Cuba’s Complex Ethnic Mix

One of the joys of visiting Cuba is meeting the people in this still remarkably closed society. It’s so easy and fun to connect with people on the streets who are curious about the USA and love to talk. I found Cubans joyful, relaxed, and smart — yet isolated and wired differently, as mainstays of our modern outlook (like the Internet and the opportunity to work hard to prosper) are still novel to most people here. I encountered two kinds of people: Rank-and-file Cubans, and those with relatives in America or with jobs in tourism (which means they have more money, a broader perspective, and more opportunities).

Three students

These students reminded me that Cuba still categorizes its citizens into three ethnic groups: N (for negro, or black), M (for mestizo, or mixed), and B (for blanco, or white — generally meaning Hispanic, of Spanish decent). It’s like American drivers licenses stipulating what color our eyes are.

Discrimination by race is officially illegal in Cuba. But a complex history has created social stratification. The white Cubans were predominantly the ones who supported Batista. Conversely, it was the black Cubans who felt most oppressed by Batista and American interests, and supported the Revolution most wholeheartedly.

After the Revolution, an estimated 86 percent of the Cubans who fled to the USA describe themselves as white (out of a general Cuban population that’s only about 30 percent Hispanic). That’s why, of the people in Cuba who receive foreign remittances (and are therefore local economic elites today), the vast majority are the white Cubans who chose not to leave the country. Hispanic Cubans have the most power and contact with the outside world. The result: In today’s Cuba, light-skinned people tend to be privileged and dark-skinned people are generally disadvantaged.