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Fidel Castro's Legacy On Race Relations In Cuba And Abroad


Now we want to spend a few minutes talking about Cuba's longtime leader, Fidel Castro. He died a little over a week ago at the age of 90. Earlier today, his ashes arrived in Santiago after a four-day journey across Cuba. A private funeral will be held tomorrow morning. Many of those remembering him this week have focused on his intolerance for dissent, his crackdowns on dissidents, the media and LGBT people.

But others remember him as a champion for racial equality both in Cuba and abroad. We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Mark Sawyer. He's a professor of political science and African-American studies at UCLA and the author of "Racial Politics In Post-Revolutionary Cuba." Professor Sawyer, thanks so much for joining us.

MARK SAWYER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And frankly, one of the reasons we wanted to speak with you is that we were tracking social media upon Castro's death and saw a lot of differing opinions that frankly seemed to break along racial lines. Why would that be?

SAWYER: Well, because Castro has a long history with Afro-Cubans and African-Americans when he - the revolution first triumphed he stayed in Harlem and met with people like Malcolm X and has a history of fighting apartheid in South Africa and having elevated the Afro-Cuban population to be the healthiest longest living black population in the world.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about that, if you would. And even - and just about how black is Cuba? I mean, officially, as I understand it, people of African descent and - are only supposed to be about 35 percent of the population. But most people think that that's just not true, that the majority of the country is actually of people of African descent. Why is there - first of all, why is there even some dispute about this? And tell me more about Castro's legacy around that.

SAWYER: Well, the dispute is essential to Latin America where there they have a multiplicity of racial categories. So who falls into the category of black can often be very narrow, whereas those same people in the United States would easily be considered black people or people of African descent. First of all, the exodus of so many white middle-class Cubans opened up opportunities for Afro-Cubans. Cuba sort of didn't need initially to initiate affirmative action because there were seats available, and Afro-Cubans moved into them. They benefited from the literacy campaigns and the advents of universal education. And their life expectancy look a lot like white Cubans, and they're living almost 80 years, which is higher than the United States.

MARTIN: But one of the things that you argue in your book is that despite this, it doesn't mean that Cuba has actually eliminated racial disparities. Can you tell us more about that? Why not?

SAWYER: Well, first of all, there tended to be still a glass ceiling at the highest ministries even under Castro having eliminated racism. Second, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and there's been less Soviet subsidies in a more market-based economy, Afro-Cubans have fallen behind both because they're discriminated against in the market-based economy and because a big part of the economy depends upon remittances.

And most of those who went to the United States were white, and they send money back to their white relatives. And there wasn't a continued discussion about prejudice in the country. So you see a lot of things that were done by declaring racism eliminated and not having constant pressure groups in the way that we do in the United States to keep improving things and to hold Fidel's feet to the fire.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, what do you want people to think about when you think about Castro's legacy, particularly in this area?

SAWYER: I think we need to look at Castro's mistakes of not allowing black pressure groups, not pursuing more rigid anti-discrimination policies as failures, but that he came as close as anybody has ever come to eliminating racial inequality in a place that had had plantation slavery.

MARTIN: That was Mark Sawyer. He's a professor of political science and African-American studies at UCLA, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West. Professor Sawyer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SAWYER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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