The Struggle against Racism and Its Challenges

by Alina B. López Hernández


Why look at the past?

We benefit from the past. History exists as a science precisely because it caters to a human need. Even illiterate cultures resort to memory in order to attain cohesion. As historians, we analyze the past with the theoretical instruments of the present. The facts have an objective nature, but are necessarily interpreted from subjectivity. Each generation, each period, brings along particular ways of questioning and interpreting the sources, and of later rewriting history working on their own interests, arguments, capacities or limitations.

Nevertheless, assessing any fact in the light of the present should not lead us to decontextualize it. It’s not ethical to interpret the facts, or to evaluate the ideas of historical personalities while stripping them of their economic, cultural or socio-political frameworks and of the contradictions of their time, so as to make them conditional on the aspirations and interests of the present, that is, to subsequent historical or ideological contexts.

In the last few days, a controversy started in the social networks and on some digital media regarding racism. The discussion has been focused emphatically on the responsibility attributed to José Miguel Gómez, the second President of our republic, for the repression of the Colored Independents Movement. There are calls for removing his statue from the monument in a central avenue of the capital as a sort of historical apology, considering the deaths of thousands of black and mixed-race people in that episode, which for many years was pejoratively called the little war of ’12.

I will not be the one to oppose a critical approach to the political leaders of the first bourgeois republic, who were great and heroic military leaders during the independence wars, but, once they clung to republican politics, mostly fostered corruption and a political patronage system, and almost always had their eyes set on the North. Precisely, it was the breaking-off with the political monopoly of the old military leaders that allowed the generation of ’25 to find their own way in the island’s history and politics. However, the events of 1912 have been reduced to an exclusively racial issue, without analyzing the political connotation it had, getting around the political mistakes that were made, both by the government and by the leaders of the PIC (the Colored Independents Party); it is not mentioned that the government had the support of black and mixed-race sectors, and that black and mixed-race military officers actively participated as part of the army in the repression of the rebels.

The text ‘Monumentos al racismo en Cuba’ was published in the blog Comunistas by Frank García Hernández. In it we can read that José Miguel Gómez was ‘a murderer who tried to carry out an ethnic cleansing’. This not only implies an ignorance of history, but also anthropological clumsiness.

The author confuses the biological diversity of the ethnos or ethnic group —designated as raciality—, with ethnicity itself. The latter is defined as a stable group of people which has historically established itself in a given territory, and which possesses common cultural features, a certain level of stability (including language and mentality), a national character (idiosyncrasy or ethno-psyche), as well as self-awareness, fixed by self-denomination or a common ethnonym, which in our case would be Cubans.

There are nations where several ethnicities coexist, even though their biological diversity might not be evident. For example, Hutus and Tutsis are not differentiated by skin color, and in Rwanda —an African country where part of those groups live— there was indeed an ethnic cleansing, or ethnocide, of the latter by the former. In only one hundred days, almost a million people died, about 85 per cent of the Tutsi ethnic group.

In other cases, there may be a cultural, political and legal segregation of a certain part of the population, to the point that it may generate in them and ethnic self-awareness that differentiates them from other groups in the nation. That’s what happens with the black and mixed-race population in the US, which self-designates as African-American. In Cuba, none of those conditions apply. Unlike what happened among the slave owners in that country, the Spanish Crown and its representatives in Cuba allowed a greater margin of tolerance for the cultural and religious practices of the enslaved, which would transcend with time and coexistence to find relations with cultural traits of other groups. On the other hand, they did not systematically oppose the gradual legalization of interracial marriages and unions, or the recognizing of the children born as a result of them, which would help the historical process of Cuban transculturation and ethnogenesis. Biological and cultural miscegenation reciprocated.

It wouldn’t be until the 1920s, already during the republic, that an acceptance would be achieved of transculturation as an agreed upon discourse in science, art and politics; as a shared, hegemonic explanation regarding the insular ethnogenesis process. It took a lot of time to prevail, and it required great controversies and multiple approaches: scientific, artistic and political, which did not entail the elimination of racism. This subject was analyzed by Mario Valdés and me in the essay ‘Contrapunteo cubano de la identidad cultural: ¿hispanos, aborígenes, africanos, o mestizos?’ (‘A Cuban Controversy of Cultural Identity: Hispanic, Aboriginal, African or Mixed?’), published in the journal Debates Americanos, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016.

Therefore, speaking of ethnic cleansing is an error. Here we need to talk about racism, but interpreting that one can fight it symbolically, by tearing down monuments or changing the names of streets —many of which continue to be called by their old names, as has been verified—, is trivial consolation that distracts from other, more relevant demands. The subject is complex, with multiple causes, and it necessitates approaches from sciences such as History, Anthropology, Sociology, Law or Psychology.


More than just a monument

At the base of racism are the centuries of slavery. Those societies which, as ours, coexisted with it for so long, received a sociological and psychological impact that we first need to acknowledge and then fight. Let us remember that, although it began much earlier, the period of greater expansion of the slave trade was the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. The trading of enslaved people —in spite of having been deemed illegal by Spain since 1817, in a treaty that would come into force in 1821— grew by the same proportion that sugar plantations did. Cuba, the world’s leading producer of sugar, was next-to-last in the region, only after Brazil, to abolish slavery

In a capitalist ideological-political context such as that one, in which in spite of the obvious social differences a number of principles had emerged along the lines of equality, liberty and fraternity; at a time in which the last redoubts of medieval servitude were crumbling in the Old World, on this side of the Atlantic there was tolerance for an aberration like slavery, which even as a historically conditioned mode of production was already well past its prime.

How to validate such infamy? It required a warping of reality, first of all to convince themselves of the fairness of their actions; secondly, so that the servants would accept their situation. To that end, the image of inferiority, simple-mindedness, backwardness or primitiveness of black people was articulated as a discourse from politics, art, hegemonic religion, and even from the science of that period, and it was incorporated into social and family practices which reproduced from one generation to another and crawled into later times.

Despite the fact it was eliminated as an institution, subjected to harsh criticism and meticulously studied, the centuries-old slavery took an ideological toll which explains that, even in its absence, racist attitudes continue to be generated. There was much optimism in the early declarations of the revolutionary process, which believed a political change such as socialism would root out those attitudes, but mental conditionings have proven to resist discourses and statements.

I understood that better when I had the good fortune of editing Zuleica Romay’s book Cepos de la memoria, impronta de la esclavitud en el imaginario social cubano (Stocks of Memory. The Imprint of Slavery in the Cuban Social Imagination), published by Ediciones Matanzas in 2015. The author herself considers it an ‘unsettling’ book, and she is right to believe so, for its reading demythologizes excessive confidence, political and historical discourses, and it reveals, in all its harshness, the certain fact that ideological constructs —such as racism— do not vanish by decree, or even by means of egalitarian and inclusive policies. They are rather incorporated into subjectivity, which is why she explains in the introduction: ‘When it’s rejected by reason or feeling, racism exists in instinct and emotion. Denied by ideological affiliations, ethical discourses and educational precepts, the easily influenced notion of race emerges in everyday phrases and behaviors, and in states of mind as evanescent as apprehension and anxiety.

In each part of the text, the sociologist and researcher unveils the manner of manifestation of the mechanisms that, even today, reproduce a process of domination and subordination which was initiated centuries ago with the enslaving of Africans, but which is not only reducible to the economic or political spheres. It also operates on the plane of subjectivity, of the symbolic world, of the way in which the imprints of memory manage to be implanted in the imagination of dominators and the dominated, making them share stereotypical social representations.

Slavery belongs in the past, that’s true, but as Zuleica Romay well says: ‘If the body is set free, but the mind remains chained to the past, or to the adaptive reproduction of the subordination relationships which that past begot, the manners of thinking and behaving will follow the models established by those who once dominated us, creating the conditions for them to go on doing so, only now from the prison of our minds.’

The question then would be, is removing a statue from its plinth the most convincing method for fighting racism? Save for some isolated cases, the science of history has produced and reproduced traditional studies on the subject of slavery which long approached the image of the slave from an external perspective.

Economic history took care of studying the slave plantation, its role in the country’s development and its stagnation. For that purpose, data were supplied and censuses were analyzed to show the ups and downs of trafficking. Meanwhile, the history of political ideas brought to the fore the controversy on the issue of slavery from the perspective of ideologues, the question of abolition, its detractors and sympathizers. There has also been research on the topic of life in the slaves’ quarters, bodily punishments, and the slave uprisings that resulted from abuse and lack of freedom.

Nevertheless, in almost all of those studies, the life of the men and women that suffered so much appears blurred. The individual was lost for the collective, since slavery, as the hideous institution it is, has become the protagonist of history. Memories and faces are lost, names are ignored. As a result, little is known about the life of the enslaved and about black people in general, about the groups in which they were divided, about their family relations, about the female issue, about the organizations that brought them together, about the motivations, strategies and ways they used to ascend in the social order.

Cuban historiography was practically devoid of this kind of study for decades. To be honest, research on social history was rare, which is explained by the level of difficulty of its theory, methodology and sources to be consulted. Doing it requires multidisciplinary approaches which surpass the limited categories and concepts of traditional historical science; and it also requires shedding a positivist paradigm that survived here and remains in good health.

In the introduction to her book La otra familia. Parientes, redes y descendencia de los esclavos en Cuba (The Other Family. Relatives, Networks and Descendants of the Slaves in Cuba), which won the 2003 Casa de las Américas essay award and was made available by that publishing house the next year, professor and researcher María del Carmen Barcia explains her motivations for writing it:

‘For me it was then made evident there was a need to analyze the slaves from another perspective, capable of breaking with that paradigm of brutality, clumsiness, ineptitude and mistakes that has been part of a model constructed from a purportedly philanthropic perspective, but which ultimately carries racist criteria that separate black people, in a supposedly methodological parenthesis, from the rest of the society in which they have lived, without looking at their participation within classes, strata, groups and sectors.’ (p. 8)

In the above-mentioned text, doctor Barcia deals with the family relations they established in the adverse conditions in which their lives developed. She highlights the contrast between the legal design and the actual construction of the slave families, the alternatives for the building of networks of kinship by affinity, which in many cases replaced the blood relationships broken by slavery. In Chapter VII, ‘Recovering and Redeeming’, the author turns the enslaved into the creators of discourse, into subjects who voice their truths. Thus we hear from Gerónima Estrada, Dominga Gangá, Pablo Sobrado, Clara Linares, Josefa Quintana…

The humanization of people, the act of naming them, produces empathy and a psychological attitude of closeness. Knowing who the enslaved were —listening to their voices— is something that’s likewise enabled by the pioneering text of historian Gloria García: La esclavitud desde la esclavitud. La visión de los siervos (Slavery Seen from Slavery. The View of the Servants), published in Mexico in 1996 and which, in the opinion of María del Carmen Barcia: ‘cleared the more or less erudite formulas of the attorneys and projected the voices of those who resisted, tolerated, appealed, offered their views, even by means of a legal power, on the questioning they were subjected to in the process of issuing reports, of a judicial appeal or of a request for freedom.’

This type of historical narrative, in which I would also include other authors who deal more with the sociological, the anthropological and the testimonial —such as Oilda Hevia, Daisy Rubiera, Tomás Fernández Robaina and Esteban Morales, to single out only a few examples—, may, due to its nature, generate a more comprehensive knowledge of the meaning of slavery, and promote rejection for it and therefore for the discrimination that’s its historical social consequence.

In order to achieve that, it will be necessary to effect changes in the teaching of traditional history, so that it may include these social aspects of slavery in the different schooling levels, from syllabi to textbooks, depending on their complexity, naturally. We will also have to banish the reductionist image of the African, in which rustic scenarios prevail: the bow and arrow, loincloths and wars. The continent from where twelve million people were carried away also had kingdoms and empires, contents which are not included in the training courses for History professors, and I speak from my own experience. Such courses adopt a Eurocentric preeminence, so our professors know more about the Russian Revolution of 1905 than about the Yoruba cities and rulers, despite it being an obvious legacy received by Cuban culture.

When the Aponte Commission was created, little over a decade ago, I heard its director, Rigoberto Feraudy, propose, during a speech at the House of Africa museum, a revision of the teaching of History. As far as I know, this is yet to be implemented.

If spaces for public debate are not promoted in Cuba about racism as a surviving ideology, though sometimes concealed in its very carriers, whatever their color, we won’t be able to make progress in the direction of social transformation.

During the time when I worked as professor of Anthropology at the University of Matanzas, around the year 2003, I supervised a group of theses dealing with the interracial relations among the university students of the three institutions of that level in the province back then: the University, the Higher Pedagogical Institute and the School of Medical Sciences.

The instruments applied to a significant sample of students, revealed racist criteria and stereotypical conceptions, frankly retrograde in some cases, which, though not massively, for the concern of the team converged on the School of Medical Sciences.

Since it is manifested on an ideological level, racism is scientifically impossible to verify. The Social Sciences in Cuba are as blind in this regard as they are in many other aspects that would require the freedom of researchers to apply surveys to large groups of people. Without research, there can be no diagnosis, and without it there can be no transforming strategies designed. Mentalities are harder to change because, unlike statues, they cannot be destroyed; they can, however, be transformed.

And yet, to think that the consequences of slavery are merely ideological is to be naïve. They are dramatically evident in material existence and in life projects.


For the good of all…

Black people have a historical disadvantage. For starters, with few exceptions, they don’t have a long-established patrimony materialized in large and luxurious mansions or other family property. It isn’t common either that they belong to depositary groups of sedimented cultural capital.

In spite of that, their ability and intelligence, as well as their potential for social upward mobility are admirable. If we bear in mind the statistical reports by Juan Pérez de la Riva, made a short time after the abolition of slavery in Cuba, the percentage of former slaves who had become literate was far higher in average to that of the United States, which had reached abolition more than twenty years earlier.

In the bourgeois republic, a kind of racism was materialized which, without reaching the extremes of school and political segregation that survived in the southern US, allowed that at some social institutions —parks, beaches, lyceums and clubs— people were divided by the color of their skin and access was denied to those who were black or mixed-race. The same also happened in certain jobs.

Socialism was presented as project of social justice, and it declared the equality of all people. It forever ended institutionalized racism. In spite of that, not having accounted for the initial disadvantage of a significant human group that had been left out for centuries was a mistake.

It’s not a secret that social differences among us are accentuated with each turn of the screw caused by the worsening of a crisis which is already of a structural nature.

In the article ‘Realidades incómodas’ (‘Uncomfortable Realities’), published in this website several months ago, I expressed: ‘When some complain that the dramatic case of three Havana girls who died due to a collapsing balcony has been politicized, and they argue that the avalanche of pictures of run-down buildings circulating in the Internet plays along with the enemy, I wonder why they don’t focus on a deeper reading of what’s happening right in front of us, and of which this case is proof: the deep social differences that exist in Cuba regarding families, neighborhoods and skin color.

‘These inequalities are even more obvious in Havana, since it’s an overcrowded capital, but they are evident throughout the country, and they disagree with one of the accepted victories of the Revolution, for which generations of compatriots have made sacrifices.


‘Hopefully […] we’ll be able to have a precise idea, from science, of the magnitude of the inequality and its relation to the racial issue. However, there already are scientific questions we may ask without so much effort. Here’s one: what’s the relation between poverty in neighborhoods with a large black population and the obvious presence of people of that ethnicity in active opposition groups in Cuba? I know it’s an uncomfortable question. Reality always is.’

In some countries where a similar situation existed, the US or Brazil to name some examples, the so-called affirmative action policies are applied, which favor social sectors that have suffered some sort of discrimination, with the purpose of balancing their living conditions and reducing inherited inequalities.

These policies materialize as student scholarships with a certain number of guaranteed spots, subsidies, or tax exemptions, among others. They have advocated for and against; the latter believe that the search for equality may give way to discomfort and tensions in the people who are not part of those sectors.

My opinion favors the search for a solution that keeps into account the improvement of the conditions of black and mixed-race people in Cuba, with actions of this kind as part of the challenges in the struggle against racism.

Last March, the National Program against racism and racial discrimination was announced, along with a government Commission for its follow-up and a set of actions. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country naturally required that other priorities be established. When the health situation is under control, as everything seems to indicate is happening, this important issue will certainly be taken up again.

We benefit from the past. We go back to it to study it, to find the key to many current problems. But we cannot live chained to the past. We must make changes in the present. Tearing down statues is a superficial change. It can be done if deemed appropriate, but it won’t solve the most pressing challenges in the struggle against racism.

Contact the author at: