Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism between Two Fires


Sujatha Fernandes (The Nation) centers on Afro-Cuban activists, saying that “They’re caught between a government that denies the existence of racism and fellow black Cubans who lack racial consciousness.”

On May 4, the Network of Afro-descendant Women convened an urgent meeting of activists, academics, and members of organizations fighting against racial discrimination in Cuba. At the meeting, held at the Jurists’ Union Center in Havana, the longtime anti-racism activist Gisela Arandia presented a document calling for government action in response to a series of incidents on the island following Barack Obama’s visit in March. These included several racist articles published in Cuban periodicals, an employment ad on Cuba’s Craigslist site,, soliciting white applicants, and then a poster that appeared on a central street in the middle-class suburb of Vedado with a swastika and the note “Kill the black.”

According to the Cuban novelist and activist Alberto Abreu Arcia, who was present at the meeting, there was much debate about the document, with some arguing that it was too conciliatory, that the events needed to be placed in the context of growing racialized poverty and renewed diplomatic relations with the United States, and that it should be accompanied by concrete proposals for change. Even so, many agreed that these events were not isolated incidents but rather make visible the racism that has not only survived but been strengthened due to an official policy of silence on issues that have supposedly been solved by the revolution.

Cuba today finds itself at a crossroads, with the specter of economic openings bringing the prospect of greater social inequalities, especially racial inequality. This moment has a parallel in the early 1990s, when the turn to tourism and global markets in the context of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a deepening racial divide and more overt racial discrimination. At that time, black people in Cuba had no organizations from which to address this racism. As the Cuban revolution had desegregated whites-only spaces, launched an anti-discrimination campaign, and opened up avenues of social mobility through employment and education for Afro-Cubans in the 1960s, most of the race-based organizations that had represented them were simultaneously deemed unnecessary, and some closed of their own accord. In the past decade or so, there has been a reemergence of anti-racism organizations across the island, with some fifteen groups forming in fields from legal rights to youth, culture, communications, and barrio-based community organizing. These organizations are vital during the current period of openings with the United States, as Cuba is more exposed to a market economy, and the potential inequalities it brings.

The 51-year-old writer Roberto Zurbano has been one of the island’s most vocal critics of racial inequality. In March 2013, when he was head of the publishing house of the venerated Casa de las Américas, Zurbano published an op-ed in The New York Times about how blacks are being left behind in the new market-driven economy. His piece was titled in Spanish, “The Country to Come: and My Black Cuba?” After a series of edits, the Times published the final piece with its own heading, “For Blacks in Cuba the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” As a result of this pejorative headline and the article itself—an affront to the leadership of Casa not so much because it was published in the Times but because Zurbano’s byline included his position at the cultural institution—Zurbano was demoted from his position as head of publishing, although he still works at Casa.

Zurbano’s experience reflects the balancing act being performed by many anti-racism activists in Cuba, who find themselves, as he says, caught between dos fuegos, or two fires: on the one hand a government that still denies the existence of racism and, on the other, black Cubans who lack a racial consciousness. [. . .]


[Many thanks to Leslie Offutt for bringing this article to our attention.]

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