The Cuban revolution could not overcome its whiteness.
In 1930, Robert Robinson left his job at Ford Motor Company in Detroit to work as an engineer in Soviet Moscow. Robinson, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Cuba, had hoped to avoid the racism he faced in the United States.
He was immediately disappointed.
Soviet citizens regularly hurled racial slurs at him and he was routinely denied promotions at his factory job because of his racist Russian supervisors. In his autobiography Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, Robinson said the Soviets used his achievements as political tools to ridicule America on its racial issues. In reality, the Soviet Union had racial issues of its own.
He fled the U.S.S.R. in 1974. And Cuba really isn’t any better, even after Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Be it the U.S.S.R. or Cuba, communism, as a political system, is not the oasis of racial harmony most black Americans believe it to be. As a Fulbright Scholar who has studied how black peoples from America, Africa and the Caribbean experienced communist states, I can tell you that for every Assata Shakur who finds safe haven in Cuba, there are jails full of “darker-skinned Cubans” who have never received the dignity of their American exile guest. And for every Langston Hughes who was treated like royalty in Moscow, there are people such as Pierre Kalmek, a sailor from Francophile Africa, who lived in the Moscow during the early 1930s and complained that locals regularly spat on him.
Over the past week, Castro was lionized for his freedom-movement activities across Africa and his embrace of black civil rights figures in the United States. After Angela Davis was acquitted of murder, in 1972, she visited Cuba to thank its people for supporting her during her murder trial. And when Black Panther Party members Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton needed refuge, Castro opened the doors of Havana to them.
But in Communist Cuba, all black lives do not matter.
One of the first mistakes Castro made when he took power in 1959 was to determine that racism was solved in Cuba. Like Castro, Soviet officials made similar ill-advised declarations that allowed even more racism to fester. In Cuba, 62 percent of the population is black, but 71 percent of its public leadership is white, according to a 2009 study. What’s even more disturbing: In 2009, 70 percent of black Cubans were unemployed; 60 percent of black Cubans cited racial discrimination as the cause.
Roberto Zurbana, editor and publisher of the Casa de las Américas publishing house, wrote in the New York Times that, because Cuba inherited more than three hundred centuries of slavery from colonial rule, Afro Cubans haven’t been able to take advantage of the nation’s economic liberalization after the 1959 revolution.
“Most remittances from abroad — mainly the Miami area, the nerve center of the mostly white exile community — go to white Cubans,” Zubana wrote. “They tend to live in more upscale houses, which can easily be converted into restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts — the most common kind of private business in Cuba. Black Cubans have less property and money, and also have to contend with pervasive racism. Not long ago it was common for hotel managers, for example, to hire only white staff members, so as not to offend the supposed sensibilities of their European clientele.”
For speaking out, Zurbana was rewarded with losing his post.
How, then, could Castro, a revolutionary who supported freedom fighters in Africa and America, allow racism this pervasive to rule in his own country? Because the Cuban revolution could not overcome its whiteness, that’s why. The same holds true for the U.S.S.R. The Russians who dominated the Communist Party could not overcome their Slavic-ness. That is how racism continued to rule its nation during the Soviet period — and racial strife isn’t any better for black people in Russia after 1991, either.
~Terrell Jermaine Starr is a freelance journalist in New York City who specializes in Russian-U.S. affairs and national security. You can follow him on Twitter: @Russian_Starr.