Lesson Plan: Race and Government Policy in Revolutionary Cuba

This lesson plan was originally created in 2010 by Karen Michels, a teacher at the Beacon School, while participating in the Teacher Residency Program of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at New York University. Karen’s curricular materials may also be found on the CLACS website.

The lesson aims to interrogate ways in which Fidel Castro tried to eliminate racial inequality and racism in Cuba during the revolutionary period. Included in the lesson is video from the PBS series, Black in Latin America, supplementary reading, and activities that ask:

  • What are effective government policy approaches for eliminating racial inequality and discrimination?
  • What factors influence how governments deal with racial inequality?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of adopting a color-blind versus racially explicit policy to eliminate inequality and discrimination?
  • What is the relationship between domestic and foreign policy?


The following questions are meant to stimulate discussion on Cuban race relations during the Spanish colonial and Republican periods which ends with the 1959 Cuban revolution.

They can be asked during or after the film orally or distributed on a film question hand-out.

1. VIDEO: Economic Impact of the Haitian Revolution on Cuba

How did the Haitian revolution impact Cuba economically?

When revolution broke out in the French colony of Saint Domingue (later known as Haiti), sugar production there came to a virtual halt. This caused a sudden demand for sugar. Cuban plantation owners quickly stepped in to fill the gap created by neighboring Haiti, placing Cubans in a position to profit immensely. By the mid-1800’s, Cuba replaced Haiti as the world’s leading producer of sugar, making Cuban plantation owners very wealthy. Sugar is a very labor intensive and the increased pressure to fill market demand for this lucrative crop resulted in a high death rate among slaves. Plantation owners responded to the labor shortage by purchasing more slaves thereby reinvigorating the Transatlantic slave trade even after the British sought to curtail it.

2. VIDEO: The Black Fear

What was the “Black Fear?” How did it impact race relations in Cuba? Why was it referred to as a “specter?”

Many whites in Cuba feared that blacks there would rise up against whites and take over the island just as in Haiti during its slave insurrection and then successful revolution. White plantation owners feared both loss of privilege, property, economic gain as well as violence from blacks who might seek to avenge their enslavement and inhumane treatment. Not unique to Cuba, this was a common fear among the ruling establishment in many colonial societies. News of the violent upheaval in neighboring Haiti reached Cuba very quickly. In fact, several thousand French plantation owners fled to Cuba, sharing their first hand accounts of the violence there which frightened many Cuban whites. As a result of this, Cuban slaveowners, tightened restrictions on slaves, making their lives even more difficult. Those slaves who were caught running away or organizing revolts were severely punished as an example to others. The same phenomenon was seen in the United States where plantation owners, driven by fears of the black uprising in Haiti, put strict rules into place curtailing slaves’ activities and ability to associate in groups. Because there was an especially high ratio of blacks to whites in Cuba, the “Black Fear” remained an important psychological factor long after the Haitian Revolution of 1804 established Haiti as the first black republic. The possibility that blacks could potentially exploit their demographic presence on Cuba was like a specter or ghost that haunted whites ever fearful of losing their privilege and facing black reprisals against them.

3. VIDEO: Antonio Maceo: The Bronze Titan

If you were General Antonio Maceo, leader of the struggle for emancipation from slavery and Spanish colonization, would you emphasize your African heritage or your Cuban nationality more? Explain.

General Antonio Maceo was one of the most prominent military leaders in the war for independence against Spain. To avoid giving the impression that he was orchestrating a black takeover of the island, Maceo emphasized that he was, above all, Cuban. In fact, he was attributed with saying “there were no blacks or whites, only Cubans.” In order to gain support, allay white fears and underscore that he was struggling on behalf of all Cubans against the Spanish, he had to tread a fine line between being an Afro-Cuban leader and a Cuban nationalist. [Jose Marti, a white Cuban independence activist also advocated for a “color-blind” Cuba in his essays and articles both in New York and Cuba. This ideal minimized a Cuban identity based on race, having a lasting impact even after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.] Following Maceo’s death, which some suspect was orchestrated by Cubans afraid of his growing power, he was honored as a hero. Images of him, which presented him as lighter skinned, highlighted Cuban ambivalence over celebrating him as an Afro-Cuban. Years after his death, his body was exhumed to try to prove “scientifically” that his success was due to white anatomical characteristics in what is referred to as eugenics.

4. VIDEO: Segregation and Discrimination Following Independence

Which forces worked together to perpetuate discrimination against blacks following independence from Spain? How did these groups carry out social, economic and political means of racial oppression of Afro-Cubans?

in 1900 following Cuba’s independence from Spain, both American occupying forces and white Cuban elites worked in concert to maintain white supremacy in Cuba. The US military administration in Cuba insisted on the racial segregation of Cuban military and police forces. Therefore, segregational practices under Jim Crow in the American south, were replicated in part by American authorities in Cuba. US troops were still segregated including those same troops that helped to oust the Spanish from Cuba. In 1902, an immigration law banned black immigration to Cuba from neighboring Jamaica and Haiti. And at the same time, immigration from Spain was encouraged to offset the high ratio of blacks to whites in Cuba in what is known as “whitening.” As a result, as many as 600,000 Spaniards immigrated to Cuba. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Afro-Cubans were banned from many private social clubs, business establishments, and faced job discrimination. Beaches were off limits to them and some public parks were segregated. Even, “Son” music, with clear African influences, was banned by the white Cuban establishment who, instead, looked to Europe as their cultural inspiration.

5. VIDEO: Independent Party of Color

Why do you think the organization of the Independent Party of Color was so controversial? What impact do you think the massacre of party activists in Oriente province had on the Afro-Cuban struggle against marginalization and discrimination?

Although Afro-Cubans constituted anywhere from 50 to 70% of the fighting forces against the Spanish, when Cuba gained independence, progress in race relations was very slow. In fact, although blacks gained the right to vote, they were marginalized in society and excluded from many public and private spaces. Having served in such great numbers and suffered a great many of the casualties during the war against the Spanish, they expected more upon independence. Yet the “Black Fear” was ever present in many whites’ minds. Following independence, political organizing amongst Afro-Cubans intensified this anxiety. In 1910, the Morua law was passed banning black political parties and two years later, 200 leaders of the Independent Party of Color were arrested. When supporters of the party mounted protests, three to four thousand Afro- Cuban activists were brutally massacred in Oriente Province. The massacre was carried both by the government as well as by self-appointed white militias who were sending a strong message to Afro Cubans against trying to rise above their rank in society. Some say that the massacres were carried out to prove to the Americans that the white Cuban establishment was in control of the island so that US troops would not return. Even at this early point in time, a standard of a “color blind” Cuba was being reinforced. Afro-Cubans could be active in Cuban society and politics but not as Afro-Cubans. Emphasizing Cuban identity was one thing whereas formulating groups along racial lines was another. Even though the violent massacre would certainly intimidate Afro-Cubans’ in their struggle for political recognition, black intellectuals would not remain silent. In their writings, they called for recognition of the African cultural contributions to Cuba in the “Cubanidad” movement. In fact, writers and poets forged transnational ties with black intellectual leaders abroad such as the African American poet, Langston Hughes. News of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, for example, inspired Afro-Cuban artists to express themselves more assertively calling for cultural and by extension, political recognition.

Overarching Questions:
6. What were the external factors that played a role in shaping race relations in Cuba?

  • The Haitian Revolution
  • The World market demand for sugar
  • Spanish colonial interests
  • American economic interests
  • Domestic American segregation practices

Contrast this with internal factors, such as demographics. The ratio of blacks to whites in Cuba was very different than that of the US. Over a million enslaved Africans were transported to Cuba compared with 400,000 to the United States which had a much bigger general population. As a result of high death rates and low birth rates among enslaved Afro-Cubans, more slaves were forcibly transported to Cuba throughout the 1800’s after many other slave holding countries had banned the import of slaves. This translated into an ongoing cultural connection to African societies of origin on the part of Afro-Cubans who in many instances were able to preserve large parts of their cultural heritage in language, religion, dance and music. As a result of the larger presence of blacks and black cultural manifestations, the white population in Cuba would have potentially felt their position more threatened upon the abolishment of slavery and the departure of the Spanish.

7. What means of resistance and activism were employed by Afro-Cubans against white supremacy?

In addition to attempting slave revolts, Afro-Cubans joined in the struggle against Spain in large numbers motivated greatly by the promise of emancipation and a chance to play a prominent role in nation building.

During and after slavery, many Afro-Cubans maintained strong connections with cultural traditions such as Santeria, dance and music. Carneval, which dates back to the 1700’s, was a way to overtly display these connections in defiance of white European cultural mores. Decades after the Spanish departure, Afro-Cubans began to organize politically by forming their own party, the Independent Party of Color. Although it was banned and their leaders arrested, they demonstrated. Shortly thereafter, Afro-Cuban writers, poets and artists advocated for recognition of Afro-Cuban heritage in the Cubanidad movement which had international parallels in the Harlem Renaissance and Négritude, a movement composed of black intellectuals from former French colonies. Excluded from social clubs, some elite Afro-Cubans organized their own such as Atenas.

Step 2: Slide Presentation Review (optional)

All curricular materials for Steps 2 through 5 can be found at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at New York University.

After going over the film discussion questions , conduct an interactive review of race relations in Cuba leading up to the 1959 revolution using the slide presentation. Teachers can call on students during the presentation to present the slides using the images as cues for students to share what they’ve learned so far. Students will then be ready to put themselves in the role of Cuban revolutionaries in a class simulation advocating policies to reduce racial discrimination and inequality on the island.

Step 3: Activity Packet

Ask students to read the student scenario, and in small groups, choose one of eight policies to recommend to the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro that they feel would be most effective in reversing racism in Cuba. After deciding on a policy with their group, students should examine their corresponding policy examples using the primary documents provided in the same document to develop a short presentation. Through their presentations each group advocate why their policy is the most effective, providing specific examples, despite potential short comings.

Assign one group of students to serve on the executive committee in charge of selecting three of the eight policies presented. At the end of the group presentations, the executive committee should make their selection and clearly explain the rationale behind their decision.

Step 4: Activity Debrief using the activity Discussion Questions

Following the activity, to guide the debrief, asking students to brainstorm why, in the final analysis, Fidel Castro opted for color-blind approaches to improving racial inequality in Cuba as opposed to policies granting special privileges through affirmative action. Possible reasons why are provided in the document.

Step 5: Homework/Follow-up Reading

For homework, assign students reading and questions found on the CLAS website.

This lesson plan was originally created in 2010 by Karen Michels, a teacher at the Beacon School, while participating in the Teacher Residency Program of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at New York University. Karen’s curricular materials may also be found on the CLACS website.

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