Breaking the Silence Around Race in Cuba
By: Gisela Arandia
July 11 2008
Constructed as a taboo by traditional historiographers, racial identity has been branded a forbidden topic since the colonial period, as national identity was being formed. Silence around racial issues not only constitutes an archaic approach in the conceptual sense, but is also a part of an outdated concept in its philosophical essence and is alien to the perspective of contemporary society.
As a theoretical focus, the refusal to address the issue of racial identity lacks a scientific foundation; moreover, it represents points of view absolutely contrary to true socialist ideology. The rejection of the issue is part of the historical record supported by classist and discriminatory propositions that consider the Cuban condition as one of struggle waged almost exclusively by the white population.
This silence is also seen in the treatment of racial issues in Miami on the part of Cuban-Americans, who continue to ignore the non-white Cuban population. They maintain the fallacy of a white Cubanism, with the illusion of building a society without blacks, quite similar to the forms of racism so prominent in the state of Florida.
The Cuban Revolution —with its emancipatory character— found it difficult to obscure any movement for racial identity, unlike the preceding structure of elite control that embraced white nationalism as a reaction to the miedo al negro (fear of the blacks), which was generated by the Haitian Revolution.
Still, we must ask: what are the conscious and unconscious aspects of our society that continue to impair the issue of racial identity, and do they come from something foreign to the situation in Cuba?
Of course no one wants to be pigeonholed as a racist, not even the contemptible advocates of that ideology. Undoubtedly it is an unpleasant epithet that exposes a human sentiment that is possessed in a way or another by almost all people.
However, this is only the prelude of the matter, because we all have some of those views as a result of the ethnocentric education inherited from the dominant culture. The rejection of “others who are different” —be it in a concealed or public manner— is part of a “universal” process of cultural socialization that, par excellence, has propped up the white man as its main social actor. He has historically been portrayed as the essence of the privileged social class.
Nonetheless, silence and the absence of analytic discourse are impediments that slow the consolidation of social consciousness around the issue of race. As Doudou Diene* said, “Any un-assumed tragedy runs the risk of being repeated.”
Those people who feel uncomfortable when they listen to some topic related to the racial question usually speak out emphatically saying, “But I’m not racist” and “I don't want to talk about it.”
To safeguard the Cuban Revolution, it is necessary to warn of the danger that silence poses. For the enemies of socialism, the topic has always been included on the counter-revolutiona ry agenda – starting with silence. It is necessary to point out the political danger implied in hiding any consideration in this respect. Not only would it be ridiculous to feel shame concerning a historical conflict, but —more seriously— we would also be muting the achievements, of which there have been many.
Without a doubt, this is a complex matter that cannot remain invisible in naively believing that what is not mentioned will not exist. Silence eliminates the opportunity to discover pertinent solutions.
Racial identity is a topic that involves decisive aspects of the sovereignty of the country, as are the issues of national unity and the continuity of the processes of independence fought for by José Martí and Antonio Maceo, along with many others.
This deals with a history that began with the uprisings by Africans on slave ships and that was continued by the enslaved and free black population, as typified by the little-discussed action led by José Aponte in 1810. This was headed later by independence leader Carlos Manual Céspedes in 1868, which continued during the “Guerra Chiquita” (the Little War) and finally determined the future of Cuba in 1895, with Martí’s self-sacrifice. It was also in Fidel Castro’s struggle to complete that dream of full independence, allowing us to arrive at where we are today – in many respects a model of national liberation.
With the many accomplishment made by Cuba that serve as an example — especially to the Third World— we cannot ignore the issue of racial identity, because it is an inseparable component of social justice.
This ongoing emancipatory spirit not only defends the rights of the Cuban people, but also those of many other peoples also oppressed by imperial politics. This rebelliousness urge and the search for social justice cannot exclude the racial problem because that would leave a tremendous hole in the emancipatory struggle.
* Founding Director of the UNESCO Slave Route project and expert with the UN.