The myth of racial democracy in Cuba and Brazil

By BAS editor Sander Berg

Figure 1 – A happy, multiracial crowd during the 1960s Cuban literacy campaign

A YEAR OR TWO AGO my friend and colleague Ransford, who is from Ghana, came back from Cuba absolutely raving about the place. What had thrilled him so were not the spectacular limestone hills around Viñales known as mogotes, where he had gone to climb; it was not the decaying colonial grandeur of Old Havana and the crumbling palaces of the Vedado; it wasn’t the beaches or the cigars or the cocktails or the American jalopies cruising along the Malecón. What he could not get over was the people, and more specifically, how race did not seem to be an issue. His impression was that everyone, from creamy white to dark chocolate and all the shades in between, mingled without prejudice. This had come to him as a revelation; he had never been anywhere like it.

Fidel Castro would have been proud of this assessment since it was proof that the Revolution had done away with racial inequality and racism. Or so the official message goes.

Figure 2 – The Triunfo de la Revolución in 1959 – notice how they are all white

Propaganda usually entails a gulf between the party line and reality. In Cuba, however, this discrepancy is not so obvious. I too remember going to Cuba for the first time and having the exact same feeling, although probably less vehemently because I’m white and therefore not familiar with my ethnicity being (perceived as) a problem. And it wasn’t just Cuba; I had the same sensation when I first travelled around Brazil.

What happened was that both my colleague and I swallowed the myth of racial democracy hook, line and sinker. We swallowed it because at some level we desperately wanted it to be true. Because let’s face it, wouldn’t it be marvellous to think that there is a place under the sun where Dr King’s dream has come true and you are judged not by the colour of your skin but by the content of your character? Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience a post-racial paradise?

Figure 3 – Cuban propaganda image

But the seduction of the myth of racial democracy lies in more than just our desire for a better world. An important reason why people buy into it, and this includes Cubans and Brazilians themselves, is that race is less binary in Latin America than it is in the UK and the US. Racial categories are more fluid, and there are more of them.

Let me make clear that I use the word “race” to refer to a cultural construct. We all know there is no biological basis for race whatsoever. In the English-speaking world, and in particular in the US, the so-called “one-drop rule” is applied. This goes back to nineteenth and early twentieth century “scientific” racism and the despicable idea that “black blood pollutes white blood”, so that anyone with even one drop of African blood was considered Black. And even now it is still the case that someone with discernible African ancestry is seen as and will self-identify as Black (with a capital letter because it is an identity, not a colour). Barack Obama, Bob Marley, Zadie Smith, Bernadine Evaristo and David Olusoga are all Black, even though they have one white parent.

The Latin American world received far greater numbers of enslaved Africans than the US. Brazil received perhaps eight times as many, Spanish America five. The sexual unions of Africans and Europeans in Latin America produced mulattoes, or pardos as they are known in Brazil (the word means “brown” in Portuguese). There were other mixed-race categories too. The descendants of indigenous people and Europeans were known as mestizos, those of Africans and indigenous people as zambos. In theory there were many more permutations, up to 16 or even 52. Latin American colonial society was a sociedad de castas organised along socio-racial lines, with European-born Spaniards at the top.

Just below them there were American-born Spaniards known as criollos. At the bottom you had the enslaved population. And somewhere in between there were the mestizos, the indios and the freed slaves, many of them mulattoes.

Figure 4 – An illustration of the different racial subcategories in colonial Spanish America

In modern Latin America people still distinguish between white, mulatto/pardo, Black, mestizo and indigenous. Which racio-ethnic category you belong to is largely a matter of self-identification. There are no officials with clipboards going round the country taking down your “race” – at least, I’ve never seen any. This allows for a degree of fluidity. Between one survey and the next, for example, someone can change their mind and no longer identify as mulatto but as Black or vice versa. There is less of a black/white dichotomy, which makes it harder to pitch one group against the other, as happens in the US.

Cuba and Brazil abolished slavery very late. They were in fact the last of the American countries to do so, Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888. But unlike the US, these countries never had Jim Crow laws. These would have been hard to enforce anyway, because what do you do with all those people of mixed ancestry, of which there are many more than Blacks? In Brazil 43% of the population is pardo, but only 7% identify as Afro-Brazilian—47% is white and the rest is made up of other groups, including indigenous people and a sizeable Japanese community in São Paulo. In Cuba 9% see themselves as Afro-Cuban, compared with 27% who consider themselves to be mulattoes, while the remaining 64% are white. So instead of fighting segregation and having a civil rights movement, Latin Americans of colour were told, and perhaps also told themselves, they lived in racial harmony.

Officially, everyone gets along swimmingly, but look closer and you’ll discover that skin colour correlates with socioeconomic status: the fairer your skin, the more likely you are to be well-off and the less likely you are to live in a favela or a downtrodden part of Havana. The opening up of the economy in Cuba has created opportunities to earn much-coveted dólares. But these opportunities are disproportionately favouring fair-skinned Cubans. What often happens is that jobs, say, in tourism require someone to look “presentable”, which, in Cuba in this context, is code for “fair-skinned”. And when you consider who actually runs the country, it is even clearer that Cuba and Brazil are “pigmentocracies”. Fidel’s revolutionaries were virtually all white, and it was not until the after his brother Raúl Castro stepped down in 2019 that a serious effort was made to include more Afro-Cubans at the top. The current situation in Brazil is particularly dire, with Bolsonaro’s government being 100% white.

Figure 5 – Looking at the line-up of Bolsonaro’s government in 2019 one would be excused for thinking Brazil was an entirely white country, notwithstanding the fact that they make up only 47% of the population. Notice too how few women there are.

In both Brazil and Cuba the myth of racial democracy has deep roots and is caught up with the nation’s idea of itself. This deep-rootedness makes it very hard for Afro-Cubans and Afro-Brazilians to talk about racism and discrimination. How can you accuse someone – or a system – of a bias that is not acknowledged to be there?

The future does not bode well unless Afro-Cubans and Afro-Brazilians create a powerful movement to denounce discrimination and the systemic, institutional racism that is clearly rife. Paradoxically, they (we) need to burst the myth of racial democracy if they (we) are ever going to achieve it.


Afro Cuba Libre, a mini-documentary on race in Cuba (10 mins) available on Youtube:

Andrews, George Reid, Afro-Latin America 1800-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Black in Latin America, Prof. Henry Louis Gates’s four-part series, available on Amazon Prime

Thomas, Hugh The Slave Trade. The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870, paperback (London: Phoenix, 2006)

Wade, Peter, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America, 2nd edition (New York: Pluto Press, 2010); “Race in Latin America”, chapter from a book, available online