Race and Inequality in the New Cuba: Reasons, Dynamics, and Manifestations
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Race and Inequality in the New Cuba:
Reasons, Dynamics, and Manifestations


Few social transformations have attacked social inequalities more thoroughly than the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba's subsequent economic crisis, however, the island's celebrated social achievements of equality, full-scale public employment, and high-quality universal education and health care have been seriously affected. Today, Cuban society is marked by rising levels of poverty and inequality, growing unemployment, dwindling social services, and continuous outward migration. Moreover, in the context of a changing economy, defined by the declining role of the state and the introduction of market mechanisms, new social stratifications are emerging—and doing so along clearly visible racial lines. Inequality and race, both dominant themes in pre-Revolutionary Cuba that the Revolution fought hard to eliminate, have once again become key overlapping issues.


Racial inequality and racism have been integral to Cuban society since the early days of the Spanish conquest. Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves as early as the sixteenth century, but they came in especially [End Page 331] large numbers in the nineteenth century when Cuba turned into a prosperous sugar colony. The introduction of the sugar industry permanently changed the social composition of Cuba, shaping everything from property rights, labor systems, trade, and foreign relations to the island's national culture and identity (Ortiz 1940). Above all, sugar influenced the formation of the island's race, class, and social relations.

Slavery rested on a number of ideological formulations, all of which had as their central premise the notion of unequal social evolution: that whites were innately superior to nonwhites. Race served to justify not only slavery, but also the exclusion of people of color from political participation and the imposition of barriers to social mobility (Knight 1970; Moreno Fraginals 1978; Scott 1985).

After the abolition of slavery in 1886 and in the subsequent republican period, race continued to establish people's legal and social rights, largely determined their economic situation, and played a defining role in how people were judged and treated (de la Fuente 1995, 1999; Helg 1995; Fernández-Robaina 1990). Afro-Cubans1 continued to be discriminated against and systematically excluded from higher positions in employment, public service, and politics and continued to make up the majority of the island's poor and working classes (McGarrity 1992).

With the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the race question was almost entirely subsumed under a broadly redemptive nationalist and subsequently socialist umbrella. The Revolution moved rapidly to dismantle institutional racism and other forms of socio-legal inequality. The 1976 constitution explicitly prohibited any discrimination based on race or skin color. Beyond this, the revolutionary government approached the issue of race from a strong structural perspective, coherent with its Marxist views of history and society. As such, it assumed that with the elimination of private property and class exploitation, racial discrimination would eventually disappear.

Class privileges based on private property were eliminated in Cuba in the early 1960s. For the first time, the Afro-Cuban population [End Page 332] gained access to most workplaces and to education, as well as to recreational institutions. The economic, social, and political measures implemented mainly benefited people of humble origin and, thus, most Afro-Cubans (McGarrity and Cardenas 1995).

Despite these achievements, the Revolution did not specifically target the society's deeply ingrained culture of racism. Instead, the ideological rationale and revolutionary rhetoric of unity and equality introduced an official silence toward race-related matters, which transformed the issue into a semi-taboo topic (de la Fuente 1998; Moore 1988).2

It is this silence that has, in effect, contributed to the survival, reproduction, and creation of racist ideologies and stereotypes. What disappeared from public discourse found fertile breeding ground in the private realm, where race continued to influence social relations among relatives, friends, and neighbors. Socioeconomically speaking, what this has done is turn race into a complex, often hard-to-pinpoint social phenomenon in which racial prejudices persist but are not openly acknowledged, whilst, at the same time, people of different colors mingle freely in many social and professional settings...