Cuba/Cuba Solidarity

The Fight Against Racism in Cuba (I)

Interview with Cuban Revolutionary Esteban Morales

The following is a recent interview the People’s Forum in New York City did with Cuban revolutionary leader Esteban Morales Domínguez.

Esteban Morales (Photo: Walter Lippmann)

Morales died from a heart attack on May 18, 2022. Born in Cárdenas, Matanzas, Cuba, in 1942, he became one of Cuba’s most prominent scholars. He was a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, the National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), and of UNEAC’s José Antonio Aponte Commission. The responsibilities of this commission include U.S.-Cuba relations and the fight against racism in Cuba.

Morales was a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and held numerous academic posts — including professor at the University of Havana. He is the principal author, or co-author, of 15 books and has published many articles. His 2007 book, Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba (Challenges of the Racial Question in Cuba) was the first book-length publication on this subject by a scholar in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. A collection of his essays in English can be found in Race In Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality (Monthly Review Press, 2012).

“The sudden death of Esteban Morales is painful,” said Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, Cuba’s president and first secretary of the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party, in a statement Prensa Latina published on May 19. “We will miss his intelligent, insightful, and engaging assessment of the problems of our time. I extend my condolences to his family, friends, and the Cuban intelligentsia that he honored with his work.”

“The [Cuban] president thus joined the many declarations of intellectuals, institutions, and people in general for the loss at 79 years of age of the renowned political scientist and essayist,” Prensa Latina noted.

James Count Early conducted the interview below on behalf of the People’s Forum, which released it on April 22, 2022. The videotaped interview, which includes English subtitles, can be found here.

The transcription, subheadings, and footnotes are by World-Outlook. Due to its length, we are publishing the interview in two parts, the first of which follows.

(This is the first of a two-part series. The second can be found here.)

(Photo: Still from People’s forum video)

My name is James Early, and I’m your host. We’re pleased to welcome Dr. Esteban Morales Domínguez from Havana, Cuba. Distinguished economist, political scientist and author of the most important perspectives on the nexus of national identity, racial identity, class identity, and policy implications in the struggle against racism, which has been identified in Cuba today, both by Cuban citizens, the Cuban government, and the Cuban Communist Party. Welcome, Esteban.

Well, I believe that first of all we must make a certain historical introduction, to know at what point we are in regard to those political, democratic, and social aspects that James introduced.

First of all, it must be said that the problems of racism and racist discrimination that still exist in Cuba were not brought by the Cuban Revolution. They were already here more than 500 years ago. Because we come historically from a colonial slave regime, from a Spanish colonial slave regime that began during the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th century.

When the Spaniards came to Cuba, they arrived fundamentally with the interest of obtaining certain riches, gold in particular, and in that way, they used the indigenous population, the native population of the island, as slave labor.

Illustration depicting enslaved Blacks imported to Cuba by the Spanish colonizers of the Caribbean island to work in the sugar plantations. The colonizers also imported Black slaves to use them as domestic servants. (Photo: Still from People’s Forum video.)

However, when sugar production emerged, that’s when the Black slaves arrived in Cuba. Because the slaves, the Blacks who arrived in Cuba, the first ones that arrived actually came from Spain. They were called Ladinos. They had acquired a certain culture in Spain, and they also spoke Spanish. And they came as servants of the Spanish colonizers. That was the first Black population in Cuba.

The Black population began to arrive in Cuba primarily after the Haitian Revolution took place. Haiti lost the sugar and coffee markets. Then Black slaves began to be imported to Cuba for the sugar production.

But it must be said that the Spaniards did not bring women with them. In the beginning of the colonization men came alone, and, therefore, almost immediately, the Spaniards began to mix with the indigenous and the Black women.

As a result, in addition to the slave population, a mestizo population emerged in Cuba, as a result of the relations between the Spaniards and the Black and mestizo women. And so, a population emerged in Cuba that became increasingly complex, made up of Black slaves, free Blacks who from the beginning of the 16th century were able to buy their freedom, and a mixed population. That is, a mestizo population that sometimes was free and sometimes was also enslaved.

Esteban, as a Cuban citizen, a social scientist and expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, a member of the Communist Party, how do you identify racially and why?

I identify myself in racial terms as Black. My parents were Black, and I am Black. That’s how I racially identify myself. And that’s where my culture comes from initially.

Now what happens with the Black population in Cuba? The Black population in Cuba comes from slavery. That’s its origin. And it has to be said that 500 years of slavery cannot be solved in a little more than 60 years of political change in Cuba. That is to say, in 1902 Blacks in Cuba suffered a lot from racist discrimination. The Republic [established at that time] reinforced racist discrimination in Cuba. It reinforced the legacy of slavery.

Esteban Morales during People’s Forum interview. (Photo: Still from YouTube video)

It was only after 1959 that the situation gradually began to change. Particularly, Fidel [Castro], already in March of 1960, spoke of the problems, of the need to abolish racist discrimination. The first thing he did in his speeches was to try by all means to give Black people the possibility of having jobs. Something very important, because it was very difficult for the Black population in Cuba to have a job.

The American companies did not employ Black people in Cuba. The Cuban telephone company and the electricity company in Cuba practically did not employ Black people, and many American companies did not generally employ Black people.

Black people, from the beginning of the Republic, had the lowest paying jobs, the hardest, the most difficult — like cane cutting, carpentry, masonry, construction in general, work in the fields. That is why the Black population that we find in Cuba since the beginning of the Republic is a Black population employed in the worst jobs, in the least lucrative economic activities, and in the least lucrative jobs.

Furthermore, when a study was conducted of that population in the Republic, it was found that it was a population with a high level of illiteracy. There were very few Black people who could study. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Blacks could not go to school. That started to change little by little afterwards. But the Black people could not go to school, they could not receive training. Very few Black people, already within the Republic, were able to go to universities and were able to get certain better jobs. But in general, the Black population was full of poverty, illiteracy, because in Cuba, in the Cuban republican regime, distribution was extraordinarily unequal, the distribution of wealth.

Wealth was white, poverty almost always Black

Wealth was generally white, and poverty was almost always Black. That was the reality of the Black population in Cuba, even during the Republic.

That was the situation that existed with the Black population in Cuba. It remained intact when the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959.

That is to say, Blacks in Cuba continue to suffer difficulties and problems that come from a long time ago. They come from a situation of poverty in which, in a certain way, phenomena are being reproduced that were typical phenomena of slavery.

The Communist Party of Cuba has come around to acknowledging that, for many years, the issue of racial identity and racism were taboo issues, having declared that racism had been overcome as a result of opening up the country by way of law to all of its citizens. Sixty-two years now into the Cuban Revolution, are we at a critical moment, a new, unprecedented moment of discussions among Cuban citizens, the Cuban Communist Party, the Cuban government, about the nexus of racial and national identity, anti-racism, and the development of socialism?

There are examples like the Union of Writers and Artists’ [UNEAC] projects that are around Color Cubano, Gisela Arandia, who developed that project around the contemporary expression of the José Aponte committee against racism and discrimination.[1] And around the organized commission of President Díaz-Canel who has established a committee against racism and discrimination, and who convenes and presides over that committee interacting with civil society, interacting with departments of government, tourism, the police, and others about racial implication. Is this a new, unprecedented moment in Cuba?

First of all, when the Revolution triumphed, there were one million illiterate people in Cuba and the vast majority of those people were Blacks and peasants. They were not people who lived in the cities.

Secondly, we had a population made up of whites, or so-called whites, because I always say that the Spaniards arrived in Cuba with white credentials and that’s how they stayed. But the Spaniards are not white. For a very simple reason. Because of 400 years of Arab colonization, they will never be white anymore. But the most important thing is that they came to us with the sword, the cross, and the horses, that is, with the symbols of power within the colony and therefore, it mattered little that they were white or that they were not white. But from the point of view of racial identity, the Spaniards are not white. They came with those credentials, and it stayed that way.

It is important to keep this in mind, because the problem of whiteness and Blackness in Cuba from the beginning includes a lot of hypocrisy. And a lot of self-assumption and a lot of what happened to the Cuban identity when the Cuban nation began to be forged.

Plantation slavery, and house slavery

First of all, there were two forms of slavery: plantation slavery and house slavery, that is, in the master’s house. Plantation slavery was hard, rigorous, and was enforced with great force. But the other form of slave labor was mainly in the house of the Spanish landowner. Here Blacks had more opportunities. For what reason? Because, sometimes, maybe the girl of the house got fond of a Black child and taught him to read and write. In addition, not infrequently, the Creole landowner, the white man in the house, when he was about to die would grant the slave his freedom, and so a slave had the possibility of being free.

The Black person in domestic slavery was also always threatened by the possibility that if he did not comply with something, or the master did not like something he did, he would be sent to the plantation or to the stocks for punishment. In other words, in reality, he was still a slave, but he had greater possibilities than the plantation slave.

So, therefore, that is the diverse population that existed in 1959, as a result of racial mixing, as a result of which employment was managed during the Republic.

When the Revolution triumphed the greatest number of unemployed were Black, the greatest number of illiterate people were Black, the greatest number of poor people were Black, and all that dragged into and deepened within the Republic.

That is the reason why in March 1960, when Fidel talked about the problem of racist discrimination and racism in Cuba, the first thing he talked about was the need for Blacks to be given work.

A process began then in which, first of all, Blacks were able to go to school. And even get to college. Secondly, they could have a decent job. Sometimes they weren’t bank employees, but they could become teachers, they could have a relatively decent job with a good salary. The Black person, little by little, began to emerge as a citizen with certain responsibilities.

In Cuba, education became free, so there were no limitations to go to school. But then free health care came as well, and with that the possibility that all people could receive medical care regardless of their skin color, social status, or economic situation.

Student teaching Afro-Cuban peasant to write during Cuba’s mass literacy campaign in the 1960s. Establishing free education and free medical care for all after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 benefited Blacks in Cuba. (Photo: Still from People’s Forum video)

It must be said that this was not done directly for Blacks. It was done directly for the entire Cuban society. Blacks, as part of the society, benefited.

Now, in any case, even though we have free education and free health care, we do have problems today in Cuba that speak fundamentally to the burdens of slavery.

To start, Blacks tend to have shorter life spans than white people. Secondly, Blacks have fewer opportunities to go to the university. Thirdly, Black people sometimes do not take enough advantage of free public health care.

This means that a Black person drags this situation with them, dragging a situation in which they may not be able to go to university. Because they have a family that is poorer and maybe they got to eighth grade and then they had to start working to help the family. And even though, let’s say in college, if you have a difficult family economic situation the university gives you a loan to survive. And then you have to pay that loan with the work you do as an employee after graduating from college. Anyway, that is an element that undoubtedly represents a disadvantage for Black people.

That is to say, for Black people in Cuban society today, despite everything the Revolution has done in Cuba to equalize [conditions for] the entire population, a Black person is still at a disadvantage. This even includes the fact that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth, and that their children die in the first few months [after birth], than white women are. This has been clearly and statistically proven to be the case.

These are the burdens we still carry from slavery. They can only be solved with the advancement of culture, education, science, and little by little this population will have access to these possibilities and capabilities.

Racism still exists in Cuba

That is the reason why racism and racist discrimination still exist in Cuba, which is still expressed in a certain attitude toward Blacks, and in certain disadvantages of Blacks in social life and self-esteem.

For these reasons, to defend the Revolution and what the Revolution has done for Black people by saying that in Cuba there is no racist discrimination, and there is no racism, is a big lie.

It’s a big lie. In Cuba there is still racism, there is still racist discrimination. And there are still racists, there are still people who discriminate against Blacks, regardless of the fact that I believe that the country has made a lot of progress from that point of view. But these are problems that have to be solved. That is the reason why community projects exist. That’s why UNEAC and other cultural institutions exist. There is a government resolution to fight against racism and racist discrimination. There is the Aponte Commission, which aims precisely to combat racism and racist discrimination in culture.

There are a number of possibilities to fight, but there are still a number of problems to solve. There are still people who discriminate against Blacks. There are still Blacks who see themselves as diminished. Within there is the problem of self-esteem because it has to do with the family with which they lived, the circumstances in which they lived.

I can say this very clearly, for good reason, because I was a Black son of a carpenter and a housewife, and grandmothers who were domestic servants, maids. I was born in the last room of a provincial nursery in Cárdenas. So, I lived that life.

However, you can say I was a lucky Black person. Because I entered a contest and won a scholarship to study at the best Catholic school in my town, the Reverend Trinitarian Fathers in Cárdenas. There I study practically until the fourth year of high school. I lived in a school environment where there were only four Blacks. I was one of them. I had excellent teachers because the priests were very good teachers.

After the Revolution triumphed, I was able to enter the university in 1962. In 1964, I started working as a teaching assistant. When I graduated in 1969, I remained as a teacher at the university.

But that is my origin. And there are many people who have my origin and who managed to advance. But there are others who have been left behind, not because the opportunities do not exist, but because it is one thing for opportunities to exist and another thing to take advantage of those opportunities.

There are people in Cuba who are not in a position to take advantage of the opportunities the country gives them to study, to cultivate themselves, to develop culturally.

Fidel fought for eradicating racism

Fidel undertook a very important task. In the 80s, Fidel was aware of that problem because he continually talked about it, about the problem of racism.[2] And about the capacity or the inability of Blacks to go to school, technical school, university, etc., so there were important differences with respect to the Black population.

At one point in Havana there were 80,000 young people who neither studied nor worked, and the vast majority were Black, so Fidel created what were called “social workers.”

There are many of those social workers who got into college. In fact, one of the things that really drove the work against racist discrimination is that in the 1980s, when the crisis of 1989-1994 took place [what is known in Cuba as the Special Period in Peace Time][3], we realized that those who had suffered most from that crisis were Black and mixed-race people. Because they were the ones who had the least opportunities and the least capacity to take advantage of existing opportunities.

Fidel Castro (center) with social workers (right). In 1986 Castro gave a speech in which he called for affirmative action to increase the percentage of Blacks and women in the leading bodies of Cuba’s Communist Party. “We can’t leave the promotion of women, blacks, and mestizos to chance…. We have to straighten out what history has twisted,” the central leader of the Cuban revolution said. He also promoted the proliferation of social workers as a way of increasing opportunities for Blacks to get into higher education and into better jobs. (Photo: Still from People’s Forum video)

That is the reason why we still have the problems I mentioned in Cuba.

Blacks come from a race that was enslaved, that suffered a lot, and their children inherited that suffering, that inability. They inherited all those problems. That’s why Blacks in Cuba today still die first.

(This was the first of a two-part series. The second can be found here.)


[1] In the 1990s, Cuba’s revolutionary leadership and mass organizations in the country took new initiatives to promote a national discussion on the ongoing struggle against racism. This included launching in 1998 the working group Color Cubano, by Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC). The group led “discussions that range from the role that the media should play in the struggle against racism, up to the need to incorporate racial themes into school textbooks as an important aspect in the classroom,” Cuban journalist Gisela Arandia reported in an article in a special issue of La Gaceta de Cuba devoted to “Nation, Race, and Culture” in 2005. La Gaceta is UNEAC’s bimonthly journal.

UNEAC formed the Commission for the Fight against Racism and Discrimination after an agreement reached at its 7th Congress in 2008, whereby Color Cubano would cease to exist, and its work related to the fight against racism in Cuba would be transferred to the work of this commission. This committee began to function publicly in the fall of 2009. UNEAC subsequently renamed it the Aponte Commission, after José Antonio Aponte, a Cuban political activist and military officer of Yoruba origin who organized one of the most prominent rebellions of enslaved people in Cuba in 1812

[2] Despite the enormous transformation since 1959, racist attitudes and more subtle forms of discrimination were more persistent than many had anticipated, which has been a concern of Cuba’s revolutionary leadership. In a 1986 speech to a congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, Fidel Castro declared, “We can’t leave it to chance to correct historical injustices. To really establish total equality takes more than simply declaring it in law.” Referring to the need to advance the percentage of Blacks and women on the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Castro called for affirmative action, saying, “We can’t leave the promotion of women, blacks, and mestizos to chance…. We have to straighten out what history has twisted.” The speech can be read in its entirety in New International no. 6, a magazine of Marxist politics and theory.

[3] The “Special Period in Time of Peace” refers to the period in the 1990s when Cuba tackled its most serious economic crisis.  Faced with the cutoff of heavily subsidized trade with the former Soviet Union, Cuba was suddenly confronted with a plunge of 35 percent of economic production (equal or greater than the decline of the Great Depression in the U.S. in the 1930s). At the same time, Washington intensified its economic warfare against Cuba as the revolution fought to obtain new trading partners and sources of capital. Enemies of the revolution everywhere predicted the “impending” collapse of the workers and farmers republic. Revolutionary minded working people, however, defended the socialist revolution in face of these difficulties showing their belief  the Cuban government remained their government. And they continued to reach out to the oppressed and exploited around the world offering assistance to anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles.

Race in Cuba: Everything Within the Revolution

YouTube video of interview by James Early with Esteban Morales, which the People’s Forum released April 22, 2002.

3 replies »

  1. Dear World-Outlook – 

    Thanks for the wonderful interview with Esteban Morales which I’ve shared with CubaNews readers and will share with many others interested in these important topics. 

    Please note: I’m the photographer who took the image which opens your series and so would appreciate photo credit right at the bottom of the image as you’ve done with the People’s Forum images.

    There are several other writings by Dr. Morales which I have translated and posted in English. Your readers might like to know about and read them, which are available here:

    Thanks so kindly,

    Walter Lippmann


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