Afro-Cuba, Afro-Cubans and Afro-Cubanía:
How Black is Cuba Becoming?
How close is Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands –only 90 miles away from Florida-, to a racial democracy? Historically, its people have been deeply divided along racial lines –the product of Spanish colonisation, African slavery, Chinese indenturship and US-Southern style segregation. And yet, there has always been an incredible race mixing. There has been a long history of black struggle, and Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution took bold measures to break with institutionalised racism. This was in the context of major redistributive programmes for the poor, especially in education and health.
The new millenium throws into question the fictional configuration of nation-states, raising issues of ethnic identity and culture in contested terrain. In Cuban history, more than 45 years of revolution included, the race question has been extraordinarily contested, while integrally linked to fashioning a national identity in the context of island and emigré Cuban divides.
Race and Nation
In the late 19th-century, when the sugar boom slave trade had produced a majority black population, Afro-Cubans were key participants (in Cuba and abroad) in transforming the agenda of political independence from Spain into a broader social agenda, including the abolition of slavery. Their pioneering struggles for equality in building an independent 20th-century Cuba met with the nascent republic’s drive to ‘whiten’ Cuba by re-Hispanicising and Americanising, US-style.
The elite myth of racial equality drew on the ‘racial fraternity’ of the late 19th-century nationalist wars, while simultaneously silencing the key role Afro-Cubans played and the whole slave past, thereby de-racialising the dominant discourse. As race barriers resurrected, the Afro-Cuban response was a high level of mobilisation and the organisation of the first black party in the hemisphere, ruthlessly crushed in the 1912 race war.
The subsequent swelling of the Oriente ‘black belt’ with West Indian immigrant labour in sugarcane fields fuelled political debate and the alternative Cubania of the 1930s-1950s saw its groundings in Afro-Cubanism and mestizaje and a fused race-class worker agenda, with a small black middle class race agenda.
In the dominant discourse after 1959, race was seen as an economic-class issue that would be resolved through distributive measures. Paradoxically, in tandem with a ‘blackening’ of the island population (the emigré population was overwhelmingly white) and with some striking cultural and ethnographic developments, the earlier phenomenon of de-racialisation was reproduced. Afro-Cuban responses were also neutralised as a race-class ‘social pact’ evolved.
Post-1989 Cuba, caught in the pincers demise of the Eastern European socialist bloc and increasing US hostility, finds itself in a crisis that is witnessing the breakdown of that pact and a re-racialising agenda. The symbolism of race has been increasingly deployed, celebrating Afro-Cuban culture and invoking black support for the revolution.
At the same time, restructuring with largely European capital has strengthened Hispanicism and increased racial divides, and Afro-Cubans are articulating the need for a race-specific agenda as key in countering exclusionary (Hispanic/Latin rather than African/Caribbean) with inclusionary (island and overseas) definitions of nation and nationalism.
Identity and culture
The post-1959 dichotomy, between promoting a space for ‘Afro-Cuban’ culture and denying black intellectuals and artists a race-specific politico-cultural space, has come to a head in the crisis 1990s. However, it dates back to the 1960s, when an attempt to debate such a space within the revolution was diluted into an insipid ideological cocktail.
While this was assimilated and digested in large part by proponents and detractors alike, there were Afro-Cuban intellectuals and artists who sought alien geographical parts in which to further their work. At the same time, the vitality of Cuban ‘popular culture’, with its strong ingredient of blackness, pushed cultural authorities on the island to a re-appraise its preservation and commercialisation.
This has been most evident in music and the visual and performing arts. A more recent manifestation can be found with Santeria, including official media coverage of the babalawo’s Oracle of Ifa --striking cultural renaissance. Similarly striking, is the extent to which off the island Afro-Cuban derived popular culture, Santeria included, has proved resilient --even among phenotypically non-black/Hispanic Cuban populations who would not identify themselves as Afro-Cuban.
According to the 2002 census figures released late 2005, 65% of the 12 million population on the island of Cuba is white, 10% black, and 24,9% mulato or mixed. As a result, white Cubans have been saying “I told you, we're the majority” ; others celebrate the growing mulato population. The 'one drop' rule obviously does not apply in this Caribbean nation, as blacks are becoming more of a minority. What does this mean? Are blacks being rendered invisible? To what extent has the revolution made a difference? To what extent is that difference true today? What is it like to be black Cuban?
An observable phenomenon in the history of Afro-Cubans since the Nineteenth century in the United States is that over generations they have merged with African Americans, whereas the Euro-Cubans have affirmed a Hispanic Cubanness. Is this an exclusively off-island phenomenon? On the island, the discourse might be one of frank opposition, but it is not confrontational. This is understandable, given Cuba’s convulsed contemporary situation and the spectre of social redemption being lost to the poor and black.
On and off the island, out of cultural profusion has been born a culture of survival, a significant component part of which is Afro-Cuban. A distorted vision of peoples of African descent has been historically refashioned, negating their powers of individual and collective self-determination and expression. Where politics and economics push the races apart, denying or manipulating race difference, people will respond.
A crucial question for Cuban people already entered into this XXI century is the extent to which they celebrate or denigrate the fluidity and ‘chaos’ of their racial pluralism. The argument is compelling to look at transnational Afro-Cubania.
Cultural Afro-Cubanism evolved with magical realism and surrealism, three of whose metaphors -- interference, short circuit and communicating vessels, all belonging to physics -- highlight both disequilibrium and the intermingling of ingredients and forces of life in more ways than we often know.
Today’s African diaspora, transnational migration and Atlantic studies meld with chaos theory, borrowing from mathematics, and postmodernism, questioning ‘Otherness’ in analyzing the need for centering the periphery, the unsettled certainty of national modernity, and the fluidity of binary oppositions.
What might be seen as a more radical race awareness among Afro-Cuban intellectuals and artists abroad needs to be juxtaposed with a more cautious reaction of those immersed in a variety of nihilating everyday life circumstances on an island apparently inert and yet on the move. There may be unknown complementary elements in yet to be discovered communicating vessels of Afro-Cubans at home and abroad.
Pedro Pérez Sarduy