Universität Bielefeld“That race should be irrelevant is certainly an attractive ideal, but when it has not been irrelevant, it is absurd to proceed as if it had been.” (Mills 41)
The Cuban Diaspora in the United States has been repeatedly charged with political opacity and racial discrimination towards its members. A highly inflexible community as far as racial acceptance and internal economic mobility are concerned, this Diaspora gives rise to controversies in both media and literature, especially since it plays a major role in the socio-political relations between the two countries. Bearing in mind that the issue of racial discrimination in the last century ran different paths in Cuba and in the United States, and relying on a various set of articles and documentaries, this paper examines the processes and causes underlying the racial tensions within the Cuban community.
The Revolution which took place in Cuba in the late 1950s and whose aftermath was the establishing of a Communist régime under the rule of president Fidel Castro, led to several waves of exiles and later immigrants, most of them settling in the United States, especially in the region of Florida, where they formed a thriving community in what became to be known as the most significant Cuban-American enclave, Miami.
There are four waves that make up the Cuban exile, although the last wave may be classified as migration rather than exile. The first wave left right after the Revolution, between 1959 and 1961 and represented the country’s economic elite, among them supporters of the old Batista régime. The second left through the so-called Freedom Flights in the late 60s and early 70s. Both waves were mostly composed of white, high class Cubans (see González Pando). The next exodus took place in 1980 and is known under the name the Mariel boatlift, followed by a massive migration in 1994, during the height of the Special Period, Cuba’s decline after the fall of the Soviet Block. The four waves differ among themselves along lines of racial composition, professional and economic status, and consequently patterns of integration not only as a community within the United States, but also within the group as a whole.
Racial discrimination was carried by Cuban exiles to the US, where Afro-Cubans are voiceless within the white, elitist Diaspora (see Lisa Maya Knauer). The Cuban-American community is not homogenous, but diverse, with “recent nonwhite émigrés (…) being less likely to be received with open arms by the predominantly white Cuban community in Miami” (in Woltman: 71).
The Cuban Diaspora in the United States has been repeatedly charged with political opacity and racial discrimination towards its members. A highly inflexible community as far as racial acceptance, political tolerance and internal economic mobility are concerned, this Diaspora gives rise to controversies in the media, academic discourse and literature, especially since it plays a major role in the socio-political relations between Cuba and the United States. Bearing in mind that the issue of racial discrimination in the last century has run different paths in Cuba and in the United States, this paper attempts to examine the processes and causes underlying the racial tensions within the Cuban-American community.
The Caribbean region in general is highly marked by its African heritage, a legacy of the slaves brought in from Africa during colonial times. In Cuba most contributions have been made by the Yoruba people, an ethnic group located in present day Nigeria, whose influence in the fields of music, religion and culture in general cannot go unobserved in outlining present-day Cuban identity, which, to a high degree, organizes itself along lines of African practices. Although Cuba is often mentioned as “the whitest” island in the Caribbean, the concept of ‘whiteness’ in the region is essentially subjective, and interpreted differently than in the Western hemisphere. The criteria for racial identity may range from bodily appearance to ancestry and self-awareness, and they are certainly used differently in the U.S. and Latin America.There are theories that define race based solely on phenotypical features, others that define it as historically and socially constructed and associated with a certain status. According to scholar Charles Mills, “race may vary both temporally in a given system (membership rules shift over time) and geographically, through entry into a different system (different membership rules in different racial systems). People of mixed black and white heritage who count as browns, mulattoes, or even whites by local Caribbean and Latin American rules thus become black in the United States”, where membership in the black race may be determined by “the (…) one-drop rule (…) —that is, any black blood makes you black” (Mills 77, 46).
In Cuba, when speaking about racial categorization, one must take into account the long history of the ‘whitening-of-the-population-policy’ that marked the country. Throughout the 1880s, 1890s and during the first half of the 20th century, various attempts were made to open the flow of immigration from Western Europe, in the hope that white immigrants would change the percentage of racial distribution.People nowadays still want to ‘whiten’ themselves, since they associate whiteness with a higher standard of beauty and social status. Officially speaking, the population census conducted in 2002 issued the following results: whites sum up 65%, the rest of 35 % being registered as black, mulattoes, or mestizos. According to other censuses, the numbers may slightly differ. Sociologist Alan West-Durán mentions Cuba as being officially 15% black, 25% mixed and 60% white, but white in Cuba is an “elastic definition” (West-Durán 55). Author Ann Louise Bardach documents 70% of Cuba’s population as black or mulatto.  Racial categories range according to different shades of skin color, hair texture, color of the eyes, etc., many times building on food-related metaphors. Take for example Katherine Hagedorn’s listing of skin shades with which Cubans like to identify themselves: “La canela (cinnamon), café con leche (coffee with milk), chocolate (chocolate), café puro (“pure” or black coffee), tabaco (tobacco), miel (honey)—the words used by Cubans to describe this small sample of colors are reminiscent of a breakfast buffet” (Hagedorn 237).
Just as racial categorization organizes itself along different criteria, the issue of racial discrimination in the last century also ran different paths in Cuba and the United States. Racism has always existed on both sides of the Straits of Florida, but the different perception of the two concepts north and south was historically determined. Even though slavery was practiced throughout the island during the Spanish occupation, after the Independence War in 1898 Cuba did not introduce segregation, which made Cubans feel there was no racism on the island, as compared to the United States. However, racial discrimination did exist and manifested itself as the outcome of hundreds of years of slavery, the legacy of the colonial times. The end of slavery did not mean the end of discrimination; on the contrary, blacks who aspired to equal rights were bitterly disappointed. As mentioned above, a policy of whitening whose beginnings went back to the decades before the Independence War governed the newborn republic at the beginning of the 20th century, whereby the immigration rules of the island favored white, West-European arrivals to those of African heritage coming from neighboring islands such as Haiti, for example. At the time there was a double discourse on race, brought about by the writings of one of the heroes of the War against Spanish rule and later Cuba’s national poet, José Martí.
Martí believed in racial homogeneity, stressing the fact that nationalism transcends racial diversity. Cuba’s national identity should go beyond the concepts of black and white, or mulatto. According to Martí, the concept of race was obviously an obstacle in the way of national unity, a tool which helped create hierarchies and which was meant to subdue individuals. One should not invoke race, since race functions on the dichotomy of superior versus inferior and thus leads to social injustice. In the wake of the War against Spanish rule, it was crucial that all Cubans unite and fight together as one people if the country was to increase its chances of winning the battle. Since the black and mulatto population of Cuba at the time constituted the majority, with roughly fifty-seven percent blacks as early as 1817, according to journalist Enrique Patterson, it became imperative for the Cuban nationalist forces to involve all citizens regardless of their skin color. José Martí’s discourse on race thus proved an important tool in the hands of the Cuban nationalist faction. By stressing the nationalist character of the conflict, the Cuban separatist leaders invited all Cubans, black, white, and mulatto, to join forces and participate in the war, under the premises of equality and unity of the ‘Cuban race’.
After the war, the principles of national inclusion regardless of skin color were taken over by the newly born Cuban government, but not employed towards racial equality and fair representation. On the contrary, if race as such did not exist, then invoking it towards the goal of political representation would have been in itself racist behavior. Blacks were not allowed to group themselves in political parties, since any grouping along racial lines would have gone against the principles of the Independence War. When attempted, such as with the creation of the Partido Independiente de Color in 1908, the Cuban government reacted with constitutional banning of the party and armed repression of its members, which escalated in a violent conflict in 1912, known under the name of the Race War. In a society dominated by the fear of a black revolt, whose precedent was embodied in the Haiti revolution of the 19th century, Cuban nationalists resorted to racial silence. It remained so throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the meantime, the wealth of the country and all political power belonged to the privileged, white elite.
With the dawn of the Revolution led by Fidel Castro, the topic of race was shortly taken up as part of the political agenda. It looked as though the era of silence as far as racial discrimination was concerned was over. Castro’s régime set out to eliminate the class system that had governed the island up to 1959. Since race and class had always gone hand in hand in Cuba, the revolutionary government considered it inevitable that racial discrimination would slowly die out once the class system was broken down. Through a series of reforms in the education system, Castro closed down private schools, making education available for every Cuban, working towards the eradication of discriminative practices promoted by the Batista régime beforehand. Private, elitist clubs were closed down. As early as 1962, racism was officially declared as eradicated, and so the topic of race was once again made taboo. Silencing the issue allowed for a subtle racism, which was deeply rooted in the Cuban society, to continue. As scholar Nadine Fernández pointed out on several occasions, the fact that the Socialist system tried to erase racial differences translates as the elimination of racism only by law, but not from the mentality of the people. Or as critic Kimberlé Crenshaw states: “a society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles” (Kimberlé Crenshaw quoted in Mills 102).
While Castro’s régime set out to eliminate class differences, the professional and economic elite of Cuba were making their way out to the United States. Several waves of exiles and later immigrants settled in the region of Florida, where they formed a thriving community in what came to be known as the most significant Cuban-American enclave, Miami, the main point of attraction due to its geography and historical connection to Cuba. The Cuban Diaspora represents “not only the largest ethnic group in south Florida but also the largest concentration of Cubans living outside of Cuba today, accounting for 45.4 percent of the foreign-born population living in Miami-Dade County” (Woltman 71).
Broadly speaking, there are four waves that make up the Cuban exile, although the last wave may be classified more precisely as a migration. The first wave left right after the Revolution, between 1959 and 1961, and represented the country’s economic elite, among them supporters of the old Batista régime. The second left through the so-called Freedom Flights in the late 60s and early 70s. The next exodus took place in 1980 and is known as the Mariel Boatlift, followed by a massive migration in 1994, the so-called balseros (rafters), during the height of the Special Period, Cuba’s economic decline after the fall of the Soviet Block. The four waves differed among themselves along lines of racial composition, professional and economic status. The first two waves were mostly composed of white, high class Cubans and professionals. With the following Mariel and balseros waves, the proportion of professionals dropped, since the Cuban government was becoming more and more reluctant to let them leave the country, but at the same time, with these two waves the percentage of nonwhite Cubans increased. “Mariel refugees were one of the most racially diverse waves of Cuban émigrés” (Woltman 74).
The first wave of exiles definitely had the upper hand in resources and political reception. In the aftermath of the events of 1959, Cuban exiles were welcomed by the United States government, who did not support the Castro régime, which allowed the first wave to set the basis for a thriving community, a community often mentioned as exemplary for the success of immigrants in the U.S. However, “the Cuban ‘success story’ can prevent us from seeing the true situation of Cuban émigrés (…) the upper and middle-upper levels of the socioeconomic structure of Miami’s Cuban community are disproportionately composed of those who arrived in the early 1960s, who have been predominantly white” (Woltman 81, 71). It seems that the exiles’ patterns of integration within the Diaspora depend, on the one hand, on their time of arrival and, on the other hand, on their racial composition. For that matter I would like to take a look at the following tables, which use parts of two different samples from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census, published by Kelly Woltman in The Professional Geographer: Forum and Journal of the Association of American Geographers in 2009. The samples focus especially on the different patterns of economic integration based on the level of property ownership and income among the Diaspora members living in Miami according to time of arrival and along racial lines. The groups questioned were chosen out of the Freedom Flights and Mariel waves of exiles. For the census, researchers decided to interview Cubans who were 30 to 54 years of age in 1990 and respectively 40 to 64 years of age in 2000, the reason for that choice being that the time span between arrival and time of the census allowed for the subjects to have a completed formal education and thus to be able to enter the work force.
The numbers show a higher level of income among Freedom Flight Cubans than among those who arrived with the Mariel boatlift in 1980, as well as a higher poverty status among later incoming exiles. Moreover, the samples document “greater rates of home ownership” among Freedom-Flights Cubans (Woltman 75). Time of stay is of course an important factor in this case, as well as language skills and level of education (there are no great discrepancies among exiles as far as the high school level is concerned), factors which have to be taken into account when devising the criteria needed for economic integration. However, the poverty status and the level of income among Diaspora members reflect without a doubt, in both censuses, a great discrepancy between white and nonwhite Cubans: “the integration of the Freedom Flight and Mariel Cubans appears to be fragmented along racial lines” (Woltman 82).
One may speculate as to the various reasons behind the different level of economic success of later incoming exiles and immigrants, reasons which are not listed in the tables presented above: first, apart from a higher level of education and professional status, the political exiles arriving in 1960 enjoyed the unconditioned support of the United States government, which slowly subsided with the following waves. Sociologist Alejandro de la Fuente, among others, explains the success of the first exiles as a direct consequence of the U.S. immigration policy, which favored Cubans to other immigrants. Second, along with the subsiding support of the government, the Diaspora members themselves turned their backs on later incoming exiles. The first wave was to a high percentage composed of supporters of the Batista régime, whose political views radically differed from those of the Castro government. Therefore, any later incoming exiles had to have been indoctrinated by Communist policies, which the first wave bitterly rejected. The support of the U.S. government for new arrivals was very much influenced by the politics of the first Diaspora members. Megan Williams’ documentary, Tell Me Cuba, produced in 2006, thoroughly documents the conservative policy of the Cuban government representatives in Florida, a closed group which has been pulling the economic and political strings of the Diaspora for over forty years. Strong opponents of the Castro régime and supporters of the embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, this same conservative elite has been setting the tone in the literary and artistic field of the Diaspora, as critic Andrea O’Reilly Herrera confesses. This state of fixity of the Cuban community reflects itself in various fields.
The subsiding support of the United States government and the rejection by the Diaspora members themselves of new waves of exiles based on their political views may explain the differences in the patterns of economic integration between Freedom Flights and Mariel arrivals. As far as economic integration along racial lines is concerned, one cannot help but notice that the economic structure of the Cuban Diaspora reflects and perpetuates the same inflexibility characterizing Cuba before the Revolution, in which the level of wealth and racial demographics were indirectly proportional. What this meant for nonwhite Cubans was that the racially biased mentality which the first wave of exiles brought along with them invalidated many of the opportunities for Afro-Cubans to penetrate the already successful, ruling circle. Racial discrimination and a silent attitude towards race were carried by the first Cuban exiles to the U.S., where Afro-Cubans have since been voiceless within the white, elitist Diaspora. The Mariel boatlift led many Afro-Cubans to the United States, threatening to spoil Miami’s image as “the cream of the crop”, as scholar Alejandro de la Fuente stated (Fuente 305). “Nonwhite Mariels (…) lack support from the local enclave and are therefore forced to rely primarily on themselves” (Woltman 82). With the fourth wave of Cuban émigrés during the Special Period of 1994, the community’s reluctance to offer support to new arrivals grew even further. The ‘rafters’ wave of immigrants was even more diverse than the previous waves in terms of its racial composition. The well-known 2002 documentary on Cuban immigration, Balseros, directed by Joseph M. Domenech and Carles Bosch, follows the integration process of seven Cubans immigrating to the United States at the height of the Special Period, over seven years. Most of the characters are forced to disperse themselves throughout the rest of the United States, away from Miami. That community appears to be saturated.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Cuba lost most of its political allies and trade partners, and therefore underwent a severe economic recession. In the summer of 1994, at the height of the Special Period, shortages of fuel and food products were affecting the entire population of the island. Being denied a visa for the United States, Cubans struggled to leave the country on anything that would float, making do with self-built rafts or inner tubes in order to cross the ninety miles separating them from Florida. Many of them were stopped by the Cuban coast guard in their attempt to cross over and brought back to land, which caused a series of riots in Havana in the month of August of that year, riots which led to the government’s decision to allow any Cuban citizen wanting to emigrate to do so as long as they were accepted as refugees in the United States. Over a period of six months, several thousands of Cubans left the island, among them many Afro-Cubans. According to the documentary by Domenech and Bosch, out of seven Cubans immigrating to the United States in 1994 only two settled in Miami, the rest of them being sent by the work forces and immigration offices to different states, depending on the flexibility of the job market. None of the Afro-Cubans portrayed in the documentary film stayed in Miami.
Afro-Cubans in the United States face a double discrimination, both internal and external, not only within the Diaspora but also from the rest of the Hispanic population in Miami (since “it has been noted that Cubans experience higher average earnings and faster wage growth rates than other Hispanic immigrants in the United States”), as well as from the black population (Woltman 71). The same policy which supported Cuban exiles as opposed to other incoming refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean tended to favor Cubans over African-American communities. This led to a series of riots in Miami in the late 1960s and early 1980s, since African Americans felt that Afro-Cubans had better chances on the job market. “Dunn documents the existence of racism directed toward Cuban arrivals from both the larger community as well as the African American community. The influx of Cubans (and other immigrants or refugees) placed African Americans in direct competition with the new arrivals for housing, social services, and financing, initiating or prolonging racial and ethnic tensions within the city” (Woltman 83).
Not only in Miami, but also throughout the rest of the United States, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean kept pouring in during the second half of the 20th century, driven either by the expectation of better chances on the job market or by the civil wars and ethnic conflicts taking place in their home countries at the time. As historian Ira Berlin records, the West Coast of Africa in the late 1960s was shaken by the so-called Biafran war, an ethnic conflict between the Igbo groups, who strove for independence from the Nigerian mother state and the Yoruba, Hausa and Christians populating the region. The violence and cruelty of the war drove many Nigerians out of their country and to various destinations, especially the United States. Another example Berlin offers is that of the Haitian refugees arriving in masses at the coast of the United States throughout the 1980s in order to escape dictatorial régimes and poverty. Afro-Cubans inscribed themselves in the category of black immigrants in the early 1990s. That many of these incoming black immigrants had more economic success than native African-Americans was not necessarily due to the availability of jobs but mainly to the immigrants’ readiness to work long hours for low pay in unregulated conditions, many times doing unpleasant jobs.
Apart from the economic reasoning, cultural belonging also plays an important role in the emerging conflicts. Berlin explains the gap between native African-Americans and incoming black immigrants as a result of racial stereotyping and a different sense of cultural belonging. The one-drop rule according to which racial categorization functions in the United States placed all dark skinned immigrants in one group with native African-Americans, thus generalizing over cultural belonging on the base of skin color. However, as professor Kofi Glover asserts, “a shared complexion does not equal a shared culture” (Berlin 222). Assuming that all blacks share a pan-African identity fell under a clichéd reasoning whose effect was to engender antagonism among native African-Americans and new arrivals. Many black immigrants thus chose to embrace and emphasize their national identity and consequently their identity as an ethnic minority rather than accept being categorized as African-Americans. Afro-Cubans were no exception, their allegiance sworn primarily to their native land, whereby their perception of Cuban national identity collided with the ideology of the earlier exile- and thus established Cuban-American community. As Marta Elena Acosta Stone mentions, the elite exiles in the US did not mingle with other Latinos, nor did they wish to mingle with the late waves of Cuban immigrants, especially Afro-Cubans.
To sum up, we cannot look for the causes underlying the racial tensions within the Cuban-American community without taking into account the history of racial dynamics in Cuba during the past centuries. Whenever race has threatened to become part of the political discourse in Cuba, it was turned into a taboo subject. Both Cuban exiles leaving the island shortly after the Revolution as well as those who arrived in the United States at a later stage carried this silent attitude towards racial misrepresentation with them. Here I would like to return to a quote by philosopher Charles Mills: “that race should be irrelevant is certainly an attractive ideal, but when it has not been irrelevant, it is absurd to proceed as if it had been” (Mills 41). Race has never been irrelevant. Not in Cuba, where cultural identity has repeatedly been constructed around African heritage, especially during the aftermath of the Special Period as a strategy to strengthen the sense of community in a society disappointed with political ideologies, nor within the Cuban Diaspora, where wealth and status have been distributed along racial lines since the arrival of the first exiles. The Diaspora that has been characterized as caught in a time loop of the 50s in Cuba in much of the literature its later generations produced is also static in its political strategies and economic stratification, as well as its racial views, whose premises need to be sought for not in the present, but in a socio-political context that existed in Cuba more than fifty years ago and which is still very much valid.
Writers Achy Obejas, Peter Ripley and Andrea O’Reilly Herrera, scholars Alan West-Durán and Alejandro de la Fuente and documentary film maker Megan Williams are among many of the critics of the Cuban-American Diaspora. back to text
In the United States, for example, the concept of ‘whiteness’ does not leave as much room for elasticity as it does in the Caribbean; West-Durán XVI. back to text
A detailed discussion of racial categorization in the United States and Latin America can be found in Mills 51. back to text
The whitening policy was the encouragement by the ruling class (from 1902 onwards the Cuban government) of white Europeans to immigrate to Cuba, based on the belief that blacks and mulattoes would eventually be absorbed into the white majority of the population; West-Durán 61. back to text
The results of the census are taken from Fernández 45. back to text
Ann Louise Bardach is an American journalist and reporter who has conducted extensive research on the relations between Cuba and the United States; Bardach 265. back to text
According to Enrique Patterson in O’Reilly Herrera 41. back to text
See Mills 194. back to text
Due to the need for seasonal workers, Cuba opened its door to immigration, however only according to the implemented governmental policies, which welcomed workers from Italy, Spain and Northern Europe but rejected Antillean workers; Fuente 45, 46. back to text
Detailed description of the racial landscape in Cuba in the 19th century can be found in Patterson 50. back to text
The PIC was founded by Evaristo Estenoz in 1908 with the goal of exercising affirmative action for the black population of Cuba; see Fernández Robaina 8. back to text
See Ferrer 234. back to text
Castro saw no use for black organizations and clubs and succeeded in silencing the issue of race politically, but blacks were still victims of negative stereotyping and clichés in the popular imagination; West-Durán 65. back to text
Also according to Fernández 5. back to text
Cuban-American scholar Miguel González-Pando suggests that the main reason why the United States developed a political and economic interest in the Caribbean island was its geographical proximity; González-Pando 2. back to text
Among others, see González-Pando XIV. back to text
For full and detailed statistics, see Woltman 74; the factor-categories which I chose to present here are general; in the original tables general headings are divided into further subcategories. back to text
The high shool level counts among the sub-factors represented under the headline of education status in the statistics in Woltman 76, 77. back to text
Tell Me Cuba focuses on the dissensus between the Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats, regarding their stance on the U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. back to text
According to Lisa Maya Knauer in Hernández Reguant 166. back to text
González-Pando mentions that some fifty thousand Cubans left the island on rafts in the summer of 1994; González-Pando 76. back to text
Throughout the 60s and 80s ethnic groups in Miami played against each other. The Miami blacks riot of 1968 was directly connected to the loss of jobs for African-Americans to Cuban immigrants; Fuente 304. back to text
Berlin, Ira. The Making of African America. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.
Fernández, Nadine T. Revolutionizing Romance: Interracial Couples in Contemporary Cuba. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. Print.
Fernández Robaina, Tomás. Identidad afrocubana, cultura y nacionalidad. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 2009. Print.
Ferrer, Ada. “The Silence of Patriots: Race and Nationalism in Martí’s Cuba” in José Martí’s “Our America”. eds. Belnap, Jeffrey and Raúl Fernández. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print.
Fuente, Alejandro de la. A Nation For All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.
González Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. Print.
Hagedorn, Katherine. Divine Utterances: the Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. Print.
Hernandez-Reguant, Ariana ed. Cuba in the Special Period. New York: Palgrave, 2009. Print.
Mills, Charles W. Blackness Visible. Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.
O’Reilly Herrera, Andrea ed. ReMemembering Cuba. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Print.
Patterson, Enrique. “Cuba. Discursos sobre la Identidad” in Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana. Madrid, 1996. Print.
West-Durán, Alan ed. African Caribbeans: A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.
Woltman, Kelly. “Of Flights and Flotillas: Assimilation and Race in the Cuban Diaspora” in The professional geographer: PG; forum and journal of the Association of American Geographers vol. 61. Philadelphia: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Film and documentary
Domenech, Joseph M. and Carles Bosch, dir. Balseros (120 min). Docurama, 2002. Film.
Williams, Megan, dir. Tell Me Cuba (85 min). 2006. Film.