History is being made in Cuba — and not just because it’s the first time in 60 years that a Castro won’t hold the title of president over the island-nation. The appointment of Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermudez as president is accompanied by the naming of two Black women as vice presidents in Cuba.
Inés María Chapman Waugh and Beatriz Jhonson Urrutia, both engineers from the eastern part of the Caribbean island, have joined the council, making it the most diverse in Cuba’s history. Half of the six vice presidents of the ruling Council of State are Black, including the first vice president, Salvador Valdes Mesa, and three are women.
Discussing the changes in high-ranking positions, former President Raúl Castro said last week that the government still has a “battle of proportions, not just in numerical aspects, but qualitative — in decision-making slots.”
He continued, according to the New York Times: “Three women were elected vice president of the Council of State, two of them Black — not only for being Black, but for their virtues and qualities.”
While the shift is historic, many Cubans remain skeptical that administration swaps will translate into real change for Black Cubans on the island.
While one of Fidel Castro’s greatest victories following the revolution was creating more racial equality in Cuba, with social and educational opportunities present for Black Cubans, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many found themselves living in deep poverty. More Cubans grew dependent on cash remittances sent from the United States, but a vast majority of the Cuban-Americans sending money were white, leaving Black Cubans with little monetary help.
“It won’t change their socioeconomically difficult lives,” Katrin Hansing, a professor at Baruch College in New York who is studying racial inequality in Cuba, told the newspaper. “The Communist Party will not change because there are three more Black people at the top.”
Even if Chapman Waugh and Jhonson Urrutia’s promotions were symbolic, some do believe their role as vice presidents is momentous. For Alejandro de la Fuente, a Cuba studies professor at Harvard University, recognizing that the Cuban government under the Castros has largely been regarded as one made up of old, white men, the new diversity is a welcomed step in the right direction.
“Even if this was window-dressing, it would mean they feel the need to dress the window in a certain color, and that is something one would not have said 30 years ago,” he said.
Cuba isn’t the only Latin American country with a Black woman vice president. Early this month, Costa Rica made history as the first country in the Americas to elect a Black female VP, Epsy Campbell Barr.