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Critical Evaluation of Castro’s Afro-Cuban Policies

Critically evaluate the following description of the Castro regime in Cuba:

“An afro-phobic regime with an afro-centric foreign policy”

The “blackening” of Cuba had its roots in the 1700 s during the Sugar Revolution( 1762-1800). The labor of African slaves was a substantial asset to sugar production, and therefore large amounts of native Africans were relocated to Cuba. As time progressed the number of black Cubans fluctuated, peaking in the mid 19th century when they constituted the majority of the population. This “enigricimiento” or “blackening” of Cuba developed into a fear of black power that fueled racist divisions in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

But was Castro himself Afro-phobic? Though no one can know the thoughts of the man himself, it does not seem altogether likely. His positive actions, such as the passing of the March, 1959 civil rights legislation, appear to be anything but racist. Although this can be alternatively argued after the Castro regime s failure to redistribute power and later lack of dialogue on the subject. More likely though, is the possibility of Castro s lack of awareness of the depth of racial divisions in Cuba. To him, the revolution was not a question of race, but one of national unity. Perhaps this stems from his personal and educational background.

Castro was brought up in a “white world” where the people surrounding him were overwhelmingly not Afro-Cuban. His parents, teachers, and friends were white and subsequently, race was not originally an issue for him. Perhaps this is why he does not address race in his speech La Historia me Absolvera, and continues to give the impression of racial homogeneity. His Marxist beliefs also benefited this perception, holding the idea that racism was a result of class distinction, and if class distinction were eliminated, as planned in Castro s nationalist revolution, racism would effectively disappear. Thus, with this background it may have been easy for Castro to misinterpret the question of race, and miscalculate its consequences. From this possibility developed the concept that the civil rights laws were passed by a government clueless about race, allowing racism to survive implicitly and the government to convince itself that it had effectively eradicated the problem.

The next question that arises is, how could Castro have appeared to be in support of Afro-Cubans and gained their favor against the existing Batista regime, while Batista was of African descent himself? In fact, not only was Batista of Afro-Chinese heritage, but he was personally involved in popular black culture of the time and was previously supported by the black population. Still, the educational platform, as well as wage, price, and rent controls, instated by the Castro regime won the preference of those who received the benefits: the poor; mostly black Cubans.

First, it is important to cite the fact that the benefits of education and economic controls were aimed at the poor. That many of these poor Cubans were black was within Castro s understanding, but his policy decisions were more likely motivated by desires for solidarity and wider support. Following from Castro s ideological influences, he advocated the eradication of class distinction over racism. Or more explicitly, the elimination of racism as a result of the abolition of class distinction. Thus, most of the benefits to black Cubans remained at the level of poverty; far from positions of power and influence.

This concept becomes more apparent when we examine some of the other benefits given to Afro-Cubans. Although Castro outlawed public racism and discrimination in March 1959, the effects did not run deep. Blacks gained a newfound freedom to sun themselves on formerly private beaches, play sports, and walk in parks, yet by 1965 still only 9% of the Central Committee of the CCP were black; not at all increased in from the previous twenty years. Though blacks could now dine in their restaurant of choice, they still held no political authority in Cuba.

Underscoring the lack of political presence was a general lack of recognition in Cuban culture. Books, magazines, and television shows were often bereft of black faces. Careerwise, blacks were still disproportionately allocated to menial, semi-skilled, and laboring professions, and could not commonly attain high level, supervisory, or publicly recognizable roles. These evidences of discrimination also had wider effects than the obvious. As a result, Afro-Cubans suffered a discrepancy of economics. By definition of having positions of less power, responsibility, and prestige, Afro-Cubans had positions of less income. Thus, as a group their purchasing power was low; an evidence of lack of economic wealth, influence, and power.

The continuation of racism in Cuba, highlighted by the lack of Afro-Cuban representation within the power structure was again re-enforced by educational policies. In the beginning of the revolution, after the passing of the civil rights laws, schools were still not instructed to address black culture. African history was not at all a focal point of education, and most Cuban heroes and cultural icons remained white. Additionally, traditionally European forms of entertainment, such as opera and ballet were considered “culture” while African culture and history continued to be discounted and dismissed.

Yet, when it came to foreign policy, the Castro regime afforded African nations the utmost respect and extended their warmest friendship. Their contribution to African aide stretched from medicine, education, and other civil services, to the shedding of Cuban blood on foreign soil. These measures by Cuba made Africa the focal point of its foreign (afro-centric) policy.

Cuba s desire for allies is apparent. After its break with the United States, its policy conflicts with the Organization of American States (OAS), and its separation from other Latin American nations due to its revolutionary tendencies, Cuba became isolated in the Caribbean. Its strongest ally lay thousands of miles away in the Soviet Union. It is no wonder that Cuba sought to befriend the struggling African nations with whom many Cubans shared their heritage.

Cuba s first interaction with an African state was with medical and military supplies to support the Algerian Liberation Front. The scope of their military involvement eventually extended, at its peak, across seventeen nations, including nearly six hundred thousand Cuban troops having served in Africa over the years. Mostly Cuba focused support on Marxist-Leninist revolutionary efforts. More specifically, they were physically heavily involved in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Cuba continued support on these revolutionary fronts even with domestic discontent over the depth of their involvement. It was a long and expensive conquest, costing the lives of many Cuban soldiers.

In addition to Cuba s military focus in Africa, they also provided a large amount of civilian aide. This began around 1963 when Cuba sent a team of public health workers to Algeria, and a medical team to Tanzania in 1965. The number of civilian workers began to increase in the mid 1970 s, peaking at an estimated eleven thousand in 1978. By the mid 1990 s Cuba claimed to have more health workers and physicians in Africa than the World Health Organization. It has established medical schools, and other educational institutions, as well providing educational opportunities for African students. In the early 1990 s three quarters of their large foreign student population was African, and in 1992, Cuba had cooperative medical agreements with fifteen African countries and technical cooperation agreements with five.

Though Cuba keeps its strongest ties with socialist governments, it maintains diplomatic relations with forty-three of the fifty-three Sub-Saharan African nations. Cuba has provided substantial aide to Africa over the last 30+ years, but its efforts have not been completely altruistic. Through involvement in Africa, Cuba had gained a strong reputation; as a leader, and as a friend. Its willingness to lead, and lend a hand to its neighbors in need, particularly to the point of shedding its own blood, won Cuba a solid reputation. This is explicitly evident in Castro s position as the President of the Association of Non Aligned Nations. The prestige and power obtained benefited Cuba both at home and abroad.

Domestically, Cuba s foreign policy focus on Africa allowed for a greater integration of black Cubans into society. Their involvement abroad in military, educational, and medical conquests procured Afro-Cubans a more solid stance and equal footing that followed them back home to Cuba. Consequently, even in a potentially Afro-phobic regime, Afro-centric policies have made way for the integration of black Cubans into society.

Presently, questions arise about the possible return of Cuban exiles, re-introduction of capitalism, and rebirth of racism in Cuba. Though examination of the past does not provide a clear answer for the future, as one person has said, “the future is dark .”

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