Race in the Cuban Revolution: “¿Y mi Cuba negra?”

Accusations of ongoing racism within the Cuban Revolution are nothing new, although until recently the most vocal critiques came from outside (and often against) the regime (e.g., Moore 1988). But when prominent intellectual Roberto Zurbano, of the prestigious Casa de las Américas in Havana, published an opinion piece about racism in the New York Times on March 23, 2013, a transnational controversy erupted online. The now-infamous published title, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” drew the most ire, although Zurbano quickly protested its imposition over his original title: “El país que viene: ¿y mi Cuba negra?” (“The Country to Come: And My Black Cuba?”). The poetics and polemics that surrounded the piece fed into a longstanding dismissal of such critiques as counterrevolutionary, and within days of its publication and his excoriation in the official Cuban blogosphere, Zurbano lost his position.

Yet the substance of Zurbano’s indictment of ongoing racism amid the post-Soviet re-entrenchment of socioeconomic inequities rings true to this ethnographer of race in Cuba and to many others—most importantly Black Cubans, like Zurbano, who make critiques within and not against the Revolutionary project. In countless conversations over my fifteen years of fieldwork in eastern Cuba, Black Cubans have complained of what political scientist Marc Sawyer (2006) calls “inclusionary discrimination,” often even as they have praised the Revolution’s accomplishments. Many of my acquaintances are like Zurbano: professionals, artists, and scholars who credit the Revolution for their initial training opportunities. Rather than an indictment, the increasingly public debate over racism within Cuba can be understood as intrinsic to an open-ended revolutionary process.

So what are we to make of this Cuba negra? What contradictions rule the heart of a nation whose government has demonstrably sought to end racism and produce equality, even while it is falling short?

Cuba is a nation that defines its base as the masses of ordinary folk creolized in that national stew called the ajiaco, and finds its primordial essence in terms of a “deep Cuba” of African and Afro-Cuban culture (see Ortiz 1940). Cuba’s predominant Black cultural forms and historical tropes alike speak to collective cultural resistance at the heart of Cuban patriotism. These include folk religions such as santería and the Reglas de Palo, national traditions of music and dance from rumba to Carnival congas, and figurations of historical Blackness not only in the slave but the cimarrón (one who escaped) and mambí (independence fighter). In popular stories, these heroes used Carnival drums to carry clandestine messages and spiritually protected themselves with the Black witchcraft of the ngangas—cauldrons charged with ritual power and used in the Reglas de Palo. Folklore in Cuba is synonymous with Black culture. Racial logics are entwined with the historical imagination (see Wirtz 2014). 

No wonder, then, that the late historian, folklorist, and founder of Santiago de Cuba’s Casa del Caribe, Joel James Figarola (2006), described his beloved revolution as Cuba la gran nganga, thereby comparing the nation to the ritual heart of the folk religion most associated with Cuba’s savage slot of Blackness. In James Figarola’s vision, the Cuban body politic-as-nganga defiantly confronts a hostile postsocialist and U.S.-dominated world by conjuring its own heroic muertos—spirits of those ancestral maroons, mambí, and martyrs of the Revolution. What irony that Cuba, self-styled cimarrón nation, should suffer so much racism against their descendants.

Zurbano’s response to the debate in an Afro-Hispanic Review essay falls into the testimonio genre. The journal’s editor, William Luis (2014), compares it to the foundational text Biografía de un cimarrón (Barnet 1966), which is based on the oral testimony of one-hundred-year-old Esteban Montejo and his reflections during the early years of the Revolution. Zurbano, in contrast, is a product of the revolution: highly educated, he can write for himself, even if others will assert their editorial prerogative over such things as titles. Luis assigned the title of Zurbano’s contribution to the Afro-Hispanic Review, drawing from the following passage (Zurbano 2014, 43; my translation):

I do not speak of the world of books and political rhetoric, but of reality, of that Black map of Cuban cities and towns that make a cartography of poverty, racism, violence, and other forms old and new of social inequality. . .

I have walked through some of those barrios; I have eaten, drunk, and slept in them as if I were just one more neighbor. In the end I am just one more Black man—and not one less—who lives in one of those barrios.

Zurbano’s cartography of racism challenges the revolution’s half-century of efforts to erase segregation by class and race. My research, too, demonstrates that racism persists through active, ongoing processes. Blackness is too often restricted to domains of folklore, superstition, and social danger that perpetuate all the forms of marginality in Zurbano’s list.

Soy un negro más: Zurbano’s soteriology of Black suffering even under the revolution is poignant, and it resonates with the current moment in the United States of yet again, all too briefly, considering whether and how Black lives matter. The resonances are a product of parallel, often intertwined histories. The Zurbano controversy reminds us that the debate over racism transcends nations: not only “the delusion of races,” as Cuba’s founding folklorist Fernando Ortiz (1946) argued years before the Revolution’s triumph, but the delusion of borders. Cuba and the United States may be politically estranged, but these two societies have long been intimates, holding up a mirror that is not always flattering and not always accurate, but revealing just the same.

References 

Barnet, Miguel. 1966. Biografía de un cimarrón. Havana: Instituto de Ethnología y Folklore.

James Figarola, Joel. 2006. Cuba la gran nganga (algunas prácticas de la brujería). Santiago de Cuba: Ediciones Caserón.

Luis, William. 2014. “Nota del Editor.” Afro-Hispanic Review 33, no. 1: 7–12.

Moore, Carlos. 1988. Castro, the Blacks, and Africa. Los Angeles: University of California Center for Afro-American Studies.

Ortiz, Fernando. 1940. “Los factores humanos de la cubanidad.” Revista Bimestre Cubana 60: 161–86.

_____. 1946. El engaño de las razas. Havana: Editorial Páginas.

Sawyer, Mark Q. 2006. Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wirtz, Kristina. 2014. Performing Afro-Cuba: Image, Voice, Spectacle in the Making of Race and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zurbano, Roberto. 2014. “Soy un negro más: Zurbano par lui-même.” Afro-Hispanic Review 33, no. 1: 13–60.