Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Spanish
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant), syncretic African religions
According to the official 2012 National Census, the majority of the population (64.1 per cent) of Cuba is white, 26.6 per cent mestizo (mixed race) and 9.3 per cent black. However, as these figures are based on self-identification, in a context of widespread internalized racism and the entrenched stigma around ethnicity, these are widely believed to be skewed in favour of the white population: other assessments suggest that around a third of Cubans are whites, with the remaining two thirds composed roughly equally of mestizo and black.
Although there are no distinct indigenous communities still in existence, some mixed but recognizably indigenous Ciboney–Taino-Arawak-descended populations are still considered to have survived in parts of rural Cuba.
Furthermore, the indigenous element is still in evidence, interwoven as part of the overall population’s cultural and genetic heritage. The revolutionary government, installed in 1959, has generally destroyed the rigid social stratification inherited from Spanish colonial rule.
During Spanish colonial rule (and later under US influence) Cuba was a major sugar-producing territory. During the 18th century this necessitated the steady importation of enslaved Africans in chains to provide forced labour, thereby creating an enduring set of colour, caste and class relationships and contributing to the present profile of the national population.
Besides the large number of Cubans of African descent, there is a small but visible Chinese minority. Chinese began migrating to Cuba in 1847 as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations. Over several decades hundreds of thousands arrived to replace and/or work alongside Africans. At the end of their contracts some Chinese immigrants settled permanently in Cuba. In addition, in the late 1800s some 5,000 Chinese immigrated from the US to avoid the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Generations of Chinese-Cubans married into the larger Spanish, mestizo and Afro-Cuban populations. Today almost all Chinese-Cubans have African, Spanish, and Chinese ancestry. Many have Spanish surnames. The majority of Chinese descendants left after the revolution. However, as part of a cultural rescue and tourism promotion, Chinese-Cubans have been provided with small businesses, like beauty parlours, mechanical workshops, restaurants, and small groceries to help them recreate a scenic Barrio Chino (Chinatown).
Updated May 2020
For some six decades, since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has been under Communist rule. This has left a complex legacy for the country. On the one hand, the Cuban government under the leadership of Fidel Castro undertook a comprehensive reform of the country’s social and political life to address its history of inequality and exclusion, including housing, health and education benefits for all Cubans – measures that improved the lives of the poorest Cubans, including the large but disenfranchised Afro–Cuban population.
Yet at the same time, besides leaving many struggling with poverty, Castro’s authoritarian rule also saw a crackdown on a number of groups who were actively targeted by the regime, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and conscientious objectors. This repression, while softening to some extent, continues to be felt to this day. Human rights activists are still being targeted for speaking out against state-sponsored human rights violations, and Cuban civil society groups have reported arbitrary detention, surveillance, harassment and torture. Many of these incidents go unreported due to the reluctance of the Cuban government to share data on arrests, human rights violations and other issues. Government repression therefore remains a significant barrier to Cuba’s progress towards greater equality and social inclusion. While there has been significant progress in the government’s policy towards LGBTQI groups in recent years, with Cuba’s high-quality healthcare system providing free gender re-assignment surgery and services for those with HIV, they still face significant discrimination.
The large Afro–Cuban population still struggles with the legacy of a long history of slavery, colonialism and racial discrimination. These inequalities persist to this day, resulting in limited access to employment and other opportunities as well as the repression of many civil and political rights – a situation exacerbated by the fact that Afro-Cubans remain the most impoverished group in Cuban society. Their vulnerability is especially acute among certain groups, such as Afro-Cuban women and LGBTQI people, who contend with intersectional discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity as well as their gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. Many Afro-Cuban women, for example, are confined to the sidelines of Cuba’s economy and work primarily in low paid positions.
Despite the government’s affirmations to the contrary, the phenomenon of racism has persisted at an individual, family and even institutional level, and critics of official policy allege that educational policy and official culture remained strongly Euro-centric. Afro-Cubans have not, for example, been widely represented in the higher echelons of the ruling Communist Party, nor in the upper levels of the civil service or state industries. And, with few exceptions, Afro-Cuban women have not yet reached the highest professional strata. In an attempt to remedy this, positive efforts have recently been underway by artists, academics and members of the National Ministry of Education to integrate Afro-Cuban history, as well as related gender concerns, into the curriculum of the entire school system.
Cuba today finds itself at a crossroads. While currently blocked by President Donald Trump, economic openings with the United States will bring further inequalities and could potentially exacerbate racial hierarchies. Yet civil society may well be in a healthy state to combat this threat. Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of anti-racism organizations, with groups forming in areas of legal rights, youth, culture, communications and community mobilization.
Updated May 2020
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean. It is located 150 kilometres south of the tip of the US state of Florida and east of the Yucatán Peninsula. On the east, Cuba is separated by the Windward Passage from Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and Dominican Republic.
The original inhabitants of Cuba were the indigenous Ciboney and other Arawak speaking groups. As a result of the island’s location at the entrances to the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Yucatán Channel, it was used by the early Taino Arawak (4000 BCE) in their original migrations from Belize and the Yucatán and across the Windward Passage to Hispaniola (Ay-iti). That neigbouring island subsequently became the regional centre of Taino-Arawak culture and religion and sent colonists back to eastern Cuba. The name ‘Cuba’ is derived from its original indigenous name, ‘Cubanascnan’.
Early colonial period
Columbus first landed on Cuba in 1492 but Spanish colonization of the island did not begin until 1511, with the establishment of settlements at Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba in 1514 and Havana in 1515. Cuba served as a staging area for the successful Spanish colonizing expeditions to Mexico and Florida.
Although the first enslaved Africans were taken to Cuba in 1513, initial Spanish gold mining depended primarily on savage extortion of forced labour from the indigenous Taino-Arawak population. The Taino-Arawak mostly died in captivity, or engaged in resistance and disappeared into the remote mountains creating a labour shortage. This necessitated the importation of captured West Africans to provide the needed labour, with the first large group of Africans enslaved to work underground entering the mines in 1520.
The first recorded uprising of enslaved Africans in Cuba took place in 1533 at the Jobabo mines. Revolts were frequent with the participants escaping into the mountains and linking with indigenous groups to form Maroon or fugitive settlements called Palenques, from which they mounted raids on Spanish settlements. One of these Maroon raids, conducted jointly with pirates in 1538, destroyed part of Havana.
Given its location on the Windward Passage that links the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Cuba became a key part of the most important trade route in the New World. After the mid-1500s, gold, silver and emeralds from Spanish mining centres in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico were trans-shipped to Havana, Cuba and then on to Spain.
As the capital of Cuba, Havana became a very important city. Havana held a monopoly on local as well as international trade, which reduced local interest in producing sugar in the surrounding countryside, and the need for forced labour on plantations. Enslaved Africans in Havana worked primarily at the ports, in construction (ships, housing), domestic service, and also as artisans, merchants, small shopkeepers and even as itinerant street vendors.
Cuba prospered as a trading hub and became the prime target of pirates, smugglers and rival European navies during the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite trade regulations laid down by the Spanish crown, colonists conducted brisk contraband trade with neighbouring colonies and privateers, thereby making it easy for the English to capture and occupy Havana in 1762-1763.
The British, who by then had a monopoly on slave trading, met the pent-up local demand for slave labour. During the year they controlled Havana, the British imported 10,000 Africans for sale in less than 10 months, mostly to work in the sugar factories (ingenios). After this the Spanish government liberalized its Cuban policy and encouraged greater agricultural development, commercial expansion and increased colonization.
The remaining restrictions on trade were officially eliminated with the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, which encouraged Spaniards and later non-Spanish Europeans to settle and populate Cuba and Puerto Rico. Between 1774 and 1817 the population of Cuba increased from about 161,000 to more than 550,000, some of these being colonial refugees from the Haitian revolution.
The decree especially encouraged slave labour to revive agriculture and to attract the new settlers. Consequently large numbers of enslaved Africans continued arriving in Cuba after the late 1700s. This led to a significant rise in sugar production. Cuba became the world’s largest sugar producer, with a highly structured class and caste-conscious plantation society, in which cruelty towards dark-skinned Africans was routine practice.
This situation also led to increased African resistance to slavery and a high rate of escape to Maroon Palenques. There were a series of slave uprisings in the island that would eventually become interwoven into the struggle for Cuban independence.
During the 1830s, in the effort to hang on to its few remaining colonies, Spanish rule became increasingly repressive. This provoked a widespread movement among the colonists for independence. Revolts and conspiracies against the Spanish regime, like those of 1834 and 1838, dominated Cuban political life throughout the remainder of the century.
By 1843 enslaved Africans constituted nearly half the Cuban population. With slavery already abolished elsewhere in the region, pro-slavery forces in both the United States and Cuba made periodic calls for the US to annex, buy or invade the island to help safeguard the profitable slave societies of both countries. Offers by the US government to purchase the island were repeatedly rejected by Spain.
In 1868 revolutionaries under the leadership of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy landowner with pro-abolitionist sentiments, proclaimed Cuban independence. He raised an army composed mostly of freed slaves and fought against Spanish rule.
The ensuing Ten Years’ War became a costly struggle to both Spain and Cuba and also had an impact on its Caribbean neighbours. (See Dominican Republic) The guerrilla war raged mostly in the eastern provinces and took nearly 200,000 lives. It was terminated in 1878 by a truce granting many important concessions to the rebels, especially the abolition of slavery.
Slavery was finally abolished in Cuba in 1886, more than half a century after its elimination in the British Empire. Importation of cheap labour from China was ended by 1871, and the equal civil status of blacks and whites was proclaimed in 1893.
Despite the 1878 truce, the Spanish failed to institute the promised reforms, resulting in a resumption of revolutionary activities under the leadership of Jose Martí. The United States seized the chance to intervene on the side of the rebels, precipitating the Spanish-American War. In April 1898, Spain relinquished sovereignty over Cuba, and the US established a military government in Cuba, setting up a new Constitution in 1901.
As in all the previous battles, Afro-Cubans also played a prominent role in this War of Independence (1895-8), which finally ended Spanish colonial rule. However, while the Constitution of 1901 guaranteed formal equality for all Cubans, at the same time those in control pursued a policy of blanqueamiento (whitening) whereby 400,000 new Spanish immigrants were invited to enter Cuba between 1902 and 1919, making it the most Spanish of Latin American countries.
Furthermore Cubans still had not gained full and true independence. A few material benefits did accompany US occupation, but as in the nearby Dominican Republic it mainly allowed US corporate interests to gain control of the island’s resources, especially the sugar industry which had long been connected to slavery, low wages and poor working conditions.
Popular dissatisfaction led to a series of insurrections that continued until the end of World War I. Mounting economic difficulties, caused by complete US domination of the Cuban economy especially finance, agriculture and industry, also marked the period following World War I. Unrest and frequent regime changes continued, but no real reforms occurred until Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar won the presidential contest of 1940 and served a term in office.
Fluctuations in world sugar prices and a continuing inflationary spiral kept the political situation unstable in the post–war era.
In March 1952 former President Batista seized power with army support, reintroduced reforms and in July 1953 crushed an uprising in Oriente Province led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, who went into exile.
Undaunted, Castro-led insurgents tried again in December 1956 and were once more defeated. Then in the tradition of the abolitionist Maroon Palenques, the group escaped to the mountains to plan and formed the 26th of July Movement. They used Maroon-style hit and run guerrilla tactics to challenge the government, and mobilized considerable popular support. In March 1958, Castro called for a general revolt. On 1 January 1959, the revolutionary militia entered Havana, forcing Batista to resign and flee the country.
The reformist tendencies of the highly populist new Cuban regime alarmed US companies on the island. The agrarian reform laws and decrees prohibiting the operation of plantations controlled by non-Cubans mainly affected US sugar interests; so too did the initial revolutionary efforts to de-emphasize sugar production in favour of food crops.
The line was crossed when the Castro government expropriated an estimated US$1 billion in US-owned properties in 1960. The US imposed a trade embargo and broke off diplomatic relations. Furthermore, covert attempts to dislodge the Castro regime failed on 17 April 1961, when a group of over 1,200 US-supported anti-Castro exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba were either killed or captured. US-Cuban relations grew still worse in the autumn of 1962, with the discovery of Soviet-supplied missile installations in Cuba, which led to a US naval blockade. In 1965 the Cuban government agreed to permit Cuban nationals to emigrate to the United States. Large numbers of European-descended Cubans took the opportunity to leave the country. By April 1973, when the airlift formally ended, more than 260,000 mostly white Cubans had left, many to settle in South Florida.
In 1980, when Castro temporarily lifted exit restrictions again, another 125,000 people left for the United States. With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Soviet-bloc aid and trade ended. As the effects of this change filtered down through the population, greater numbers of Cubans attempted to leave the country for economic reasons.
In February 1996, Cuban jet fighters shot down two civilian planes piloted by Miami-based exiles which the government said had violated Cuban airspace. Following this incident, US President Bill Clinton in March 1996 made permanent the economic embargo, which previously had been renewed each year. Canada, Mexico, and the European Union complained about the US law, arguing that it contravened World Trade Organization rules.
In 2006, as Fidel Castro’s health declined, he passed the position of president to his brother Raúl Castro.
In December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the start of a process to normalise diplomatic relations between the two countries. In March 2016, Obama was the first US President to visit Cuba since 1928. Obama called for the US Congress to end the permanent economic embargo towards Cuba and his administration began allowing US citizens to travel there. However, in November 2017, US President Donald Trump announced stricter business and travel policies towards Cuba, undoing the normalisation of relations that had taken place under the Obama administration.
The effects of the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 remain to be seen; the country remains divided over his legacy. Some Cubans revere him as a revolutionary, whilst others perceive him as an authoritarian ruler.
Cuba is governed under a 1976 Constitution that defines the country as a socialist state. All power belongs to the working people and the Communist Party is the country’s sole political party.
The central legislature of Cuba is the National Assembly of People’s Power, whose 510 members are elected to five-year terms by universal voting. The Council of State includes a president, who is the country’s head of state; the current President is Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who assumed office in 2018.
Judicial power is exercised by the People’s Supreme Court and courts of justice at provincial or regional levels. When required, revolutionary tribunals are convened to deal with crimes against the state.
Sugar and sugar products make up the majority of annual Cuban exports. Tobacco, nickel and copper ores, foodstuffs, and petroleum products are other important export commodities. A second crop of commercial importance is tobacco, a large part of which is manufactured as the internationally popular Havana cigars.
The collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989 signalled the end of Cuba’s preferential trading relationship with the Soviet Union and led to a severe economic crisis. As one of the last centrally planned economies in the world, Cuba began to introduce market reforms while attempting to preserve its existing political system.
In pre-revolutionary times, Cuba was known to ‘tolerate’ gays and lesbians up to a point. Large towns had a few gay bars, and homosexuality was classified together with prostitution and organized crime, both of which were thriving at the time, despite being illegal. When Castro came to power, however, homosexuality was viewed as a form of capitalist decadence at best and counter-revolutionary deviance at worst. In 1965 a national program was set up, seemingly to provide an alternative to military service. In reality, it created infamous concentration camps where forced labour was used to ‘reform’ anyone identified as ‘deviant,’ including not only homosexuals, but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippies and conscientious objectors. Gay men in particular were targeted for both physical and verbal abuse, whereas only a few years earlier many gays and lesbians had been attracted by the revolution’s promise of a new society, one that would be more egalitarian and sexually liberated. After decades of repression, by the 1990s, Castro softened his stance on LGBTQI rights. In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro called the persecution of homosexuals while he was in power ‘a great injustice,’ for which he accepted personal responsibility.
Updated May 2020
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Updated May 2020
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