News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Black in Latin America - Episode Two Review

In episode two of Black in Latin America, Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes an admirable attempt to portray the long and complex history of Cuba's racial identity in less than an hour. Naturally, some elements are missing or compressed.

One notable omission is an explanation for the absence of any significant indigenous ancestry among Cuba's population. The main reason for this is the tragic epidemics brought by European diseases following the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Cuba’s natives had no immunities to European diseases such as smallpox, influenza and measles. Within 100 years after the first contact with Europeans, virtually the entire population of the sparsely populated island had died. As a result, most Cubans are descendants of European and African ancestors. This stands in contrast to many Latin American nations including the nearest neighbor to the United States, Mexico, where a majority of people are of indigenous and European descent.

Another of the episode's historical abbreviations is attributing the growth of African slavery in Cuba solely to the sugar plantation economy. Even before sugar became the white gold of the Caribbean mined by Spain, France and England with the blood and sweat of African slaves on the archipelago's islands, colonial Cuba had a shortage of laborers. As noted previously, the massive deaths of the indigenous populations compelled the often-haughty Spanish colonizers to import African slaves for agricultural and domestic labor. So the African influx into Cuba began earlier than the sugar plantation juggernaut of the late 1700s, albeit at a much reduced pace.

Despite these understandable omissions, I believe the essence of Dr. Gates’ reporting is accurate. Cuba has never lived up to Jose Marti's ideal of a racially egalitarian society "by all and for all." Nor is Cuba the socialist racial paradise Castro would have you believe. But as a Cuban, I take pride in our diverse heritage and the progress the island has made toward the ideals on which an independent Cuba was founded. Cuba still has a very long way to go before those ideals are met. All the same, there is a lot the United States can learn from this small island when it comes to race relations. 

Raul Ramos y Sanchez