By Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas




SPECIAL / Washington, D.C./ June 12, 2001

An analyst of Cuban affairs is easily tempted to focus on the near term, and the health of Fidel Castro is always an easy preamble to writing about the future of the island. It goes without saying that there will be changes after the passage of the leader of any country, and with a focus on the head of state and his health, a writer can take shortcuts with, or ignore, historical perspective and the other bits of information that are the essence of careful analysis and reasoned prediction.

But this approach is more journalistic than analytical, better-suited to a brief item written against a deadline for the evening news than for an effort worthy of the name "analysis". Yes indeed, Fidel will be 75 in August, and shows signs of his years. Some times his speeches seem to have gaps in the lines of logic and argument. It is known that Castro has been treated for cancer and suffers from cerebral ischemia, but we would make an error of judgement if we were to try to predict an imminent change in the Cuban regime just from watching Fidel in his public appearances and listening to his speeches. (1)

Specialists on the Soviet Union and China could have written articles for years predicting change based on the public appearances of Brezhnev, Mao and Deng, but they would have generated years of inaccurate predictions. With all the first- class medical assistance Castro has on call, it is quite possible that we will see him grow old before our eye. Perhaps, over time, he will make fewer and briefer public appearances, and take more time off to recuperate. We should not rule out that he will require more visible physical support as he gets in and out of vehicles and walks about, but it would be a mistake to believe that Fidel will ever be anything less than his usual autocratic self, trying to be in complete control of the Cuban government and nation.

Cuba has not shown economic progress for decades, and has been in clear economic decline since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The most important sources of income for Cuba today are family remittances, tourism and sugar. A steady flow of Cubans continue to abandon the country by all available means.

Recent informed visitors to the island report that in spite of increasing dissent, Castro maintains a good grip on power. Beneath Fidel, the leadership hierarchy is his brother, Raúl, First Vice President; General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, Minister of the Interior; Carlos Lage, Second Vice President; and Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly. With the exception of Lage, all these men participated in the 1952-1959 insurrection against Fulgencio Batista. In common, they have age, over 65, and race, white men of Spanish descent. It is logical to assume that if Castro dies or is totally incapacitated, the new government will start out firmly in the hands of these four men.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces, the real backbone of the government, is led by old revolutionaries and younger generals who saw action in Cuba's military actions and less-publicized military support activities around the globe. As a government institution, the military is pretty much out of the view of the Cuban public, but senior and mid-level, military leaders are very much integrated into the Cuban political machinery.

If we can agree on the futility of a narrow focus on the health of a nation's leader as a predictive indicator for the future, perhaps we can also agree that a look at the legacy of a current leader, with a good grounding in the historical perspective for this legacy, will tell us something about the government that will follow and its chances for success.

When one looks at Cuba, it is helpful to go over essential elements in the historical background. Analysts of Cuba today are inclined to have a short historical perspective, perhaps dating their analyses from the Batista regime, the struggle of Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra or perhaps the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. I will try to examine some groups outside of the Cuban government, including dissidents, that may have a role to play in future governance of the nation.

An important organized sector outside of the government consists of religious groups of various denominations. The Roman Catholic Church (2), is nominally the largest group, but not necessarily the most powerful. There is a group of practitioners of the Santería religion, or Santeros (3), that is very popular in Cuba. This is a sincretic religion of African and Catholic origin, that lacks either a national or a regional leadership structure. In addition, there are also several Protestant sects with small groups of followers. All religious groups are monitored closely by the Cuban Communist Party.

Lately there has appeared a group of dissidents that is very well-known in the United States Cuban-American community, but almost invisible in Cuba. The best-known activists are the "group of four," composed of Vladimiro Roca (now serving a prison term), Felix Bonne, René Gómez Manzano and Marta Beatriz Roque. (4)

Two other dissidents have come to prominence recently: The physician, Oscar Elías Biscet is presently in prison. (5) Jorge Luis (Antúnez) García Pérez is a relatively new dissident being mentioned lately. (6)

All these dissidents share many things in common. They are educated persons and former Communists. With perhaps one exception, these are individuals of mixed or black race. They classify themselves as "Social Democrats." Some of them are recent converts to the Roman Catholic Religion (Vladimiro Roca and Marta Beatriz Roque). Antúnez is a devout Catholic and Dr. Biscet is identified as a convinced and practicing Christian. The term Social Democrat, is not restrictive, and has an ideological latitude that can embrace a wide degree of socialist doctrine.

Curiously, the Cuban Catholic Church, with the emergence of these known nonwhite dissidents, appears to have gained some followers among the Black and Mulatto citizens of Cuba. Traditionally, Cuban Catholics came from the middle and upper classes of Cuban society. Before the Castro revolution, nonwhite Cubans were neglected by the Catholic Church.

Presently, the Cuban Catholic Church is under a cloud of suspicion for its submissive role under Castro. Unlike the Polish Catholic Church leadership, the Cuban Church has not taken any positions in open opposition to the Communist regime. To put it mildly, one can say that the role of the Cuban Catholic Church has been driven by self-preservation or accommodation since Fidel Castro came to power.

The Historical Perspective of Race and Religion in Cuba

Almost a century after Cuba won its independence from Spain, history seems to repeat itself. When the United States declared war against Spain in 1898, Cuba was in the throes of a three-year indigenous war of independence. Fighting on the island from 1895 through 1898 had impoverished the land and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of its population, rebels and innocent civilians, alike. The Spanish Monarchy was engaged in a ruthless war against its rebel descendants in Cuba who wanted to establish a free republic.

Spain was about to lose its last western hemisphere strongholds in Cuba and Puerto Rico. The United States was afraid that Cuba might become another unstable black republic like Haiti. Black Cubans fought along rebels and loyalists in equal numbers--a fact of history not much discussed in republican Cuba after independence.

The ruthless Spanish General, Valeriano Weyler conducted a devastating war against the rebels in the countryside of the island with the help of thousands of Cubans, white and black, who had no interest in independence. Weyler's personal bodyguard, the "fusileros," was a feared and aggressive military grouping composed of black Cubans.

The USA entered the war after the battleship Maine sank under mysterious circumstances in Havana Bay. This incident still remains a point of contention between American, Cuban, and Spanish scholars.

Of the 30,000 Cubans who fought on the rebel side, it was estimated that 70% of them were whites. Cubans still resent the fact that they were ignored as belligerents by the Americans at the negotiation and signing of the peace treaty with Spain in Paris in 1898.

The United States occupied the island for four years, when it was handed to the Cubans on May 20, 1902. The American and Cuban administrations at the turn of the century faced the problem of an under-populated, impoverished land inhabited by a large number of citizens with levels of education that ranged from poor to none at all. The majority of the chiefs of the rebel army were white Cubans of Spanish descent.

The United States and the new Cuban government decided to encourage immigration to Cuba from Spain. The resulting migration of hundreds of thousands of people, many from the poorer Northeast areas of Spain, also shifted the racial character of Cuba toward a "whiter" population. With time, these Spaniards and their descendants, with the help of the nonwhite population, built a prosperous republic.

In 1959 Fidel Castro, himself the son of a Spanish immigrant, took power in Cuba. His rebel army, composed of a large majority of white rebels installed Castro in Havana. It cannot be said that nonwhite Cubans did not fight in this struggle. But their number was insignificant. The majority of the rebels were white. Cuban blacks, in general, sided with Batista or did not participate in the struggle. Batista was a man of mixed race.

At the time of the independence struggle against Spain, most of the Catholic Church clergy in the island were Spaniards. Obviously, their sympathy was with their motherland. The Cubans who took up arms against Spain were liberals, and many of them were members of Masonic lodges. They resented the conservative Spanish Church.

After the republic was established in 1902, the popularity of the Catholic Church was at a low point. With the arrival of immigrants from Spain and the birth of a new generation of Cuban youngsters with Spanish heritage, the Church in Cuba became revitalized.

Private education in the large cities was, mostly, in the hands of Catholic religious orders composed mainly of Spaniards. Poor white and black Cubans attended public schools. The effort of the Catholic Church to reach black Cubans was minimal, either due to lack of resources or the absence of will on the part of the Church leadership.

Since Castro came to power, Cuban demographics have changed significantly. Cuban government statistics from the 1990 Census show the following figures: White 37%; Black 11%; Mulattos 51%; Chinese 1%. (7)

It is estimated than more of 1,000,000 Cubans have left the island since 1959 and reside in the United States. I have not found reliable statistics of the total number and racial composition of this group. But most Cubans agree that 95% of them are White.

Cuban economic survival today is very dependent on remittances of money from relatives abroad (estimated at close to one billion dollars a year) and a fluctuating tourist industry. A high percentage of white Cubans depend on money sent by their families in the United States to survive in their impoverished island. On the other hand, nonwhite Cubans have to depend to a great degree on the national peso in what has become a dollar-based economy. It does not take much analysis to see that nonwhite suffer the most in today's Cuba, lacking as they do any family connections overseas.

If you take a look at the top members of the Cuban government (8) you will see that out of 51 senior leaders, two are definitely blacks, perhaps three are of mixed race (mulattos). There are very few women in senior government ranks. A look at the Armed Forces reveals a similar absence of blacks and mulattos among the generals. In other words, Cuba can be described as white Communism (or Socialism, if you prefer) with severe limitations on access to power based on race and sex.

Homosexuals are persecuted in Cuba. In 1980, in the forced exodus from the port of Mariel to the United States, Cuban authorities rounded up known homosexuals throughout the island and shipped them off by sea to the United States overnight. Among the expelled homosexuals were well-known intellectuals like the late writer Reinaldo Arenas.

Cubans on both sides of the Strait of Florida complain about the lack of support for Cuban blacks, gays and women from counterpart organizations in the United States that might logically be considered sympathetic. What most infuriates the Cubans is the impression of complicity and hypocrisy of the American executives of these organizations who do not denounce the Castro government or even make mild representations to the Cuban government on behalf of Cubans with similar interests. "White, Macho and homophobic socialism seems to be OK for Cuba in American eyes," commented a Cuban gay exile.

Many of the best-known Cuban dissidents are black, but nobody in the United States seems to notice this distinction. "It seems that you are not black and oppressed if you are not a Marxist," continued this source.

After Castro is gone, Marxists in the USA may claim that they did not know what was taking place in Cuba. Maybe they will blame Castro after he is gone for practicing "white socialism" in Cuba, and will charge that everything bad that happened in Cuba was Castro's fault due to his personal racism. This argument has been advanced by some in the Cuban-American community. Curiously, Jesse Jackson, who is quick to level charges of racism against any perceived slight, has not dared to utter a word against his amigo Fidel.

But we should keep in mind that Castro who goes to visit a Church in Harlem and is applauded by members of the Black Congressional Caucus, is the person who now limits the access of blacks to positions of power in Cuba.

"Castro had just returned from a trip to Arab countries, where he embraced the most radical enemies of Israel. He had sided with Syria and Irak against Israel during the wars. His soldiers manned tanks on behalf of the enemies of Israel. He has embraced Yasser Arafat many times. But, no one from any liberal Jewish group in this country has branded him as an anti-Semite." This is another complaint among Cuban-American Jews.

Perhaps with a change in government in Cuba, liberals in the US will discover an interest in racial justice there. Cubans, on the other hand, claim they have their own way of addressing their racial problems and don't need to follow any American model. Will American Marxist blacks claim that there is a need to support a racial revolution in Cuba after Castro is gone? Why do they fail to raise their voices now? Presently, questions like these remain unanswered.

One question that is frequently posed to Cuban exiles is: Will you return to Cuba after Castro is gone? 42 years have elapsed since Castro took power. The generation that fought against him and resides now in the USA is old and has children and grand children born in this country. Maybe 10% of Cuban exiles might return and be political active. But, most of them today see their return as a sentimental and nostalgic gesture. It is possible that they will return to a special section of the city that might accommodate senior citizens coming from foreign lands.

Cuba today is a country vastly different from the country most exiles left behind, but how will this land develop in the future? No longer a predominantly white country, Cuba after Castro will have to confront aspects of race and religion that bear an eerie similarity to the island following the defeat of Spain. Race and religion will be prominent factors in the future of island politics, regardless of the shape of a post-Castro government.

It is difficult to believe that Castro and his party apparatus have been unaware of the demographic changes on their doorstep, and even more puzzling that the regime has neglected to take into its leadership ranks capable, and well-educated people with diverse racial backgrounds. The failure of the Cuban leadership to grow with changes in its population and to promote cadre from ranks outside Fidel's circle of White Spaniards, can only be described as a ticking political bomb that will eventually land in the lap of a successor government.

Will Santería, the (numerically) predominant religion, organize itself to compete with Catholicism? Will the Catholic Church recognize the demographic changes by appointing mulatto bishops and a cardinal? Will the Catholic Church abandon its historical path of accommodation and move with a new sense of moral vigor to defend non-white dissidents? How will the white Cuban-American population react to the demographic realities of today's Cuba? Will racial unrest follow as a legacy of Castro's Communism?

At this time, there are no clear answers to these questions, but they are worth careful consideration as we ponder Cuba's future. With the demographic imbalance between Cuba's leadership structure and society at large, we should not rule out the possibility that a contender for post-Castro leadership might emerge under a racial-populist flag of convenience.


Marcelo Fernandez Zayas

Reference Notes:

(1): http://www.mundolatino.org/cuba/conarab2.htm
(2): http://www.nacub.org./
(3): http://www.seanet.com/~efunmoyiwa/santeria.html
(4): http://www.loscuatro.org/
(5): http://www.directorio.org/biscet/biography.html
(6): http://www.nocastro.com/archives/antunez.htm
(7): http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/cu.html#People
(8): http://www.cubagob.cu/

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Marcelo Fernández-Zayas

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