Roberto Zurbano on Race and Cuba

Roberto Zurbano

In egalitarian societies, such as Cuba’s, some are of course more equal than others, and racial minorities tend to suffer the most from inequality. Cuba is a particularly unusual example, since the Cuban census claims the island to have a 65 per cent majority white population, but many think that the Afro-descendent population occupy that proportion in reality.

Roberto Zurbano is a Cuban writer, activist and researcher at Casa de las Americas, who definitely believes this to be the case, He observes, “I say this because most of the population census in Latin America and the Caribbean manipulate the amount of the black population. Cuba is not an exception to this. However, in practice, we know that we are a country with a black majority which should feel proud of being black and of affirming its identity in whichever document and in the next census.”

Cuba’s colonial history is well-documented, the sugar trade leading to the importation of 900,000 Africans to the island as slaves – to put that in perspective, almost double the number brought to the US. With such a history, it should be no surprise either that the island had a problem with structural racism even after achieving independence, and the freeing of slaves.

Zurbano notes that, “when Cuba became independent in 1898 we had already undergone two wars of independence in which an army of blacks and whites fought together against Spain. In 1898 there were 30 black generals in Cuba. However, the racist ideals of Spanish colonialism, combined with the USA’s racist models (which were brought to the island with the US intervention of 1898-1902) contributed to building the basis of the 20th century’s structural racism in Cuba.”

With the Cuban revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro made a concerted effort to deal with racism. While much progress was made, in a speech two years later, he implied that the problem had been resolved; it would be an understatement to call that pronouncement premature. While Cuba might not have a problem on the scale of the States with police violence and incarceration, a recent survey by the EU found endemic structural racism, relegating Cuba’s black population to lower expectations in employment and housing, as in Europe.

According to Zurbano, “Racism is an uncomfortable theme all over the world and Cuba is no exception to it. In the 21st century there are three public discourses about racism in Cuba: a new academic discourse; the discourse of the more than 20 anti-racist activist organisations in the island; and, third, the discourse that one could call the ‘official rhetoric’. The government now recognises the existence of racism, since Fidel Castro’s speech on the topic in 2005, and it was addressed in the following discussions in the two last Party Congresses, as well as in the current economic and political plans devised until 2030.”

This discomfort has led to black people speaking out being marginalised and even imprisoned in the past. Zurbano lost his editorial post at Casa de las Americas after publishing an outspoken article on the situation in the New York Times in 2013, one of his most incendiary propositions in that article being that, ““To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.”

Zurbano had called out “the hidden racists who do not recognise, neither on the inside nor on the outside of Cuba, the contribution of Afro-descendants to our societies. I lost my position, but I’ve gained a new perspective to the anti-racial struggle and a considerable amount of solidarity from black movements in Latin America. I still work as a researcher at Casa de las Americas, and I still work as an activist against racism inside Cuba.”

Zurbano has no regrets, and sees his piece as having pushed the debate forward.“Yes, my article made possible the unmasking of racist positions inside Cuba. Alongside the efforts of other people who are very aware of the issue of race, the article increased the political and social debate in many political and economic institutions where, before, the issue of race was not present. However, this process must continue, we still have a long way to go. “While Afro-descendants may have been excluded from certain sections of Cuban society, such as the lucrative tourist industry, they have excelled in the arts, including film.

Sara Gomez

When I ask Zurbano to give me a list of notable films on the subject, it’s a long one. “I could recommend the films of the Afro-Cuban filmmakers Sara Goméz” (HGFF director Eiren Houston has acquired rights to restore this important director’s work), “Nicolás Hernández Guillén and Sergio Giral, from the 60s and 70s. In the 21st century, we should watch documentaries and fiction features by Gloria Rolando, Rigoberto López, Jorge Fuentes, Jorge Luís Sanchez and Jonal Cosculluela who directed “Esteban” (HGFF’s opening film). “There are also directors from Cuban television, like Julia Mirabal who, daily address the lives of Afro-descendants on the screen. There are currently young directors who are also re-writing our national history, like Erik Corvalan who directed the documentary “Raza/Race”, and Amilcar Ortiz Cárdenas who directed “Contra las cuerdas/Against the Ropes”.

Roberto Zurbano is an activist and researcher at Casa de las Americas, in Cuba Interview translation by Raquel Ribeiro at University of Edinburgh “Raza/Race” screens at the CCA on Sunday Nov 5, as part of Race and Cuba; Afro-descendent Invisibility, with Robero Zurbano and Hugo Rivalta in discussion.

This event has the support of the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh.”