A Lesson From Cuba on Race

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Black History, Cuba

Alejandro de la Fuente is the director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba.

...Few in the United States would think to turn to a socialist state for wisdom on the matter, but an examination of the recent history of Cuba does in fact provide valuable lessons about the complex links between economic justice, access to basic goods and services, racial inequality, and what Gutting refers to as “continuing problems about race.”

The Cuban answer to the deep issue of social justice is well known. After the revolution of 1959, Cuban authorities believed that capitalism was unable to correct social injustices like racism. Beginning in the early 1960s, the Cuban government nationalized vast sectors of the economy, dismantled market-driven mechanisms of resource allocation, introduced central economic planning, and guaranteed the egalitarian distribution of basic goods through a rationing system. At the same time, the socialization of educational, health care and recreational facilities democratized access to social and cultural services. If by economic justice we mean egalitarian access to basic goods and services such as food, health, housing, employment and education, then Cuba came closer than any other country in our hemisphere to fulfilling this ideal....

According to research that I conducted in the 1990s for my book “A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba,” the economic and social programs promoted by the Cuban government produced dramatic results. By the early 1980s, when reliable data to measure the impact of such programs became available, inequality according to race had declined noticeably in a number of key indicators. The life expectancy of nonwhite Cubans was only one year lower than that of whites; life expectancy was basically identical for all racial groups. A powerful indicator of social wellbeing, linked to access to health services (as reflected, particularly, in infant mortality), nutrition and education, the Cuban race gap in life expectancy was significantly lower than those found in more affluent multiracial societies such as Brazil (about 6.7 years) and the United States (about 6.3 years) during the same period....

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