficiency are not tolerated as in the United States, where unemployment does not exist and prostitution, gambling, drugs, and other crimes are being wiped out of existence. Cubans do not pay taxes, yet health services are free, education — through the university level —is free, no one in the country pays more than 10% of their monthly income for rent, and, in fact, furnished apartments for people living in rural areas are provided, complete with TV's and refrigerators.

Education is so thorough and comprehensive that children can read and write when they are in the second grade and 98.5% of the people are literate —one of the highest rates in the world, surpassing even that of the United States! Women are rapidly being incorporated into the labor force and other parts of society. Doctors and other professionals are being trained on an ever-expanding basis. Many schools, hospitals and homes are being built, agricultural output has increased and is being mechanized, and the technical and fishing industries are growing very rapidly. All of this progress, and more, has been made even though Cuba is considered a poor, underdeveloped country and in spite of the U.S. government's policy of blockade and aggression against Cuba.

Black people played a significant role in the history and development of Cuba and many people ask how racism is being overcome and if black Cubans have also gained by the progress there. Historically, Cuba's development, especially with regards to colonization, was similar to that of the United States. That is, the country was colonized by a white European state (Spain in this case), a large majority of the original Indian inhabitants were exterminated, and African slave labor was used to develop the land and resources. There were slave rebellions and insurrections from the beginning, but it was not until 1869 that the movement began to crystallize. In that year slavery was abolished. In that year also, what Cubans refer to as their "First War of Independence" began, and continued for ten years. One of the historical facts which distinguishes the black situation in Cuba from that in the U.S. is that the independence movement and the struggle against slavery were always linked together. This is one of the reasons why Cubans do not use the category "race" as we do. They insist that what they refer to as the "Cuban Nationality" began when their three peoples (Blacks, Whites, Mestizos) first united in 1868 to struggle for independence.

After the First War of Independence periodic eruptions continued until full-scale war broke out again in 1865. During this entire period, the decisive participation of Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez, black generals, and the Mambesi troops, former slaves credited with organizing guerrilla tactics at this early period, were crucial to the victories being won against Spanish domination. "Maceo and Jose Marti (a white Cuban, now referred to as the Intellectual Author of the Cuban Revolution) challenged every expression of racism and discrimination in the ranks of the Independence Movement. They represented the unity and purpose of all Cubans in the struggle for liberty."1 It was only the intervention of the United States in 1898 which prevented a final Cuban victory in that year. By 1901, the U.S. government could manipulate Cuban politics and economics at will. With this domination came attempts by the U.S. to instill racist attitudes and to use racism to divide the Cuban people against themselves.

Institutionally, these attempts were successful and racism became the official state policy.

Many racist practices were transferred to Cuba from the United States. The U.S. controlled government set up discriminatory civil service practices and prohibited blacks, who had fought so hard for Cuba's independence, from even serving in the police force. 

Cuban blacks remained relegated to a position of second-class citizens . . . [and] suffered all the traditional forms of humiliation found in a racist society. They were burdened with the hardest, most unskilled and lowest paid work. Black women, with some exceptions —as in the case of entertainers —could aspire to no more than being a maid or wash-woman. Many were forced into a life of prostitution. The beaches, social clubs and many better neighborhoods were Jim Crow. Blacks had less opportunities for edcuation [and employment] than whites . . . [and] lived in the most miserable conditions . . .

. . . This condition of inequality in social, political and economic life continued through¬ out the entire period of the 'pseudo-Republic' and only ended with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.2

With such conditions in existence, Fidel Castro and the new government which came to power in 1959 had their work cut out for them. The legal basis for institutional racism was immediately declared null and void and Fidel stated "one must place the stigma of public condemnation upon those who, so full of past prejudices, are unscrupulous enough to discriminate against or abuse some Cubans because of a lighter or darker skin." Cuban government policy assures equality for all and no racist can hope to maintain any position of authority in Cuba today. Through such policies, the prejudice which persists is being fast uprooted.

We can look also at the fundamental social and economic transformations which have been brought about by the Cuban Revolution to gauge the success of efforts being made to overcome the consequences of racism. In the early years of the new government, agrarian and urban reform laws helped black peasants and city dwellers as they did other Cubans. The Agrarian Reform Law redistributed land, while the Urban Reform Law "abolished the parasitic landlord class and lowered rents to ten percent (10%) of income."3 Homes, schools and hospitals are being built around the island, especially in rural areas. Cubans are guaranteed employment and pay no taxes. Education, at all levels, and health services are free. In the schools and universities, blacks and whites are being educated on equal terms as doctors, engineers, agronomists, technicians, teachers and administrators. Beaches and social clubs which were restricted are now free and open to all Cubans. "Black Cubans today enjoy political, economic and social rights and opportunities of exactly the same kind as white Cubans. They too bear arms in the Cuban Militia as an expression of their basic rights. For these reasons, Stokely Carmichael once described Fidel Castro as 'one of the blackest men in the Americas.'"4

It would be a difficult task to name all the blacks in positions of authority in Cuba. Major Juan Almeida, for example, was one of the original guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, and is currently a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Cuba and the primary leader of Oriente, the province in which many black Cubans live.

Blacks in Cuba represent some 25-30% of the population. "The majority of the white population naturally predominates numerically in most spheres of activity, but they do not hold dominion over blacks without regard to the latter's interests."5 (emphasis added) The distinction between or among groups of people is lost in Cuba because power is equitably distributed among them. Blacks have achieved dignity in the process of the Cuban Revolution and, having achieved their rights, "can in fact afford to forget the category 'black' and think simply as Cuban citizens, as Socialist equals, as men,"6 as women, and as human beings. Though there are still some problems with prejudice, "one must at least tentatively conclude that without discrimination, the institutionalization of racism, and the economic inequalities, the underpinnings and support of racist behavior are severely curtailed. In Cuba, at least, the direction seems very clear. . ."7

The position of black Cubans on the question of race is very thought-provoking. They, of course, are very critical of racism. In addition, they have a very strong anti all-black mentality. Having had the opportunity to spend two months in Cuba in 1974, permit me to provide an example of that mentality. A brother from Peoples' College in Nashville, Tennessee, had some buttons which read, "La Revolucion Es Posible/ La Solidaridad Afro-Americana Con La Revolucion Cubana" ("The Revolution is Possible/ Afro-American Solidarity With The Cuban Revolution"). The immediate response of several black Cubans was, "Afro-Americans only—no! All Americans —yes!" While it was thought-provoking, it also reflected a degree of arrogance, or at least some misinformation, as they seemed to be looking at our predicament through the eyes of their experience and projecting a strong multinational or multi-racial perspective. We must be able to look at the objective historical development of their situation, and they must be able to do the same for ours.

It was also interesting to note that most black Cubans do not wear naturals or Afros, and many women still use make-up which reflects Eurocentric standards of beauty. While Cubans in general sympathize with our situation, they consider the Afro a symbol of protest and resistance and insist that their society is developing in such a way that black Cubans have no reason to protest. While in Havana one Sunday afternoon, we met and spoke with a group of five black Cuban women with 'fros. They were quick to point out that they were not protesting conditions in Cuba, but were expressing solidarity with black people in America and patterned their hair styles after Angela Davis, who has been there several times in the past few years. They are, without a doubt, Cubans first, blacks second. They would question, very severely, a narrowly defined Pan-African approach to problems because they live in a very internationalist-minded country and relate strongly to all oppressed and exploited peoples around the world, regardless of their color.

As an expression of sympathy and solidarity with our struggle, Cubans of all colors celebrate August 18th (the anniversary of the Watts rebellion) as the "Day of Solidarity with the Afro- American Struggle." Similar days of celebration were held for the struggles in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Vietnam. They continue to be held for Chile, Palestine, South Africa and other areas around the world where people are being denied freedom and self-determination. Cubans thus consider themselves as part of the movement to create a new humanity based on truth, openness and criticism, and to develop politics, economics and culture so they serve the masses of people and not a privileged few.

Black Americans can learn many lessons from the Cuban Revolution, among them the need for revolutionary social and economic transformation of society in order to bring about fundamental changes in the way that people live; the importance of political socialization and the institutionalization of mass participation in decision making; and the necessity for high levels of spirit, enthusiasm, discipline and sacrifice to effectuate change. It is crucial to bear in mind too that in the revolutionary process it takes time to overcome backward attitudes and habits which have been taught or forced upon people for centuries. High levels of political consciousness do not come into being simply because they are declared. Further, given the nature of multi-national capitalism, it is necessary for all peoples engaged in struggle to develop an international perspective. An internationalist perspective does not mean one abandons or denies the particularity of the predicament of black Americans, but it helps ensure that our struggle remains in the "mainstream" of that oppressed and exploited humanity which is moving toward full and complete liberation. We must know and remember that "colour has become (significant) because (white people) found it convenient to use racialism to exploit the black peoples of the world . . . and that for. . . so long as there are people who deny our humanity as blacks, then for so long must we proclaim and assert our humanity as blacks.. ."8

So it is, then, that we have the experiences of two groups of black people which can be compared, Black Cubans and Black Americans. The historical developments of the two experiences are parallel, yet different. Both have many lessons to learn from one another and we must not permit the existence of the "sugar cane curtain" or any other obstacle unilaterally imposed by the U.S. government to prevent the mutual sharing of ideas, materials and experiences.


1. Jordan, Carl (Prensa Latina), "Blacks in Cuba." Latin America, March 15, 1970, p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 4.

4. Rodney, Walter, Groundings With My Brothers. Reprint, 1970, p. 31.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid

7. Bambara, Toni Cade. "Trip to Cuba," Liberation, Feb., 1974.

8. Rodney, p. 39.