Black Cubans: Restoring U.S. Ties is Cool, But America, Keep Your Hang-ups About Race at Bay

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

Will the current racial tension in America seep into Cuba and awaken a sleeping giant? Black Cubans say probably not.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

An abridged version of this article was published at The Root on January 21, 2015.

It doesn’t matter how much Cuba’s culture changes now that the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations, if you’re waiting for black Cubans to set off some sort of racial revolution, don’t hold your breath.

That’s according to a handful of black Cubans who shared their thoughts and experiences with The Root in the edited Q&A below about how the restoration of ties between the U.S. and Cuba might impact black Cubans. They also spoke candidly on how their experiences with “race” compares to the African-American experience—especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Four black Cubans and one mulatto shared their perspectives: Omar Diaz, a 28-year-old black Cuban actor living in Miami, immigrated to the U.S. when he was four years old. He said that while he’s rooting for a democratic Cuba, he hopes that black Cubans will continue to benefit from socialism’s decree that Cubans prioritize nationalism over race.

Ruben*—a 52-year-old black photographer and book publisher. He is the only interviewee that is still living in Cuba and did not emigrate, save for a few business trips to Europe every now and then. Even though he spoke passionately about the race inequality in Cuba, he explained why he and most black Cubans don’t quite see themselves as Afro-Cuban or black Cuban—just Cuban.

afro cuban boys

Afro-Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba. JPLAVOIE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

First-cousins Elia E. Espuet and Sira Perez, on the hand, both strongly identify as Afro-Cubans. Both women, ages 63 and 62, immigrated to the U.S. when they were teenagers in the late 1960s, Fidel Castro having assumed power in 1959. They could easily pass as African Americans, though they vividly remember how they were advised not to, in order to escape the brutality facing black Americans fighting for civil rights. That distinction—Cuba’s kind of racism versus America’s kind racism—stuck with them. They maintain that black Cubans have it better in some ways on that front.  

Georgina Rodriguez, 53,—their mulatto, as she described herself, cousin (who was categorized as “white” in Cuba when she was born)—doesn’t want Americans spewing their “racial framework” and “neo-conservatism” all over Cuba. She argues the former doesn’t account for all of Cuba’s ethnicities and the latter will only widen the inequality gap.

The Root: What do you think about how the U.S. and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations?

Diaz: It’s about time. President Obama was correct when he sat down, analyzed the situation and found that it hadn’t worked for over 50 years. And even though the U.S. didn’t get everything it should have gotten, in terms of the democratic rights that should be granted to Cubans, I think this is the first step that needed to be taken towards the overall goal of bringing democracy to Cuba. This idea that ‘If we kept the relationship the same, things are going to change,’ obviously wasn’t working.

Espuet: I’m also delighted. Cuba’s economic situation will improve as the tourism and business sectors flourish. But, I do fear that as travel to Cuba expands, so will racism. 

The Root: I’ve heard that concern. The idea that while Fidel Castro’s socialism didn’t bode well for Cuba’s economy—largely due to the downfall of its benefactor, the Soviet Union—it did break some ground with regard to making race less of a thing.

Diaz: Yeah—I spoke to my grandmother about what it was like being a black Cuban during Castro’s socialist regime and she told me that for the first time, she was able to elevate herself and become a school principal—a position that was not previously attainable for a black woman. She and my mother said that when Castro took over, Cubans were conditioned to emphasis nationalism over race.

I’m not saying racism in Cuba is completely gone—because I don’t think you can ever get rid of racism—but the mentality that socialism brought to Cuba is that there isn’t a black Cuba or a white Cuba; we’re all the same. Communism led to that. Under the U.S. embargo, my black grandmother and black mother say their experience with racism was very little—if any at all.

Ruben: It was one of Fidel’s goals, but it was never quite realized because   there were too many people that benefited from having blacks relegated to second class.

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An interracial couple in Havana City with pictures of Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the wall and a bust of Cuban national hero José Marti on the shelf. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: With all that being said, do you all think of yourself as a black Cuban or just Cuban?

Ruben: I don’t feel Afro-Cuban—my cultural link to Africa has been minimal to none. In Cuba, the reference to African culture is not as conscious as it is in the U.S. where blacks refer to themselves as African Americans.

Espuet: I absolutely identify as an Afro-Cuban. I am proud of my African heritage. It is an invisible badge of honor that I proudly wield.

But, I must say that when I first left Cuba at age 14, I self-identified as Cuban—not really black. It took years of learning, exploring, understanding and finally accepting what I truly am: a proud black Cuban woman.

Perez: I’m also very proud to identify as black or Afro-Cuban.

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

The Root: Espuet, you began to touch on this: As American influences trickle into Cuba in the years to come, is there a concern that the racial progress that Castro’s socialism ushered in will become undone?

Espuet: Yes—I’m inclined to believe that as relations with Cuba and the United States go forward, the rich white Cubans will marginalize the black Cubans on the island. Unfortunately, I don’t see things becoming better for black Cubans.

Rodriguez: Agreed. I mean everyone in Cuba—black, white and mulatto—will benefit from better infrastructure and greater access to goods, food and medicine. The Castro regime will no longer have an excuse for its totalitarian control over people’s thoughts or actions and the Cuban people will finally be thrust into the modern world with Internet and everything. But, there is a degree of wariness with regards to the potential socioeconomic inequalities that America’s kind of neo-conservative capitalism brings with it.

The Root: But doesn’t socioeconomic inequality already exist in Cuba? White Cubans are disproportionately represented in politics; they have the best-paying jobs—they live in the best neighborhoods. Socialism certainly didn’t cause that inequality, but it doesn’t exactly allow for social and civic expressions like homosexuality or freedom of speech either.

Rodriguez: African Americans have more equal rights “on paper” than Afro-Cubans, but that hasn’t eradicated racism in American society or its institutions like the police. Look at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin for instance.

In Cuba, the races live side by side much more than they do in the U.S. There is far less de facto segregation in Cuba. Families are so much more mixed and so racial hatred in Cuba doesn’t run as deep as in America, because everyone has a black grandma cooking in the kitchen unseen. So I would definitely say that there is more racial equality in Cuba than in the USA in many ways.

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Afro-Cuban musicians entertain tourists on the streets of Havana. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: There’s poverty in Cuba. Black Cubans—who were always marginalized—have felt that Will their financial wellbeing improve if the embargo is lifted and American dollars start to trickle into Cuba with more ease and less restrictions? 

Diaz: Definitely—I’m looking forward to the economic benefits. Most black Cubans aren’t receiving financial help from relatives abroad—like white Cubans do—because remember blacks didn’t leave Cuba at the time of the Revolution. Castro’s policies appealed mostly to the poor, so they stayed. Now that the channels are opening up, someone like me, a black Cuban, can go back to my island, open up a business there, or open up a business here in the U.S. and help my black Cuban relatives.

Rodriguez: Affirmative-action policies will certainly benefit black Cubans.

The Root: What do Cuba and the U.S. have in common when it comes to race relations? What are some of the differences?  

Rodriguez: In terms of similarities, a white or light-skinned Cuban would definitely prefer their children not to marry a “negro” because there is the idea that their descendants are going to take a step back socially—atrasarse.

The Root: I suspect that’s how colorism works here in the U.S.

Rodriguez: But people are very understanding of attraction, lust and love. So interracial couples happen a lot in Cuba and it’s definitely not a taboo; people don’t stare at you and your kids don’t get stigmatized.

The differences: The day-to-day experience of the average black person in Cuba is far less scary than in America. Black lives are not endangered in Cuba simply because there is far less crime and guns are illegal. 

Perez: Yeah, I don’t recall being threatened in Cuba, nothing like the racism here in the U.S. Now racism does exist in Cuba, but again, it’s just different. For instance, when I was a child, I wanted to take ballet lessons at a school in Havana but I knew that was a dream that would never come true because of the color of my skin and not having the right connections.

I also remember looking through the holes of the gate to this exclusive tennis club and dreaming of one day to be able to participate. That was also an impossible dream at the time, but I guess that as a black Cuban, I conformed and accepted our place in society.

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazar

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazarus pilgrims in Havana, Dec. 2009. Thousands of believers gather annually to fulfill vows made to Saint Lazarus (also referred to as Babalu Aye) for the worshippers of the Afro-Cuban religion. ADALBERTO ROQUE/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: What has it been like being black in Cuba, versus being black in the U.S.?

Espuet: When I first came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 14, race and ethnicity were not questions I thought about at all, but I definitely faced them in the U.S. It was confusing because friends of the family would tell us that being a black Cuban in the U.S. was tantamount to being white. We had a “pass.”

If there were any racial incidents, just let them know you are Cuban and you’ll be O.K.’ they would tell us. What?! This was completely new to me.

Perez: I pushed back against that when the U.S. census tried to identify me as Hispanic only. I made the correction and added “black.” My identity as a black Cuban became even more prominent when my kids—who were growing up in the U.S.—identified themselves as Afro-Americans.

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Sira Perez at age 17 in Kingston, Jamaica, 1970. She had just gotten off the boat from Cuba and was en route to the U.S. COURTESY OF SIRA PEREZ

The Root: What is Cuba’s perception of America’s race relations, especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Espuet:  Back then, I remember being glad that because of my nationality, no one would come after me with dogs and water hoses—a fear I had before leaving Cuba. In the 1960s, there was widespread propaganda in Cuba about how African Americans were being treated in America. I remember telling my mother that I was afraid to go live in the U.S. She had to assure me that we were going to New York, and things like that didn’t happen there. But, racism here in the U.S. is alive and well and rampant. It saddens me to think that in this day and age, it is still a dominating issue among Americans.

An Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27,

n Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27, 2009, in Havana during the Wemilere festival, the most traditional event aimed at keeping the African roots. STR/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: Do you think black Cubans will become more racially conscious and want to exalt their blackness—for lack of a better term? Bring more awareness to their African ancestry?

Ruben: I don’t think America’s social influence will affect black Cubans. Cuba has been exposed to tourism and has had contact with the developed world for 20 years; that exposure hasn’t triggered a renewed awareness of ethnic identity. Nor has racism has become stronger or weaker, in my opinion.

Diaz: I do think there would be a rise in black culture, but there wouldn’t be a movement to create a Black History Month in Cuba, per se, because again Cubans were conditioned to put nationalism before race. Black Cubans wouldn’t do anything to separate themselves, but more so, to bring more awareness to black culture and to celebrate it.

Black Cuban public figures, like Celia Cruz for example, will be celebrated. If a democracy is put in place and restrictions against certain kinds of activism are lifted, people that need to be celebrated in Cuba are going to be celebrated. And a lot of those people are going to be black Cubans for sure. African culture is in the food and it’s in the music—and those are the two most important things in Cuba. {Laughter}.

The Root: Is that level of racial consciousness a good thing or a bad thing?

Rodriguez: I prefer the racial framework in Cuba and other Latin American countries because there are more options than black or white—an attitude that I think the USA needs to adopt now that there are so many bi- and multiracial people. Notice how Ruben in Cuba rejects the term Afro-Cuban, while Elia and Sira in the U.S. accept it? In my opinion, that’s the U.S. racial framework that Elia and Sire have learned to apply.

*Ruben is a pseudonym. He lives in Cuba and would only speak to The Root on condition of anonymity.

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