Cuba. Racial discrimination. A resilient look to the challenges of the 21st century

By Rolando Zulueta Zulueta

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Translated by: Devon Severson

Objective: Explain the relevance of addressing the problem of racial discrimination in the current Cuban society.

Keywords: Cuba, Racism, Discrimination, Demonized, Marginalized. 



Racial discrimination constitutes a social scourge that, in the case of Cuba, is closely linked to the development of the slave production system that the Spanish metropolis sustained over the archipelago for more than four centuries. Slavery meant the forced migration of millions of human beings from the African continent who, uprooted from their lands, were economically and brutally exploited, demonized, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped. Over them, a barrier of prejudices was erected aimed at invisibilizing their role in the construction of Cuban history, culture, and nationality. 

What was previously stated about this human group and its descendants was not only reproduced, but was reinforced in a new context of social exploitation and subordination of some social groups by others during the republican period. Only the arrival of the political-economic power of the triumphant Revolution in January 1959 meant a rupture with regard to the issue of racial discrimination in a new type of society like the one dreamed by José Martí, “With everyone and for the good of all.” The adopted social inclusion measures constituted irrefutable proof of the internal and external policies of the leadership of the revolutionary government since they came to power. Understand, these were the defense of the rights of all Cuban citizens in national and international forums, the elimination of private property within the fundamental means of production, without taking into account the skin color and social position of the people, access to beaches, clubs, education, work, health, paid vacations, retirement, among other measures.

The international situation of the late eighties and the set of political-economic-social measures put into effect by the country’s top management in the 90s of the twentieth century had the aim of safeguarding the conquests and ensuring the march of socialism in Cuba. Although they were not neoliberal in nature, they fostered social inequities, crises of values, excessive enrichment and living above the possibilities that generate a real wage, poverty, the resurgence of racism, and the reproduction of social prejudices that many Cubans had already surpassed; among them, those related to racial discrimination. Therefore, before the Cuban people were presented with an acute economic and social crisis, of values ​​in which social asymmetries are consolidated. The social economic crisis was influenced by external and internal factors.


Centuries of colonial enslavement and fifty-six years of a Republic dependent on the foreign policy of the North American imperialist governments, wove a long period of years characterized by the construction of a racist, prejudiced, exclusionary culture. The construction was the generator of stereotypes through which the contribution of Blacks, Mestizos, and their descendants to the development of the Cuban nation was excluded, minimized, and invisibilized. That was the cultural heritage inherited by the triumphant revolution in January 1959.

The revolutionary triumph and the seizure of political power meant a parting of waters in Cuban society at that time; a before and after the redemptive January in which the dreams of millions of Cuban men and women materialized through true and definitive national independence.

The march of the process and its consequent radicalization with the promulgation of laws and the taking of increasingly inclusive and popular measures, damaged the historical bases of racism in general. Along with discrimination and racial discrimination in particular, when a new political power was imposed that included new social actors in the construction of the new society, the dispossessed. They displaced the bourgeoisie as the ruling class from power.

For the maximum direction of the revolution, the scourge of racial discrimination with all its aftermath was not unrelated. The response was immediate. The inclusive measures adopted and the ideological combat through speeches, television and radio appearances, as well as the foundation of inclusive mass organizations, constituted the methods to unveil and confront it. Speeches by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz and Commander Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Che), in the months of March and December 1959, respectively, constitute irrefutable proof of the new ideology that was gestating the revolution and the transparency with which their leaders involved themselves in the struggle to eradicate existing social inequities.

The ideology made possible the necessary unity in the face of the challenges of building a new society just ninety miles from the greatest imperialist power in history. The unity joined all the people in the urgent tasks regarding national defense and the safeguarding of the conquests achieved. It also made possible the direction of the country in the fight against the errors and negative trends that were parallely gestated during the construction of the new society, threatening its full realization.

The crisis of the Cuban Economic Model in the nineties of the twentieth century, due to external and internal causes in its development, caused the establishment of the so-called Special Period in Peacetime. From its establishment, the life of the people changed suddenly. The scarcity of all kinds characterized the daily life of the Cuban men and women. All while the economic growth figures acquired negative values, social behaviors emerged that were alien to the shared values ​​fostered by the revolutionary process. An undesirable social inequality took hold, in which skin color was retaken as a variable of exclusion in terms of opportunities for social mobility. Tempered by a different social context, stereotypes and prejudices associated with racial discrimination and racism emerged.

Racism, as an expression of power within the system of domination, generates multiple ways to perpetuate and rethink itself, which is why the crisis of the 90s of the last century served as the basis for recreating and revitalizing discriminatory stereotypes, presentations, and social images that underlay Cuban society.

Faced with such an economic and social situation, the country’s top leadership alerted the people about the problems and challenges to face them together. It critically revealed the situation and the subject was inserted in the governing documents of the society, such as: Proyecto. El Partido de la Unidad, Democracia y los Derechos Humanos que defendemos, presented to the V Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (October 1997), Los Lineamiento del Partido, Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social cubano de desarrollo Socialista and the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo Social hasta 2030 (PENDES), the new Constitución de la República de Cuba, proclaimed April 10, 2019. The aforementioned documents were submitted to public debate and the people, as a transformative social actor, added, deleted or modified aspects of their content.

Among the governing documents of Cuban society, the Programa Nacional contra el racismo y la discriminación, was announced by the President of the Republic Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez at the meeting of the Council of Ministers dated November 21, 2019.1Periódico Granma. November 21, 2019. The program conceived to combat and definitively eliminate the vestiges of racism, racial prejudice and racial discrimination that are manifested in today’s Cuban society. It has resulted novelly that, for the first time in the history of the Cuban Revolution, a Government Program is presented to the country that addresses the issue of racial discrimination as a scourge of society under construction.

Parallel to the treatment of racial discrimination given by the highest leadership of the revolution and state institutions, the subject under study has been present in the studies and research of the Socied Civil Cubana. Researchers and scholars have developed it in their minimum spaces of power, searching for alternatives in their treatment and solution. Among them we can relate: Instituto Cubano de Antropología, la Comisión Aponte, la Unión Nacional de Artistas e Escritores de Cuba (UNEAC),  Articulación Regional Afrodescendiente en América Latina y El Caribe, en su Capítulo Cubano (ARAAC), la Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (RBA), Casa de África de Santiago de Cuba, la Casa del Caribe (Santiago de Cuba), Casa de las Américas, Casa de Altos Estudios Fernando Ortiz, and la Fundación Nicolás Guillén, among others. 

The moments in which Cuban society is developing today, besieged by the foreign policy of Yankee imperialism, determined to defeat it, as well as by internal problems resulting from errors and inadequacies in bringing the economic development model to fruition, indicate the relevance or convenience of revealing racial discrimination and racism. Scourges undermine and corrode the revolutionary unity, lacerating the present and future of the nation, as well as the sustained political will to face the solution of the difficulties that the country is going through. The period of transition towards socialism characterized by convulsive moments, of contradictions, advances, setbacks, stagnations and development, presupposes a revolution in the cultural plane that leads to the strengthening of the spirituality of the people. It is sustained by the forging of an individual and social conscience that definitively eliminates the cultural inheritance of stereotypes and exclusive prejudices typical of capitalist society; spirituality, in which the family, the educational and dissemination system, play a preponderant role.

As the Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas Gutiérrez will express at the meeting of the Council of Ministers of November 21, 2019, “it corresponds to the Programa Nacional contra el racismo y la discriminación, to identify the causes that promote racial discrimination practices, to diagnose the possible actions to be developed by territory, branch of the economy and society; to disseminate the African historical-cultural legacy (…).”2Periódico Granma. November 21, 2019.

Promoting issues such as racism and racial discrimination to public debate strengthens the Cuban Revolution, as it reaffirms what has been achieved in this regard thanks to the sustained political will, in general and in particular, what is designed to offer equal opportunities to all social segments regardless of skin color.

From the very first of January 1959, the revolution meant the materialization of the longed-for social justice by putting the Moncada Program into practice and the gradual radicalization of the process through laws and social inclusion measures. Faced with the new challenges of the XXI century, marked by Globalization and the reality of the country, it is made necessary and essential to build a critical thinking capable of unveiling and fighting against the new manifestations in which racial discrimination currently overlaps.

Addressing the issue at hand presupposes a resilient thinking capable of overcoming the way in which the racial discriminatory phenomenon has been treated, overcoming it and strengthening it from an unprejudiced and conscious manner. This is nothing more than recognizing its existence as a problem, in order to win and to strengthen the racial identity of Cuban men and women, unveiling a social scourge that corrodes and weakens unity as the principle of the revolution as it strengthens and consolidates social values ​​alien to those that should characterize a sustainable and prosperous society.

All of the above reveals the existence of a favorable conjuncture for the underhanded manifestations of racial discrimination and racism to be unveiled, criticized and energetically fought by everyone. It is the moment when debate cannot be avoided, since it unites us and does not divide us, as long as its development is transparent, at the right moment, and respectful, rescuing shared values ​​for current and future generations of Cubans. Cuba needs the equity of all its children to access a fuller society for all.

Unity as a principle has been the main weapon of the national independence process that began in October 1868 and is in full swing by current generations of Cubans. Unity means true inclusion of all without exclusions by the color of the skin, gender, religious creed, age, profession, or work performed, among other elements. The words of the General de Ejércitos and Primer Secretario del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba illustrate this at the closing of the Sesión Constitutiva de la IX Legislatura de la Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, on April 19, 20183See Periódico Granma, April 20th, 2018, p.4. and in a meeting with the first secretaries of the provincial and municipal committees of the Partido Comunista.4See Periódico Granma, June 15th 2018, p.2.

By way of conclusions

The issue of racial discrimination and racism in Cuba has constituted and constitutes an irrefutable expression of the sustained political will of the highest leadership of the nation in terms of solving the difficulties present in the construction of the new society.

The treatment that the issue of racial discrimination and racism recieves in Cuba is still insufficient for its fullest visualization.

Disseminating the subject contributes to socializing knowledge throughout society, as well as sensitizing the social actors in charge of the ongoing social transformation. 

Discussing the issue from a culture of debate means listening, recognizing opinions and reactions, even if they are different, and at the same time drawing functional strategies to combat it.

Today more than ever its debate is made necessary or pertinent in current Cuban society.

We agree with the reflections of the Presidente de la República de Cuba Díaz Canel Bermúdez, when he affirmed: “We have every right and the possibility of doing something coherent, of impact, that helps us to solve these problems in our society and show once again the level of justice and humanism of the Revolution.”5See Periódico Granma. 21 de noviembre de 2019.

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  • 1
    Periódico Granma. November 21, 2019.
  • 2
    Periódico Granma. November 21, 2019.
  • 3
    See Periódico Granma, April 20th, 2018, p.4.
  • 4
    See Periódico Granma, June 15th 2018, p.2.
  • 5
    See Periódico Granma. 21 de noviembre de 2019.