Nation and Multiculturalism in Cuba: A Comparison with the United States and Brazil

(Published in Portuguese by Flacso-Brasil)

I – Cultural Projects and Nation Building [1]

The state created modern nations (Hobsbawm, 1990). Schools standardized a unique national language and taught a version of national history which emphasized a past shared by all citizens. The legal system standardized economic and social relations. State patronage helped to spread certain standards, ranging from religion to eating habits, to make it generally believed that the inhabitants of a given territory would be Catholics, in contrast with the inhabitants of another territory who would be Protestants; that the French like wine and cheese and Americans like hot-dogs. Brazilian dishes like the Brazilian barbecue (“churrasco”), Minas cheese, and beverages like cold hierba-mate or guaraná were nationalized in Brazil during the Vargas government, from 1930 to 1945. Individuals perform daily acts of unconscious communion, because even simple actions like talking a national language and eating national foods become rituals of national affirmation.

Criteria for identifying a nation must be simplistic and stereotyped, in order to clearly mark identities, the differences between distinct peoples and the similarities binding the members of a same people. The relative weight of distinctive traits varies: a recent study has shown that the French consider language their first distinctive characteristic, followed by food. Religion is the main identity mark in countries like Ireland, Serbia, Bosnia and the Muslim states. This association between nation and religion explains the resistance of the latter to globalization. Such identity traits make the people imagine their nation as a larger community than the one which physically surrounds them (see Benedict Anderson, 1983).

The construction of identities of modern nations (by the states) associates culture and politics. France is the paradigm of the Republican model. France created its political unity long before and more successfully than, for example, Italy or Spain. The spread of the republican political culture of equality by the school system was central to such an achievement. Spain, on the other hand, experiences, even today, a serious regional problem. The differences between the French and the Spanish Basque countries are remarkable. The lately unified Italy – a national language was achieved only in the Mussolini era – is very far from France in terms of national cohesion.

England is the paradigm of an imperial model, characterized by the presence of different peoples and nations under the same state. England and France share modern capitalism, democracy and respect for individual liberties. In England, as in France, most privileges of the nobility were abolished. However, the French State, in the name of the same republican ideas that in 1789 abolished such privileges, actively continues to identify people, state and nation. Nevertheless, linguistic uniformity happened in England just as in France. Only a small minority in the British Islands still speaks Celtic languages. Thus no sharp contrast exists between the two examples in terms of the crucial linguistic aspect.

The ban on Arab schoolgirls’ use of the veil illustrates the French cultural project. The prohibition of the veil in public schools led to the banning of crucifixes or any other religious symbols in those same schools. On the other hand, England has no explicit national state-sponsored cultural project, but strong local community and regional cultural projects. Notwithstanding, the English state has always acted firmly to support some cultural projects and repress others, as has happened in Ireland, for example.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor analyzed those differences in cultural projects, comparing Quebec and the English provinces of Canada. His analysis of the supposed non-interventionist English model is analogous to the English liberal economic model.

English and French cultural projects are different regarding state centralization, but cultural diversity appears in both. Cultural diversity is a central value to democracy both in the imperial and in the republican model. Diversity fits the republican “one people-one nation-one state” formula as well as the “several nations-several peoples-one state” formula. Diversity may be present in both models because the cultural contrast marking the difference between peoples and nations is arbitrary.

People and nations are not only cold categories for identity. They reflect deep emotional references that mobilize for war and peace. Thus, the definition of ethnic frontiers and the choice of who draws those frontiers are central issues for the internal politics of all countries. Diversity fits the republican as well the imperial model. The main difference is that the republican model creates a feeling of belonging: one people and one nation. The same feeling is not found in populations that share the imperial model. This is a very important affective and emotional difference.

There are three national situations in the Americas defined by cultural projects, by state power and by public policies applied to building ethnicity as a political category. These are the cases of the United States, Brazil and Cuba. They will be discussed throughout this paper.

II – Multiculturalism and Racism in the United States

In spite of the French inspiration for the American Revolution, the prevalence of the imperial model in the US is an appealing possibility. The imperial model exported by England to the US has never been entirely eliminated and it is, seemingly, growing again. French revolutionary rhetoric was central in early American political discourse. However, while the melting pot for North-European immigrants was set as a national goal, Arab immigration was forbidden, Indians were exterminated and Blacks were segregated and violently treated.

The US nowadays comprises a mosaic of politically opposed endogamous ethnic groups, defined by nineteenth-century notions of Biology. These notions are, today, embedded in the social thought of the American people. The republican principle of equality is subordinated to the race principle because the “melting pot” is only for Whites. It is true that the notion of “Whites” is changing because Catholics and Jews have been progressively included in the concept in the last fifty years. However, the idea of race is still associated with religion, taken as one of the central criteria for American contemporary race distinctions. Thus, Arab Muslims are the new prevalent racist target. There is a growing acceptance; however, of some “Non Whites” like, for example, light skinned “Latinos”. There are growing numbers of interracial marriages, especially with Orientals, but Blacks are still heavily stigmatized.

In the United States, the “drop of blood” criterion classifies as black anyone who has a black ancestor. In states like Mississippi, a legally Black person is one who has one eighth of “Black blood”. Northern “liberal” states keep to the same principle, changing only the percentage to one fourth. The exclusion of the Mulatto as a classificatory principle in the US, identifies Blackness as impurity; a sort of disease transmitted by blood.

American Political discourse has excluded from full citizenship important sectors of the national population defined by ethnic criteria. However, a compromise was reached through the concept of multiculturalism, which considers desirable different peoples or nations living in the same territory and sharing the same state. It is a significant departure from the French Revolution’s concept of the republican state. Thus, the USA’s present form of ethnic organization reaffirms the imperial English model. Affirmative Action is seen to be the way to compensate inequality and to represent different peoples and nations in the body politic of the state.[2]

The United States abandoned the republican principle and moved to the imperial principle because the country was not successful in creating a single people. The democratic right to diversity was transferred to the racial level. Racial diversity in the US is identified with cultural diversity. Though Black Americans do have the right to cultural difference, African traditions have disappeared in the US. Black cultural difference stems from marginality and as a reaction against White racist oppression. American Blacks have their soul food (originating in the US south), their own churches, their music and a large number of followers of some versions of Islam. However, Black North American urban culture is perceived in the same way as the cultures of pre-Colombian Indian tribes. Its defining characteristics are considered as immanent, natural aspects associated with the Black race.

The discourse of the right to difference does not avoid and, probably, contributes to the economic inferiority and obvious segregation of the Black American population. Residential space is among the most visible segregation mechanisms. Whites live in their neighborhoods and Blacks live in their ghettos. In today’s American culture, the Black ghetto is not considered to be an obvious form of segregation, but a natural fact of life. That perception is a sound empirical demonstration of the “naturalization” of race classifications in the US.

Multiculturalist rhetoric masks the high incidence of poverty, unemployment and drug dealing among Blacks. The ghetto community is the social basis of the Black church, of soul food and of Black music. But it is also the social unit that reproduces poverty, unemployment and drug dealing. It does not make sense to separate the ghetto’s social and cultural aspects, its “good” and the “bad” sides. It does not make sense to separate “cultural” aspects such as music, religion and food from social aspects such as poverty and crime. In such a context, the “respect for difference” argument wraps culture and poverty in the same package. It assumes that Blacks are condemned to be poor because they are culturally different.

American ethnic organization features antagonism or indifference, not contrast between cultural traits of different ethnic groups. Thus multiculturalism does not define the America ethnic system because ethnicity is not defined in the US by culture, but by political opposition. Since Fredrik Barth, Anthropology has emphasized the definition of ethnic limits. The North American case runs against this viewpoint because opposition between ethnic groups is more important than the definition of ethnic limits in the US. This is true, even if there are no ethnic groups to be opposed without having previously demarcated their frontier.

The right to difference is a defining feature of the democratic state. However, the right to difference in the US is a pretext for indifference and to avoid free choice of where to live, where to study or whether to achieve better life opportunities. Multiculturalism became a new “politically correct” way to practice race discrimination.

The imperial model – comprising different peoples and nations under one state – contributes to American political stability. Racial multiculturalism is associated with democracy as an expression of the right to difference. Thus multiculturalism built upon the premise that each race has a different culture became a central concept in American Political discourse.

It is the updating of traditional American racism by its transformation into democratic virtue.

III – Multiculturalism and crisis in the Brazilian Cultural Project

In the US multiculturalism is an armistice concept. It stabilizes the relationships between ethnic groups. But multiculturalism has the opposite effect when exported to other national contexts. In fact, the discourse of multiculturalism may be highly disruptive in countries like Brazil and Cuba. Multiculturalism integrates, with other concepts, what Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant called the “new vulgate”. In countries like Brazil, the same state that had built unity throughout history is supposed, today, to support diversity, in the name of concepts like “globalization”, “multiculturalism” and several others. Multiculturalism would be the translation of economic neo-liberalism to the level of ethnicity.

This table of values – the new vulgate – results from the present international power situation featuring symbolic imperialism as a consequence of American hegemony. The American cultural matrix imposes some values and concepts and excludes other values and concepts. Thus, centuries-old national cultural projects are jeopardized. Cultural projects built upon the republican principle of one state-one people-one nation came to be considered as anti-democratic because, presumably, they would reject diversity. The influence of the American cultural matrix is so effective that even in France – cradle of the modern republican ideals – some political leaders are proposing ethnic quotas in public jobs and universities[3].

Very early in Brazilian history, the Portuguese State launched a cultural project based on miscegenation. Cultural syncretism is, also, a reality in Brazil. On the affective level, the formula “one people – one nation – one state” was quite well accepted, combined with specific levels of diversity and cultural distance. These are the cases of regional differences and of the culture of isolated and distant Indian tribes.

National cultural projects stem from a very deep level in European cultures. Portuguese and English colonial endeavors followed a different logic. While the former considered Indians as slaves and workers to be incorporated in the productive system, the latter classified them as autonomous nations. Thus, the English State signed and broke treaties, declared war and made peace with Indian tribes. Indians were enemies. For the Portuguese, enemies were whoever refused to accept their rule. More than enemies they were rebels.

The Catholic Portuguese position is based upon the premise of inclusion. Everybody is potentially saved, as long as they accept submission and hierarchy (usually associated with the toughest repressive actions). The English Protestant position is based upon the premise of exclusion. The chosen were previously appointed, as Weber realized. The community layout (local as well as national/imagined) is different, since English communities have sharp limits while Iberian and Latin-American communities’ limits are diffused.

The North-American political and cultural matrix is currently exported to countries like Brazil through the diffuse influence of North-American Culture and through mass media. Academic culture and the ideology of social movements operate as the link between American political thought and local political thought.

National self-image is, to a large extent, built in universities. In Brazil, dominant academic positions, in different fields of knowledge, hold a North-American worldview and a North-American view of Brazilian society[4]. Those views spread from universities to the whole society. Not only is Brazil seen “from outside” in Brazilian universities: an academic canon has appeared, which depreciates political debate, forgets the concept of nation and favors the “technical” study of ultra fragmented subjects.

The historically recent valorization of diversity by respecting Indian cultures takes a non-racial shape in Brazil because Indians are not defined by genealogy, or by physical appearance, or by culture[5]. They are classified as Indians because they belong to a community with pre-Colombian origins, which is considered to be Indian and considers itself as Indian. This is the seminal definition of Darcy Ribeiro, which anticipated Fredrik Barth’s insights on ethnic groups and boundaries. Such a concept, once accepted in Brazilian law, opened new ways for human rights in Brazil.

This definition of Indian “deracializes” the concept of Indian and therefore Indian movements in Brazil. For this reason they are legitimate from any viewpoint. Having accepted this definition, there is no room for the concept of “multiculturalism”, since several indigenous groups, classified as such by Ribeiro’s concept do not need to hold any relevant cultural distinguishing feature. There is not the “multi” of “multiculturalism” but just societies with different identities.

Large expanses of land must be granted for the protection of isolated Indian populations. They have to be lengthily prepared for future direct interaction with Brazilian society, in order to exercise the right to consider themselves different, even if during this process much of their original cultures disappears. Thus, the right to difference does not mean necessarily cultural distance, but just a different identity. The union of different Indian tribes along common political fronts has been an important recent step towards the conquest of the right to ethnic difference. Given the republican premise one people – one nation – one state, Indians are perceived as members of the Brazilian people and of the Brazilian nation. [6]

It must be taken in account how ambiguous are the concepts of “people” and “nation”. One can talk about the “Mineiro people” (from the state of Minas Gerais) or the “carioca people” (from the city of Rio de Janeiro), about “Indian people” or the “Aweti” or the Karaja (Indian groups) people. All are included in the broader concept of “Brazilian people”. Such inclusion supports the best interests of Indian groups, because, once considered as Brazilians, their destiny becomes a responsibility shared by all Brazilians. This is especially important for the isolated Indian tribes, among the most endangered peoples of the world. Thus, not teaching Portuguese in the name of protecting “cultural purity” goes against Indian interests. The same happens when NGOs, trying to protect Indian autonomy, use the “politically correct” expression “Indians in Brazil” instead of “Indians of Brazil”. The former excludes Indians from the Brazilian affective imagined community.

To fight prejudice against Blacks is essential to building a democratic society. However, legitimacy is lost when North American racism is imported in opposition to the traditional Brazilian cultural project. The concept of “Black”, in the genealogical concept of popular North-American biology, translated by the term “afro descendant”, is spreading around Brazil. Several organized political movements supported by NGOs funded by American foundations act towards this objective, fitting in well with Bourdieu and Wacquant’s “New Vulgate”[7].

The whole political spectrum from right to left has assimilated the discourse of race. Representatives have been proposing laws to create ethnic quotas. Ethnic quotas are – or better, were – a political gold mine, because after several decades of radical budget control somebody discovered a non-costly state action. The supposedly White middle class pays the quota bill in universities or public jobs, by giving them away to the supposedly Black middle class. The State also profits by showing itself to be “politically correct”. Looking for the “racialization” of school, the government even introduced the color/race item in educational statistics. That color/race item insinuates that color and race are the same.

In Brazil, nobody knows exactly what a “Black person” is, granted the exception of the very dark-skinned. Mulatto soccer star Ronaldo declared himself “White”, which brings up the issue of what classical anthropologists, like Charles Wagley, have called “social race”: rich and socially successful Mulattos are classified as Whites. The new vulgate expression “Afro Descendants” replaces the traditional skin color criterion by classifying all the half-breeds as “Blacks”.

Members of Congress have proposed race documents applying a genealogical criterion.[8] The University of Brasilia has created a sort of “Race purity committee” to choose candidates who fit racial quotas. Candidates are interviewed and their appearance is carefully investigated in order to know if they are “real Blacks”.

But there are the Indians. If all the mixed bloods are considered to be Blacks, Indians are effaced from the Brazilian past. Symbolic ethnocide against Indians is back again, coming from those who forget that the brown Brazilian skin is also Indian in its origin. Even from their racist genetic/biological premise the consideration of all mixed Brazilians as Blacks is absurd. For purposes of “racial politics”, usually quotas, the percentage of Blacks is taken from the individual’s own declaration of color in the Population Census or from interviews like those at the University of Brasilia. Therefore a “blood” or appearance criterion is applied for classifying someone as Black and a very restrictive identity criterion is applied to classify someone an Indian. The result is that, because of such different criteria, the Indian population is figured at 400,000, and Blacks – considering all mixed persons as “Blacks” – are figured at half of the whole Brazilian population. Actually, the “quilombolas” – Black villagers who descend from runaway slaves – correspond to what are called “Indians” in Brazil. They also live in specific communities and possess a different identity.

Such conceptual problems weaken the statistical argument, which states that “Blacks are the majority of the poor and, for that reason, deserve specific policies”. Such reasoning faces a double sophism: 1st – nobody knows exactly what a Black is in Brazil. Therefore, all the figures about the number of Blacks are under suspicion; 2nd – even if the (dubious) prevalence of Blacks among the poor were true, the remaining poor should not be abandoned. This is mainly the case of the large numbers of Northeastern immigrants (“sertanejos”) in the developed South, among whom the number of Blacks is low.

What is happening in Brazil is typical of a culturally colonized country with a weak political system. There could be no better evidence of political fragility than giving up a century-long successful cultural project and moving to racist politics. Black and White elites display their cultural orientation towards the US by importing American style racism and racial policies. Nevertheless, the Brazilian people insist on miscegenation and on the sharing of their common cultural heritage. Black, Indian, White and mixed Brazilian poor of all skin color tonalities resist thinking racially, following the Latin-American tradition.

Modern nation-states build up ethnicity aiming at the union of the people. North-Americans were not successful in reaching such an objective because of racism. By returning to the imperial canon, they found a way to assure peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups. They even made this armistice formula desirable, inherent to democracy.

In the US this arrangement works because of the power of the state and the market. The state put masses of deviant Blacks in jail and the market links individuals and ethnic groups. The wealth of the Country supports ethnic coexistence. However, the Black majority would prefer to live in their own national state [9]. In a scenario where the American economy deteriorates for continuous decades, racial and ethnic tensions will rise, with the worst consequences.

One can imagine what may happen in Brazil, where the economy has been slowing down for about thirty years and the state is half torn apart. Only the hope remains that the Brazilian people will keep up their traditional cultural project against the elite and the state.

Economic policies of the last and present decades illustrate the Brazilian State crisis. Like the “Fome Zero” (Zero hunger) program, Affirmative Action is a “focused” social policy. As such, it targets a limited sector of the population. Such initiatives – if non-racialized – make sense as a complement to economic policies aiming at economic development, employment and social inclusion. They do not make sense as a compensation for an economic policy that carries low growth and high unemployment rates. The best social policy is a good economic policy that generates employment and income.

The hegemonic discourse emphasizing race in today’s Brazil results from the alienation of the national elites regarding the nation and its people. It is a consequence of the out of context dissemination of values imported from the North-American cultural matrix.

IV – Racism and Segregation in Pre-Revolutionary Cuba

The Cuban ethnic relations system is also a result of the political influence of North American culture. Early in its history, it imitated the North American pattern, as does today’s Brazil. Later, it challenged and opposed such a pattern.

Cuba was a plantation economy based on African slavery. Its main products were sugar and tobacco[10]. This economy gave rise to the local elite that led the country to independence from Spain. Cuba was the second last country to abolish slavery. The last was Brazil.

Until halfway through the nineteenth century, Cuban and Brazilian ethnicities based on slave plantation systems were much alike. An important difference between those systems and the US Southern plantation ethnicity was the acceptance of the Mulatto in the upper social ranks. In Cuba and in Brazil, lighter Mulattos were commonly classified as “Whites”. Despite the very strict Spanish ethnic policy towards Mexican and Andean Indian populations, relationships in the slave plantation systems of Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba were close to the Brazilian.

The Spanish colonial system had particular features like, for example, the formalization of the category “White” by official documents. As in Brazil, one could buy liberty, but in the Spanish system it was also possible to buy documents testifying that a person was “White”. These official papers could be useful for Mulatto children of wealthy plantation owners. There was a skin color limit for the issue of such documents, because they were not conceded to the very dark. Thus the formal identification between Black skin and slavery was more accentuated in Spanish America than in Portuguese America. Buarque de Holanda called this feature “Spanish higher race pride” in his book “Raízes do Brasil”. In Brazil, where “color blindness” was more common, there was not such an emphatic association between skin color and slavery. “Color blindness” shaped Brazilian slavery closer to classic European slave systems, and especially to the slavery tradition of the Roman Empire. Further support for this thesis may be drawn from the present-day Brazilian Amazon, where illegal slavery has nothing to do with skin color. Its cause is considered to be extreme economic adversity, equally hitting Blacks, Whites, Indians and Mestizos.[11].

Cuban ethnicity began to differentiate from the Latin American pattern in the middle of the nineteenth century, because of US influence, much stronger there than elsewhere in the Continent. Since independence in 1898, Cuban history became closely related to American history. North American citizens bought plantations and sugar mills on the island. Cuban workers moved to Tampa, Florida to work in cigar factories. The native professional elite, mainly integrated by lawyers, doctors, managers, public servants, landowners and entrepreneurs, began a process of intense integration with the new North American elite that settled the island.

The foreign elite have never been “cubanized”. Its members saw Cuba as a sort of a new geographic and economic frontier and as an adult playground, free from legal restrictions concerning arms, alcoholic beverages and prostitution. Republican Cuba became a Mafia territory where North Americans looked for quick and sizeable profits, laundered money and played the “Bwana” role invented by the English. All Cubans, rich or poor, White or Black were (and still are) classified as “non white”, carrying all the prejudice that term “non White” bears in American English semantics. Nevertheless, the native elite began to see the world as the new colonial masters did, a well documented form of alienation among colonized elites. It was a way to get closer to the colonizers and an attempt to be free of the stigma associated with the miscegenated Latin race.

Cuban unity appeared during the wars of independence in the middle of the nineteenth century. The long independence struggle counterbalanced the influence of the American race view and attenuated the opposition between race groups. General Antonio Maceo, one of the most important heroes and leaders of the war for independence, was Black. Black soldiers armed with large knifes are classical iconographic representations of the “mambis” fighter, an important heroic personage in the fight for independence.

The American race system on the island began to appear at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the replacement of Spain by the US as the Imperial power. However, Black political organization, brutally repressed in the US, was possible in Cuba because of the social prestige of Black veterans from the war of independence. Blacks created their exclusive clubs, mutual aid societies and their own press. They even founded a Black political party called “Partido Indepediente de Color”- PIC (Independent Party of Colored People) for the protection of Blacks against the mounting racist wave which followed North American cultural and economic invasion. Another reason for its creation was the exclusion of Black war veterans from public jobs as well as from other clientelist favors.

The Cuban government passed a law that forbade political parties organized along “race”, “class” or regional lines. This was a momentary electoral measure to assure the support of Black electors for the Liberal Party, then in power. It outlawed the PIC. The Congressional approval of the law led to rebellion in the eastern part of the Island, where the Black population was larger and better organized. The Cuban government repressed the rebellion with extreme violence after the Americans’ customary threat of intervention, followed by mobilization of the fleet and troops to “protect American citizens”. Tough repression by the local government was a way to avoid the engagement of US marines in an internal Cuban conflict. There were several massacres of Blacks by the Cuban army. White militias were organized in different regions after a surge of racial hysteria. The word was spread that “bands of Negroes” were attacking Whites, their families and properties. The reasoning behind the intensity of the White response finds a clear analogy with race attitudes of the neighboring US South.[12]

From the end of the PIC revolt, in 1912, to the 1959 socialist revolution, the American model of racism grew on the island, reaching several levels of open segregation. Even if the legal body did not incorporate segregation, discrimination was customary in public parks, clubs, hotels and beaches.

The two most exclusive social clubs on the Island, located in the two larger cities, Havana and Santiago, reacted to the visit of Dictator Fulgencio Batista, not because he was a dictator but because he was a Mulatto. In Havana, the lights were turned off when he entered the club, in a possible allusion to his dark skin. In Santiago, there was nobody to receive him. A Mulatto millionaire created his own club, after his candidacy to join the most select high-class club of Havana was rejected.

Open segregation in Cuba was an imposition of the elite. There were no ghettos or segregated Black or White neighborhoods. There was intense miscegenation and as elsewhere in Latin America the mixed-bloods were considered “Mulattos” or “White”, contrasting with the US, where they were and still are classified as “Blacks”. As in other Latin American countries there was an effective process of religious syncretism and cultural mixing. The Cuban cult of African origin, “Santeria”, very like Afro-Brazilian cults, features the association of African deities with Catholic saints. Those are almost the same in both countries because of the common Bantu and Yoruba origin of the majority of Black Brazilians and Cubans. As in Brazil, Afro-Cuban religion became a shared cultural patrimony of all Cubans, without skin color distinctions.

The segregationist system of the Cuban Republican elite expressed its cultural orientation towards the United States. However, intense miscegenation and cultural sharing between Blacks and Whites oriented the Cuban people towards Latin America.

The same happens in today’s Brazil.

V – Ethnicity in Revolutionary Cuba

Several Studies on “race relations” in Cuba, during the revolutionary period – the best is by de La Fuente (2001) – show that until 1989 race was a “non issue” in the country. [13]

Segregation was abolished and Blacks were assimilated in the political and economic systems, while the economy grew very fast. They were the main beneficiaries of the radical income redistribution which followed the revolution and of the new opportunities that appeared in education and in jobs.

In 1989, the end of the Soviet Union represented a national catastrophe for Cuba. Its economy was entirely dependent on the Soviet Union, which subsidized the Cuban economy to the tune of between four and six billion dollars (between twenty and forty percent of the GNP). The country was also, until then, a specialized sugar producer for the East European countries. There was no more energy, no raw materials for industry or food for the people. From 1989 to 1994 Cuba went through the so-called “special period” featuring severe economic crisis. Estimates point to at least a forty percent drop in the GNP. The American blockade, with the support of most Latin-American countries, prevented the importation of essential everyday items, which Cuba had no currency to pay for anyway.

Cuba answered by the liberation of dollar remittances of Miami Cubans to their relatives and friends who still lived in the Island; by the reactivation of tourism as the main economic activity; and by offering international services like the 15,000 Cuban “family doctors” presently working in Venezuela. There are recent developments such as the joint exploitation with China of the large amounts of nickel located on the island. New oil wells also offer promising possibilities.

Unemployment is very low in Cuba and there is universal access to the excellent educational and health systems. Cubans also have a monthly basic food basket. Wage differences are very small[14]. In spite of such developments, the Cuban economic situation is still precarious. Consumption beyond the level of basic needs is very low. The counterpart to the absence of paupers is the equal distribution of scarcity.

There are two ways to complement income that would affect race relations, according to authors like De la Fuente (op.cit.):

1. Those who work in tourism get a much higher income because of tips. Tips in tourism jobs can mean an extra income of between U$ 50.00 and U$ 1,000.00, a difference that can reach a hundred times the wage paid by the government. For this reason, tip-earning jobs, like porter, doorman, waiter, chambermaid and taxi driver are greatly sought after;

2. Remittances from foreign countries. Today these remittances are an important source of income. Small values by American standards, like U$ 100. 00, can mean a tenfold increase in the home budget.

Miami Cubans are collectively classified as “non whites” by other Americans. However, as shown by the US Census, 83.5% declared themselves as “Whites”. Thus remittances to relatives in Cuba reach, mainly, what would be “Whites” by the local classification. That “race” income concentration acts towards the rebirth of racism. Also, Whites are said to be employed in the best jobs available in tourism. The reason is the strength of White kinship networks and the racism of foreign hotel managers who, applying their own “good appearance” criterion, would hire only Whites.

For some US authors, Cuban Whites would explain such Income differences by claiming “race superiority”. There are complaints about the low visibility of Blacks in the arts and in the media. It is also said that there is strong resistance to discussing such issues, because Cubans are trained to be “color blind”, as emphasis on race differences can be understood as a challenge to the republican and socialist ideas of nation. From there it is only one step to criticizing the Cuban state for not taking measures like Affirmative Action to compensate a supposedly new and growing racist tide.

Such studies seem to ignore that Cuban downgrading of the importance of the race criterion results from a political calculation based on a particular vision of history and culture. Arguments that try to demonstrate the rebirth of racism on the island and the apathy of the state in this regard do not arise from empirical evidence but from methodology, from the choice of the concept of “race” as a key concept to explain social life. What is important in this connection is to know the “emic” categories in the analysis, in other words, the meaning-carrying categories previously chosen by the observer.

Cuba was, in the past, the most exposed territory for American expansion in Latin America. Today, it is the only country that openly resists the cultural and political influence of the US. The Cuban revolution was also a cultural revolution. The new revolutionary elite held the popular Latin-American viewpoint which minimized “race” as a criterion for the classification of human beings, even if recognizing the existence of prejudice that must be overcome.

In Latin America, nationalism is frequently associated with some sort of socialist program. It became the main ideological force building up resistance against the American political and economic matrix. Cuba is the only country in the Americas where such a position is hegemonic. The ideas prevalent today on the island associate nationalism and Marxism. Therefore it follows the republican formula “one people – one nation – one state”. The strength of such an association between socialism and republican nationalism was an essential factor explaining the resistance of the Cuban political system after the fall of the Soviet Union. Internationalism, however, brings a new dimension to the Cuban set of political ideas, because people’s solidarity would expand to other territories. In Cuba, Marxism is associated with the idea of “Nuestra America”, the Latin America of Jose Marti, the hero of Cuban Independence.

Classic Marxism has always been unable to deal properly with ethnic differences. Lenin’s attempt in his “Theory of Nationalities” was not successful. Ethnic movements may divide and weaken the working class, but they may become, under some circumstances, a powerful factor for revolutionary mobilization. This happens when ethnic movements identify themselves with so-called “anti-imperialist interests”. This is the case of the present mobilization of Andean Indians towards the state monopoly of water, gas and oil. It is, also, the case of the Chiapas Indian movement in Mexico. However, there is always the possibility that ethnic movements will lean to the right, when they fight against other ethnic groups in the same state territory or when ethnic reasoning is used to mobilize the population of a given nation state against the population of another nation state. Nevertheless, the end of racial prejudice is understood by Cuban revolutionaries to be a pre-condition for justice, for the unity of the working class and for national unity.

Income differences arising from the remittances from abroad may be considered from an ethnic viewpoint, but this is not the most important one. What matters is their effect on income in the whole society, reaching Blacks and Whites. As the Miami Cubans consider themselves mostly “White”, foreign remittances mostly help their “White” relatives. However, a larger number of “Whites” who live on the island are, also, excluded from this source of income. The government solution was to tax those remittances and to devaluate the US dollar. Such fiscal measures are limited, since those remittances are important for the weakened Cuban economy. Foreign hotel managers racism, on the other hand, may be fought by on-the-spot measures.

Thus, the case for growing Cuban racism and state apathy is weak. It is not a coincidence that most of these studies are a product of American Universities. Everywhere in the US, including universities, race is a central category in daily life. Today, it is difficult to find empirical sociological and political studies by American studies that do not see race as a fundamental issue. This is a true paradigm for anthropological and sociological knowledge. By implicit comparison it makes the North-American racial situation normal or desirable. Thus, that epistemology corresponds to and integrates a power system.

Cuba has a cultural project anchored in socialism. Its ethnicity is based on traditional Latin-America culture as kept up by the poorest in the Republic. Acting in a different way from the Brazilian government, it does not push “affirmative action” politics against the traditional cultural national project. Socialism is already large scale “affirmative action” for the whole society. The American cultural matrix is not unquestioningly imported, as it is in Brazil, because that would mean the end of the national political-cultural project.

Even if color blindness is considered, the presence of prejudices against Blacks in Cuba must not be denied. There must be permanent vigilance on the part of social movements. There is an NGO in Cuba, called “Color de Cuba”, which in association with similar entities may play such a role. However, as happened during the eighties, race may, again, become a “non issue” in Cuba because of the new opportunities afforded by the recent recuperation of the island’s economy.

Cuba’s position on multiculturalism reflects the resistance of its national cultural project to what Bourdieu and Wacquant called the “new vulgate”. Political and economic resistances reflect cultural resistance because they are expressions of culturally set values and meanings.

VI – Conclusions: Interethnic relations in the Americas

Throughout this paper I have identified two historical models of interethnic relations in the European root. The first is the imperial, dynastic model that associates one state with different nations and peoples. The second one associates one state, one people and one nation.

Cultural diversity may be achieved in both models. What changes are affective classifications and solidarity patterns among peoples and nations, whose frontiers are, in both cases, artificially established. The republican model – which associates one people, nation, and one state – implies a solidarity pattern that extends its limits to the social limits of the nation-state. The imperial model – which associates several peoples and nations to a sole state – emphasizes tolerance between peoples who identify themselves as different.

The two models represent political-cultural projects built up by the different states.
In the North-American case, the imperial model was chosen after the unsuccessful historical attempt to establish a system following the republican model. In the US race became an invincible barrier. The cultural-political solution was “multiculturalism”, which generated a new cultural project under the imperial model tradition.
Cuba until the nineteenth century followed the widespread ethnic system found in the Hispanic and Portuguese plantation colonies in the Americas. From the nineteenth century to the Cuban revolution, in 1959, it developed race segregation, adapting the ways of the southern US. Even so, the poorer Cuban population kept an autonomous cultural project in the Latin-American tradition. This Project comprised miscegenation and, therefore, no segregation. The Cuban revolution adopted this traditional people’s project by eliminating segregation and transforming “race” into an irrelevant subject.
In Brazil the Portuguese cultural project, aiming for miscegenation, was carried out by the state, while the Country looked for its political affirmation. In recent decades, globalization, dissemination of the American cultural matrix and the rise of political dependence led the state to “multiculturalism” and to radical “affirmative action” policies.
For this reason, state-sponsored measures are taken in today’s Brazil to make race a relevant issue in the common biological North-American sense


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London/New York:
Verbo, 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc
1998 – “Sur les ruses de la raison imperialiste” in Actes de
Recherche em Sciences Sociales, 121 (122) 109-118.

Castañeda Fuentes, Digna e Brock, Lisa (eds.)
1998 – Between Race and Empire. Philadelphia: Temple University

Moore, Carlos –
1988 – Castro, the Blacks and Africa. Los Angeles: Center For Afro-
American Studies, University of California.

Ramos, Alcida Rita
1996 – “Nações dentre da Nação, um desencontro de ideologies” in
George C. L. Zarur (ed) Etnia e Nação na América Latina.

Sansone, Livio
2003 – Blackness Without Ethnicity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tannembaum, Frank
1946 – Slave and Citizen: New York: Vintage

Zarur, George C. L.
2003- A Utopia Brasileira. Brasília: FLACSO/Abaré


1- In order to write this paper I undertook fieldwork on national thinking in Brazil, the US and Cuba. I was the first Latin-American anthropologist to do fieldwork in the US, among Blacks and Whites. In 2005 I visited Cuba with the support of the Faculdad Latino-Americana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO. In Cuba I interviewed several intellectuals and university professors. I also interviewed ordinary people in different regions of the country. I would like to thank you Susan Casement Moreira for her competent revision of the English version of this paper./>

2- The Lebanese experience was an extreme and very unsuccessful multiculturalist attempt featuring proportional representation of Shiites, Sunnites and Christians, the country’s three main religions. The model failed because today Christians are no longer the majority of the population as they were at the creation of the representational system by French colonial rule. Civil War in Lebanon broke out because there were more Muslims than Christians and the former were underrepresented.

3- Such is the case of the “modern” conservative Minister Nicolas Sarkozi. See Le Monde, 2005/06/24.

4- I am very proud of my Ph D from the University of Florida, with Charles Wagley. I am also very proud to be one of the first few Brazilian anthropologists who received an American degree and to be the first Brazilian Anthropologist who undertook fieldwork in the US, inverting the traditional power relationships between the anthropologists and the studied society.

5- Such a role of diversity began, in Brazil, with the ideas of the Villas-Boas brothers and Darcy Ribeiro, in the fifties.

6- Alcida Ramos wrote a brilliant article on placing the relationships between Indian Nations and the whole Brazilian Nation.

7- See Sansone, 2003, pg. 83.
8- They certainly are not aware of the Hutu/Tutsi case in the African Great Lakes. The difference between the two people was very small by the end of the nineteenth century. The situation changed after the Belgians colonizers imposed differences between the two people registered in official ID cards. Hutus and Tutsis came to have different job and educational opportunities under Belgian rule. A century later the war between the two people had already cost about two million lives.

9- In 1974 I did fieldwork among Blacks and Whites in the US South. Then, I gathered data about the feelings of Blacks towards national unity and of Whites about Black insertion in the American Nation. As I realized during several trips to and a period of residence in the US there were no important changes of attitudes in this regard.

10- The Cuban Indian population was exterminated during the first years of Spanish occupation.

11- For a comparison between Roman and Brazilian slavery see Frank Tannembaum (1946).

12- Cuban historians report that support for the PIC was weak among Blacks. Like most poor Whites, they saw the PIC as a challenge to national unity.

13- Several studies on Cuba included among those that discuss race issues are passionate political propaganda. There is a large number of articles emphatically pro or against the regime. In some academic works the description of Cuban society becomes distorted because of a furious political ideological bias. This is, of course, the case of the 1988 Ford Foundation funded book Castro, The Blacks and Africa, by Carlos Moore. Nevertheless there are, at least, two important recent books on the subject that deserve academic attention. These are the reader by Lisa Brock and Digna Castañeda Fuertes “Between Race and Empire” (1998). The other is Alejandro de la Fuente’s “A Nation For All” (2001).

14- Cuba invests about 30% of the National Product in the social sphere. It is the largest proportional expenditure in the social sphere in the whole of Latin America.