The US Can Learn Much from Cuba When it Comes to Race Relations

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s inauguration of a newly reopened US Embassy in Havana ushers in closure to one of the most embarrassing chapters of US foreign policy, one driven by a group of ideologues based mostly in Miami, who have rallied around elaborate arguments about freedom and democracy. Their agony over Castro’s totalitarianism tends to overlook the fact that his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, took power in a coup, suspended Cuba’s constitution and elections, and eventually fled the country after stashing millions of dollars in overseas accounts.

While the real distance between Cuba and the US is still many times more than the 100 or so kilometres that separate the two countries, Kerry’s historic visit should give sober-minded geopolitical realists cause for celebration.

Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in 2008, has implemented reforms that include the establishment of wholesale markets and a rollback of government control over transportation and some areas of agricultural production. Those reforms explain the newer South Korean cars now sharing the roads with Russian Ladas and septuagenarian Chevys – held together with all manner of ingenious riggings, which have plied Cuban roads for decades.

In Cuba, there’s no obvious stratification of labour along racial lines

But change has also taken place in the US and one manifestation is the Affordable Care Act. Although “Obamacare” was designed to function mostly through the private sector, it includes government subsidies for those unable to afford medical insurance otherwise.

A full examination of the US and Cuba’s moves away from their respective ideological poles is beyond the scope of this piece, but one indicator stood out during a visit to Havana just a couple of weeks before Kerry’s arrival was an appearance, if not a reality, of relative racial harmony. (In all instances, I use the term “race” as physical identifier and not in a scientific or biological sense because the term is an artificial construct.)

Kerry’s visit came during the same week as renewed racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri, where a brutal history with direct ties to slavery continues to play out. It might seem odd to view these events in conjunction, but because Africans were brought to Cuba and the US as slaves to work on plantations, the comparison is more than fair. Over a century after the end of chattel slavery, Cuba appears to be the winner when it comes to reconciliation with this past.

In Cuba, there’s no obvious stratification of labour along racial lines. Visitors are as likely to see European-descended Cubans peddling grapes or mopping floors as those of African descent. The same equality goes for the police, immigration counters, and workers at tourism companies. Anecdotal, perhaps, but these anecdotes presented themselves continually over my week in Havana.

Hoping for an ocean breeze to provide relief from Cuba’s sweltering summer heat, Havanans emerge by the thousands in the evening to hang out along the Malecón, a five-kilometre esplanade and sea wall. By 10:00 p.m. the wall is full of people laughing, dancing to Latin jazz, and sipping rum. White, black and every colour in between together as friends, lovers, and family members.

it’s worth hanging out on Havana’s Malecón to enjoy the absence of tension felt in cities like Detroit or BaltimoreI can’t use this as a basis to argue that Cuba is now a post-racial society, but gatherings like this – which extend the full length of the Malecón – don’t exist in the US, where black-white interaction is more commonly along the lines of the arrests, choke holds, Taser zaps and fatal gun shots white police officers deliver to African Americans who fail to signal a lane change, attend a pool party or steal something from a convenience store.

Anyone doubting Cuba’s progress on race should consider the most recent Cuban data showing its mixed race (black and white) citizens accounting for 26.6 percent of the population, compared with the 2.9 percent of the US population that self identifies as any form of mixed race.

Cynics might claim that the comparison of racial equality in Cuba and the US suggests that the only way to put black and white communities on the same footing, economically, is to set everyone back to zero in terms of material wealth. When you spend time talking to people in Havana, it's hard to argue that such drastic measures are solely responsible for the success that Cuba has achieved in this regard. In any case, it’s worth hanging out on Havana’s Malecón to enjoy the absence of tension felt in cities like Detroit or Baltimore, where people use the term “bad neighbourhood” as a code for something else.

American boosters might also point to their president, and to the lack of any black Cubans in the highest levels of government in Havana, as evidence that the US has also shown progressed on the racial front and that Cuba is perhaps not as far along as appearances suggest.

At the very least, the US and Cuba could share notes. There are lessons for both sides after this lost half-century of tension and hostility.

More about the author

About the author

Robert has been a journalist and editor in Beijing and Toronto for publications including The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News, and Financial Times. 

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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