Why it is so difficult to talk about race in Cuba
Clara Ferreira Marques speaks to historian Ada Ferrer on Cuba’s legacy of slavery and revolution, and its tight relationship with the US
This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Clara Ferreira Marques: Your latest book, Cuba: An American History, is a sweeping narrative that illuminates Cuba’s tangled, centuries-old relations with the US, ties which remain no less tangled today. What prompted you to tell Cuba’s story as an “American” story?
Ada Ferrer, Julius Silver professor of history and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University: The US has played such an outsize role in Cuban history that I think there’s no way to write a history of Cuba that isn’t also a history of the US and Cuba. Cuba has also been a recurring presence in US history. It was there from the moment of American independence. It was there as the new republic went out into the world as a commercial power and then as a military and political power. The history of a place where the US has been so present is also a history of the US — a way to see US history from the outside in, through the eyes of another.
CFM: Going back as far as you do in the book, Cuba’s history with the US becomes clear, and the role that slavery played in shaping it.
AF: Slavery was there from the beginning, or from the beginning of the European presence. What we think of as modern plantation slavery really takes root at the end of the 18th century, at the same time as the Haitian revolution, which occurred in (what was then) the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It was the largest sugar producer in the world at the time, and when Saint-Domingue stopped producing sugar, Cuban planters seized their chance. That’s when slavery took off in Cuba and that’s when the US begins to concertedly think about acquiring Cuba for itself.
Thomas Jefferson had wanted Cuba to become part of the US. By the 1820s you have more American statesmen really contemplating that seriously. The question was never if, but when. American politicians, economic leaders, financial leaders at that time had a real stake in Cuba. They owned plantations. By the mid-19th century, Americans, particularly in the South, were sending expeditions to Cuba to try to free Cuba from Spain and attach it to the US, as two or three slave states.
In 1853 an American vice-president was sworn into office while on a Cuban sugar plantation — a signal of the entanglements of those American and Cuban systems of slavery, and of that imperial interest.
CFM: The fight against slavery influenced the idealism of the Cuban War of Independence, from 1895 to 1898, and laid the ground for some of the radical ideas promoted by the 26 of July movement, led by Fidel Castro, in the 1950s.
AF: José Martí, who was one of the main leaders of the independence movement, really thought that it could serve as a sort of lesson and model for the world. One of the things that the Cuban rebels did was to abolish slavery. The rebel movement also created what they called a liberation army that was profoundly multiracial, a novel sort of fighting force. It wasn’t just white leaders mobilising black soldiers — those black soldiers were rising through the ranks and becoming generals and lieutenants and captains. The movement championed a language and the idea of racial equality.
Martì was in the US at a moment when American imperial ambitions were as important as they had ever been and racism was hardening. He saw the Cuban independence movement as a check on US expansion.
CFM: But race eventually becomes a blind spot. Was the problem too intractable?
AF: The idea championed by Martí and by the independence movement was that Cuba could somehow not only defeat racism, but could transcend race — that the Cuban republic would be not a black republic or a white republic, it would be Cuban. It’s an argument with enormous power. But what that has meant for black Cubans is that it’s been very, very difficult to tackle the question of racism. So when black Cubans said they were not getting the jobs, that they were being discriminated against, white leaders would say they were being racist and divisive.
Shortly after Castro came to power, he maintained that question of discrimination had been solved by the revolution; it’s over, he said. And at that point it became impossible, or at least very difficult, to talk about race without calling him a liar. [The government] invited black intellectuals from the US and the Caribbean to talk about racism in the US. But then when black Cuban intellectuals tried to meet them and talk to them about racism in Cuba, that was frowned upon.
CFM: Your account makes clear how little of the revolution and of what happened after the 1950s was predetermined, including the leadership role Castro eventually took and his turn towards communism, especially after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Could it have been different?
AF: When the revolution came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro insisted that he wasn’t communist. And he said it over and over again. He stuck with this, insisting that the only “-ism” that could be attached to the revolution was humanism. Though, of course, there’s the argument that he wouldn’t have gained power by admitting he was communist.
CFM: He was popular with the bourgeoisie.
AF: Absolutely. There was a survey done in February 1959 by a mainstream publication in which over 92% of respondents said the government was doing everything quote “perfectly well”. Middle-class people made donations to the first agrarian reform, which began giving land to peasants.
The question of how Cuba becomes communist involves several factors. One is the US. The US initially supports and recognises the new government. But then the agrarian reform happens and some American companies find assets confiscated, and they begin to worry about the question of communism. The US miscalculates, reading the revolution and Castro only within this Cold War framework, without taking into account the ways in which Fidel Castro could mobilise a really powerful Cuban nationalism that was powerful long before him.
And I think part of it, on some level, is that Castro realises the revolution has all this support and that he can do it. Finally, the Cold War itself is another reason. It was really hard to maintain a middle position in that moment.
CFM: Of course, this was a good bet until it wasn’t, when we get to the 1990s, the so-called Special Period, and Cuba’s near-death experience when the Soviet Union collapses. How does the regime make it through?
AF: I was there in that period, doing my dissertation research. I saw people living the austerity, with every cell in their being, really. One reason the country stayed afloat was the host of economic reforms that, for example, made foreign direct investment possible. So they attracted more foreign companies. Another was the turn to tourism, a big part of the state’s survival. They also legalised the dollar, and if people could use dollars in the state stores, then the state captured some of that money.
The other thing that allowed them to survive was outmigration. It had served the government from the beginning of the revolution because it got rid of the most politically opposed early on. Then, in the 1990s, it got rid of the most discontented. People often identify Cuban migration to the US with an old guard that lost property and so on — but the most significant wave, in terms of numbers, have been those who left after the fall of the Soviet Union.
And migration, of course, brought remittances. That’s a lifeline, not just for families but for the government as well.
CFM: Migration to the US has been a weapon for Havana, but one that has risks.
AF: It’s been a double-edged sword. The first time Fidel Castro uses it is in the early 1960s. Then he does it again in 1980, with the Mariel boatlift. And then during the Special Period, when there’s a huge protest in Havana in 1994, and a few days later Fidel says those who want to leave can leave — that triggers a rafter crisis that creates a headache for Bill Clinton, who was then in the White House. So again, it’s sort of an escape valve. It makes the people who are most discontented and most frustrated focus on how to leave as opposed to something else that might be dangerous domestically. But it’s also complicated for the US, because migration policy is a subject of intense debate, and it creates a powerful lobby in Miami and in Washington that is very pro-embargo, anti-Cuban government.
CFM: Your history is also a personal one. You weave in some details on your own family, your arrival in the US, your separation from a half-brother, who is the subject of a separate essay. In that sense, is this also an effort to tell the human side of this “American history”, and the story of Cuban Americans?
AF: I grew up in West New York, New Jersey, in which most people were working class. Most of them hadn’t even gone to high school. They hadn’t lost property. Some had lost little stores and restaurants, but it wasn’t a class of wealthy people waiting to recover their Cuban plantations. It was nothing like that. I wanted to humanise the Cuban-American community because I know how complex it is.
In terms of telling the personal story, I don’t know that I ever intended to do that. But whenever I write history, not just in this book but in other books, I really try to capture the experience of ordinary people whose lives are buffeted by history with a big H. So in trying to capture that experience, I decided it was okay to put my mother in there. This is also her story. It’s also my story, my family’s story.
CFM: With all these hats on, professional and personal, how do you think about the summer’s protests, the largest since the 1990s, and what we should expect, both in Havana and from the administration of US President Joe Biden?
AF: Neither side is focused on making meaningful change. Biden said in the beginning that he would reverse some of Donald Trump’s policies, but he hasn’t. The Cuban government shows no interest at all in honest, meaningful dialogue. The new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has enacted policies that are more restrictive in terms of freedom of expression.
The one thing that is different is that in the 1990s, the really severe, deep hardship was new. It wasn’t like Cuba was a land of plenty before, but the level of suffering, of scarcity of food and [fuel], was new. Now, it’s not new. It’s been 30 years. And the people who are protesting now tend to be young people. More than a third of the Cuban population was born after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they’ve never lived in a country that’s not been undergoing some level of economic hardship. The system is also 30 years more tired. It never really recovered from that 1990s crisis, and people have lost faith that the government knows how or is willing to recover.
CFM: Why are they protesting and demanding liberty now? It’s not like there was freedom before.
AF: The protests happened now because the crisis has gotten that much worse. Economic hardship makes other grievances that much more acute.
CFM: Can we expect a change in Washington instead?
AF: The Democratic Party platform in 2020 did not list ending the embargo as a goal. That was true in 2016 and 2012, but it wasn’t true in 2020. So I don’t think Biden’s interest was really in continuing to open to Cuba the way that Barack Obama had started, and the protests have made it harder for him to loosen policy. Republicans, hardliners, conservative Miami will say he’s rewarding the Cuban government.
Maybe he’ll ease up a little bit on restrictions. But I’m not sure he’ll do more than that. It’s a missed opportunity to move Cuba policy beyond the slogans that are designed to win elections in Florida, which he didn’t win anyway.
• Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.
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