Megan McAdams-Roldan, a first-year MA student in the Latin American Studies program, and Gabor Debreczeni, a second-year MA student in the International Development program and editor-in-chief of Perspectives, traveled to Havana, Cuba over Spring Break on an urban development-themed trip organized by the SAIS Cities and Development Club.

Here, they explore the theme of inequalities resurgent - the first section on racial inequalities is written by Megan McAdams-Roldan, while the second section on the re-segregation of Havana's neighborhoods in written by Gabor Debreczeni.

Prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, Cuban society was deeply fractured along racial and social class divisions. As an agricultural society, Cuba had imported African slaves to work its vast and mostly foreign-owned sugar plantations. Afro-Cubans during this time had extremely limited access to educational or employment opportunities. Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary government, inspired by Cuban philosopher and social advocate Jose Marti argued in favor of a race-less society. Shortly after the revolution, with large gains in academic and professional opportunities for black Cubans – partly due to free education for all – Castro declared that the Revolution had eliminated racism. 

Old divisions re-emerged when the Soviet Union collapsed and economic turmoil enveloped the small island nation. Overnight, $4-6 billion in annual subsidies disappeared and Cubans across the island suffered from the government’s inability to provide even basic necessities. The economic turmoil wrought by this so-called “Special Period” re-fractured Cuban society due to differential access to remittances. In response to the crisis, the Cuban government eased restrictions on receiving money from abroad and even briefly allowed the US dollar to circulate in the economy. 

The first wave of emigration from Cuba began shortly after Castro took power, as wealthy landowners feared – presciently – that the socialist government would expropriate their land. Subsequent Cuban migrants also enjoyed special migratory privileges in the U.S., such as expedited citizenship, which granted them faster access to earnings than other migrants. These migrants were disproportionately white, and thus white Cubans remaining in Cuba went on to receive more remittances in the Special Period than the Afro-Cuban population, creating serious social disparities. 

Given the Revolution’s conflicting experience with race and inequality, how could improved US-Cuban relations impact this issue? The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has argued that Afro-Cubans have less access to jobs in the tourism sector, where a reasonable tip can easily match the average household income of $25 a month. With increased U.S. tourism, especially to city centers like Havana, the expansion of the tourism sector and the employment opportunities it brings could either help or hinder the Afro-Cuban population. The challenge for Cuba, will be for it to “update the Revolution” – or “actualizar la Revolución”, as the Cubans call it – in a way that returns to the taboo issue of race and finds inclusive solutions to truly create equal opportunities for all Cubans once again. 

Until a few years ago, the ownership of property in Cuba had been frozen in time for decades. One result of this policy was that neighborhoods in Havana were extraordinarily equal – there were by and large no poor neighborhoods and no rich neighborhoods in the city. Alongside the single-family mansions of the rich in Miramar were similar mansions divided among dozens of poorer families.

In 2011, the Cuban government significantly loosened restrictions on the sale of property. While residential property purchases are still restricted to domestic buyers who don't already own a home, the new regulations began to allow the exchange of cash in property sales – previously, only equal-value swaps were permitted. This loosening has begun to reintroduce inequalities not seen in decades in Havana, as poor families that had previously shared a home move into poorer neighborhoods where they can split the family into multiple properties, find more space, and often pocket a cash differential.

A substantial source of equality in Cuba is that healthcare and education are free and universally available. Inequalities have now emerged in even these cornerstones of Cuban society, as the now-richer neighborhoods slowly accumulate better doctors and teachers, an experience common and greatly resonant in America.

The opening of the real estate market has attracted more attention in the housing market than in the commercial or land market – partially because the government still has the ability to retake control of agricultural lands if production targets (which are decided by the government) are not met. The residential market was far from taboo and plain to see – in Matanzas, a secondary city outside Havana, we saw a sign taped to a door that gave a phone number, imploring the owner of the property to call the number if he wished to sell the house.

The re-segregation of neighborhoods was particularly stark in the renovated segments of Old Havana, where we worried that the phenomenon – unstoppable, likely – might end with Old Havana feeling more and more like a museum, without any of the people who had made the place so vibrant and beloved.

PHOTO CREDIT: Author photograph, by Gabor Debreczeni.