More than 30 Cuban activists, writers, academics and entrepreneurs,
mostly of African descent, gathered at Harvard University for an
unprecedented meeting to celebrate the achievements of the Afro-Cuban
movement on the island and set the course for future work.
“We have to be aware that this is a historical event,” said Tomás
Fernández Robaina, a member of the Regional Afro-Descendant Network
group known by the Spanish acronym ARAC and author of the pioneering
book El Negro en Cuba.
The weekend gathering, organized by the university’s Institute for
African and African-American Research at the Hutchins Center, had
multiple objectives: to celebrate and recognize the work of activists
and intellectuals on the island who have been battling racism since the
1990s; acknowledge the role of Afro-descendants in Cuban history; and
lay the groundwork for the continuing challenges.
“The Afro-Cuban movement is much larger and more diverse today than it
was 20 years ago,” said Harvard professor Alejandro de la Fuente,
director of the institute and author of a book on race relations in
Cuba, A Nation for All. “It emerged as a cultural movement but has been
enriched by the incorporation of organizations that assume the model of
social activism and the incorporation of gender studies and legal issues.”
The diversity of projects and approaches discussed during the sessions
was the best illustration of this development.
Groups such as the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Afro-Descendant
Neighborhood Network) and the Identidad y Barrio La Marina (Identity and
Neighborhood La Marina), in Matanzas, focus on the work of empowerment
at a more local level and are heirs to the popular education model that
was disseminated throughout Latin America by Brazilian Paulo Freire.
Others like Grupo Afrocubanas, which has already produced two books, has
set out to “break the silence on black women in the master texts of
Cuban history and literature … and contribute to the dismantling of
negative racist and sexist stereotypes,” said Daisy Rubiera, one of the
One of the pioneers in the fight against racial discrimination on the
island, which became more blatant during the economic collapse in the
90s known as the “Special Period,” was the Cofradía de la Negritud
(Brotherhood of Negritude), a project that began nearly 20 years ago
with a mission to raise awareness withing Cuban society on the issue of
“At that time the Cuban black population had no voice and we tried to
rescue the right to express ourselves as blacks,” said one of its
founders Norberto Mesa.
One of the achievements of the Afro-Cuban Movement, the participants
agreed, is to make the racial issue no longer taboo inside the island.
But the challenges remain enormous.
In the absence of other more traditional spaces, activists and
intellectuals have used newsletters, such as Desde La Ceiba distributed
by the writer and researcher Tato Quiñones and blogs, despite limited
internet access on the island. There are currently 11 blogs that focus
on the issue of racism, said Sandra Álvarez, author of Negra cubana
tenía que ser, the first black-focused blog launched 11 years ago. Prior
to that, Chester King, founded Afrocubaweb, a digital site that now
contains more than 30,000 articles on the racial subject.
Álvarez was recently at the center of a controversy over the publication
of a cartoon that she criticized in her blog as being racist after it
appeared on the digital site Diario de Cuba, published in Spain by Cuban
exiles. The cartoon depicted two white female tourists accompanied by
black Cuban male prostitutes with exaggerated features.
“I felt that I was very alone and that the people who could respond to
this racist caricature were in Cuba, disconnected,” said Álvarez, who
said she received threats after she published the cartoon on her blog to
accompany her criticism of the stereotypical depiction.
“The main lesson [from this experience] is that we, black Cubans, do not
have to expect anything from the racist Cuban exiles,” she said, “they
want us quiet.”
Alberto Abreu, a writer who was honored with the prestigious Casa de las
Américas award and the author of the blog Afromodernidades said
technology has allowed activists shed light on all sorts of issues and
“widen the gap of public discourse” from the control of the Cuban
However, several speakers agreed that all the public spaces necessary
for the discussion of the racial issue still do not exist in Cuba.
Others pointed out that these projects and organizations operate in a
legal limbo: they are not legal but are allowed by the State.
“We do not have sufficient legal protection, said investigative
journalist Gisela Arandia. “We are still operating in fragile spaces.”
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Source: In Cuba, a battle against racism persists, activists say | Miami