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Knowing Cuba’s past is crucial in making sense of the present; that’s especially true when it comes to the question of race. Racial slavery, with its peculiar Latin American characteristics, set the stage upon which the 1959 revolution began. All of the practices and ideas associated with the institution that disadvantaged Cubans of African origin had to be challenged. That task was combined with the overriding one of making Cuban sovereignty a reality for the first time. Important gains were made for Afro-Cubans that proved qualitatively favorable in comparison not only with their pre-1959 status but also with that of their cohorts in the United States. As Cold War realities intervened, conscious and explicit attention to the issue began to fade, often in the name of unity in the face of the threat from the north. And when those continuing gains began to be undermined owing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies in 1989, the race question was forced back onto the national agenda. Fidel Castro, as was so often the case during the revolution, took the lead in addressing the issue. For the first time since the early years of the revolution, conscious attention began to be paid to race, the all-important unfinished business that had begun in 1959. Not all Cubans began on an equal footing in the commencement of that project, thus special attention now needs to be paid to those of African origin to fulfill its egalitarian quest. It should be acknowledged that while progress has been made, much remains to be done.

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Cuba in the second decade of the new millennium remains as interesting as ever, commanding a place on the world stage much greater than its small size would indicate. Fidel Castro passed away in November 2016 after 10 years of retirement from public life, during which time his brother Raúl assumed the leadership of the country and led Cuba through some very important political and economic changes that are still being played out. In 2011, a long delayed Communist Party congress mandated the scaling back of government employment and the re-creation of a services sector of the economy dominated by private economic activity. These market mechanisms have threatened the island’s vaunted egalitarianism but have moved the economy forward after years of stagnation. In 2013 Raúl declared the political reform of a two-term limit on the presidency and in 2018 Miguel Diaz-Canal, a man in his fifties, assumed the presidency, signaling a shift of political control to a generation born after the revolution triumphed in 1959. The final results of these political and economic reforms, especially in the face of continued hostility from the United States, are not clear, but if they succeed it will not be the first time that Cuba will be an inspiration to those in the world seeking a successful model of social justice.