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Cuban Writer and Activist Speaks on Struggles for Equality in the 21st Century

May 9, 2019

Cuban writer, literary critic, and activist Roberto Zurbano recently visited CNR to speak about what it is to be Black in a changing Cuba and the struggles for equality in the 21st Century. The event was organized by the CNR Latin American Women’s Society (LAWS) and the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and sponsored by LAWS and The Westchester Consortium for International Studies. A number of the students in LAWS had the opportunity to first meet Zurbano in 2018 during the College’s Bridging Cultures trip to Cuba.

During the hour-long talk, translated from Spanish by CNR Professor Dr. Nereida Segura Rico, Zurbano traced the history of race relations in Cuba, touching on its fight for independence at the brink of the 20th century and the Cuban revolution in 1959 to today.

In 1962, Fidel Castro declared racism ended, Zurbano said. But that was far from true and the government now recognizes the continued existence of racism in Cuba.

Zurbano lost his position as editor-in-chief at Casa de las Americas in 2013 after publishing an article on the situation in the New York Times in 2013, in which he stated, “To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.”

He also described what it meant to be Black in Cuba—where there are many racial classifications defined by mestizaje, the blending of the three main races that dominated the Caribbean islands in the 16th and 17th centuries, white Europeans, Africans and the Arawak Indian. “In the Caribbean, we have over 50 racial classifications, 20 in Cuba,” he said. He also touched on a meeting he had with activist and actress Angela Davis at the University of Santa Cruz, in which she told him, “In America, it’s all just Black.”

While there have been some successes in combating racism, much still needs to be done, Zurbano said, to address the structural inequality and racial prejudice that continues to exclude Afro-Cubans from the benefits of liberalization of the economy. He stressed the importance of activism in bringing about change and gave examples of initiatives that some groups have undertaken.

“An important first step would be to finally get an accurate head count of Afro-Cubans. The black population in Cuba is far larger than the numbers of the most recent censuses that puts us at less than one fifth of the population. Many people forget that in Cuba, a drop of white blood can, if only on paper make a white person out of someone who in social reality falls into neither of those categories. Here, the nuances of governing skin color are a tragicomedy that hides longstanding racial conflicts.”