Available for the first time in English, the essays collected here describe the problem of racial inequality in Cuba, provide evidence of its existence, constructively criticize efforts by the Cuban political leadership to end discrimination, and point to a possible way forward. This book underscores that one can both believe in the Revolution as well as identify areas needed for improvement, and represents a noteworthy shift in thinking about race in Cuba, concludes Vanessa K. Valdés.
Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality. Esteban Morales Domínguez. Monthly Review Press. February 2013.
On March 23, 2013, an op-ed entitled, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolutions Hasn’t Begun” by Roberto Zurbano Torres, head of the publishing arm of Casa de las Américas, appeared in the the New York Times; within weeks, he was removed from his position. While Zurbano may have brought the plight of Afro-Cubans to the attention of foreign readers, he also highlighted the burgeoning anti-racist activism occurring on the island, led by intellectuals of African descent who support the Revolution and yet who contend that race continues to play a determining factor in questions of education and employment, among other areas.
Esteban Morales Domínguez is one of those allies; Race in Cuba is a selection of his writings from 2002-2012 in translation. Professor Emeritus of Political Economy of the University of Havana, Morales Domínguez, who continues to live in and write from Cuba, is a prolific social scientist and a leading scholar of race. With this collection of articles, essays, and interviews, he demonstrates how one can both be a supporter of the Revolution as well as a critic of its shortcomings primarily where it comes to race.
Morales Domínguez is the author of Desafios de la problemática racial en Cuba (2007), the first substantial study on contemporary issues related to race published since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and the summary of which makes up the first chapter here. He identifies contemporary racism and racial discrimination as an area of study that has been woefully ignored by scholars on the island because it was declared to have been eradicated by 1962, after the first wave of reforms made by the government. He names scholars such as Alejandro de la Fuente, Ada Ferrer, Aline Helg, and Mark Q. Sawyer, among others, who have published studies on the legacies of slavery on present-day Cuba; nevertheless, to his mind, ceding this intellectual ground to academics outside of the island is a serious error, one that can be corrected through a sustained focus on issues of race and skin colour in terms of statistics collection, education, and policy.
For him, the Revolution unquestionably made structural changes regarding equality and social justice by outlawing racial discrimination in all sectors of life on the island, including in areas such as education and housing. Throughout the text, he affirms that there is no institutional racism on the island; however, he does note that the strides made in the fifty-four years of the Revolution come after more than several centuries of racial discrimination and prejudice, the vestiges of which re-emerged during the Special Period of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In one of the most compelling essays, “Skin Color, Nation, Identity, and Culture: A Contemporary Challenge”, he offers a brief but effective review of Cuban history, focusing not only on the legacy of Spanish colonialism but also on resistance by the white Cuban elite to efforts of blacks and mulattos for full equality during the fight for independence in the nineteenth century as well as the role of the United States in undermining independence in the first half of the twentieth century. While the Revolution succeeded on the level of policy, he admits it was idealistic to believe that structural changes could initiate changes in consciousness on the individual level.
In his paper, “A Model for the Analysis of the Racial Problem in Contemporary Cuba,” he proposes a way in which to investigate racism and racial discrimination. Primary amongst his recommendations is the inclusion of skin colour as a variable in the analysis of these areas. He offers that the government would capture a more accurate impression of life on the island if skin colour was a category. In addition, he calls for a complete overhaul of the educational system so that students of all ages could learn about histories of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as well as the histories of peoples of those heritages who have all made serious contributions to the Cuban nation.
In another essay, “Cuba: Science and Race Fifty Years Later,” he highlights the work of Cuban scholars on the island on issues of race, slavery, marginalization, and inequality, providing an incredibly rich bibliography for those students of Cuba unaware of this work. He also acknowledges those governmental centres and foundations that have identified this area as one that needs greater research.
This is an extraordinary addition to Cuban Studies: while it would have been improved by the addition of the original publication sites (and at times suffers from repetition), it nonetheless represents a noteworthy shift in thinking about race on the island. Throughout Latin America, racial identities are often subsumed under nationalist ones in the name of mestizaje: this book underscores that one can both believe in the Revolution as well as identify areas needed for improvement, as the author does. Ultimately, Morales Domínguez stands alongside other prominent Cuban scholars and writers such as Tomás Fernández Robaína, Gloria Rolando, and indeed Roberto Zurbano Torres, all of whom labour to ensure that the contributions of black and mestizo Cubans to the nation both historically and at the present time are fully acknowledged. For him, speaking, writing, and theorizing about race does not weaken the nation; on the contrary, it enriches it by allowing for all Cubans to be stakeholders in the Revolutionary project.
Vanessa K. Valdés is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York-CUNY. She is the editor of The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012) and Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (SUNY Press 2012). Read more reviews by Vanessa.