As President Trump announced the administration’s new policies on Cuba, I worried that Afro-Cubans would be the main losers. They have been losing for some time. The timid economic reforms implemented by the Cuban government in the past two decades have resulted in a growing gap between those with access to capital and those without it.
This gap is not color blind. Because access to capital depends on monetary flows from the overwhelmingly white Cuban-American community, black Cubans lack the resources to participate on equal grounds in the expanding private sector. As one of my collaborators on the island puts it, in Cuba, “Dollars are white.” In a country where, according to the census, they represent more than one third of the population, very few of the new private restaurants, rental houses, and shops are owned by blacks.
Still, the participation of black Cubans in tourist-related, dollar-earning services probably has increased since March 2016, when President Obama relaxed the regulations concerning American visitors to Cuba. The new rules allowed individuals to travel on their own for “people to people” educational contacts.
Precisely because Americans cannot travel legally as tourists, they stay away from the tour packages typically preferred by European and Canadian consumers, most of whom stay in state-owned, all-inclusive hotels. American visitors stay in rental rooms around the city, including less affluent areas, where Afro-Cubans are better represented. Their visits have had a democratizing effect on the service sector, creating opportunities for individuals, families, and neighborhoods that were previously excluded from the tourist economy.
According to a statement issued on June 16 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), “The president instructed Treasury to issue regulations that will end individual people-to-people travel.” The main targets of the new policies are supposed to be the military, whose control over the Cuban economy is well known. However, by limiting opportunities for individual travel outside of state-controlled tourist facilities, the new measures are likely to have a disproportionately negative effect on poorer Cubans, including Afro-Cubans.
Neither these policies nor the much-needed economic reforms implemented by the Cuban government are racist by design. Their implementation has race-specific consequences because blackness continues to be laden with all sorts of disadvantages in Cuban society, so seemingly neutral, color-blind policies produce racially differentiated effects. The policies are not racially defined. Their social effects are.
Afro-Cubans know that the only way to counteract these forces is through social mobilization and conscious policymaking. Cuba is not a friendly place for autonomous, non-state-controlled social mobilization, but a growing Afrodescendant movement has emerged nonetheless. Born in the midst of the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this movement is considerably larger and more complex today than even a few years ago. It began as a cultural movement, led by Hip-hop musicians, visual artists, writers, and filmmakers critical of racial discrimination. It now includes community activists working in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country; organizations that specialize in legal services; gender-based forms of activism; bloggers and websites on Afro-Cuban themes; and organizations that frame their demands in the language of citizenship and human rights.
These organizations have successfully promoted a debate on the persistence of racism in Cuban society, but their ability to shape policymaking remains limited, to say the least. Cuban authorities are suspicious of any social movement outside their control and generally are averse to engage in any serious debate with them.
That is, there is not much that the activists can do to counteract the effects of the new policies of the Trump administration, or of the economic reforms taking place in Cuba, for that matter. They lack platforms to effect change or to respond to changes in policy such as those just announced by the administration. The main target of the new policies may be the military, but what is certain is that in this process Afro-Cubans stand to lose, again.
Alejandro de la Fuente is director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University.