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Date: Mon, 27 Nov 2000 23:06:25 -0500
From: Art McGee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Cuba Begins to Answer Its Race Question
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Cuba Begins to Answer Its Race Question
By Eugene Robinson <firstname.lastname@example.org>,
Washington Post, 12 November 2000
HAVANA -- Maria del Carmen Cano, a scholar at the Cuban
Institute of the Book, studies race in Cuba. For years that
was an obscure and lonely task, but now people are beginning
to pay attention. To illustrate why, she tells a story about
He is tall and very dark-skinned. Not long ago, on a day off
from work, he was making his way through a downtown Havana
neighborhood in shorts, tennis shoes and T-shirt, a bulging
knapsack slung over his shoulder -- he was taking the family's
computer to be repaired. Approaching from the opposite direction
was a white man, also in sneakers and T-shirt and shorts, also
toting a full knapsack. They crossed paths right in front of
one of the policemen who stand, sphinxlike, on Havana's busy
The officer stopped Cano's husband and demanded to see his
identity papers, letting the white man pass without a second
When the policeman learned that he had just detained a
lieutenant colonel in the Cuban military, he was effusively
apologetic. "But from then on," Cano says, "my husband had a
greater appreciation for my work."
Breaking a long-standing taboo on discussing Cuban society
in racial terms, scholars and even officials here are delving
into issues of race, racism, racial stereotypes and stubborn
patterns of discrimination. They have found, as Cano says,
that "it's unrealistic to assume that a good communist or
a good revolutionary can't also be a racist."
Black Cubans, by any material or educational measure, have
made great advances in the past four decades, their progress
often cited by officials as one of the signal accomplishments
of President Fidel Castro's revolution. As one example,
officials report that in this country of 11 million people,
there are more than 13,000 black physicians; by comparison,
in the United States, with a black population four times
as large, the 1990 census counted just over 20,000 black
doctors, according to the leading U.S. association of
Intermarriage between whites and blacks is commonplace in
Cuba. Race relations, especially among individuals, are much
more relaxed and amicable than in U.S. neighborhoods -- and
unlike in the United States, virtually all Cuban neighborhoods
are racially integrated.
But many young Afro-Cubans -- those too young to remember
what things were like before the revolution -- contend that
a form of structural racism exists in Cuba, and that it is
The Cuban version of the "New Economy" is based not on
computers or the Internet but rather on tourism, which is
growing by leaps and bounds while the rest of the Cuban
economy languishes. Young blacks say they are under-
represented on the staffs of the big new five-star hotels
and the ancillary service businesses springing up around
Havana, the Varadero beach resort and other major cities. In
today's Cuba, with the economy substantially "dollarized,"
those with access to tourists -- and the dollars they spend
-- form a kind of new elite, and this elite of waitresses,
doormen, tour guides and cab drivers appears much whiter
than Cuba as a whole.
The government's position, famously expressed by Cuba's
independence hero Jose Marti, is that race does not matter,
that "we are all Cubans." But to scholars, including those
who remain fully committed to the revolution, some worrisome
racial issues have become self-evident.
Academics say that black Cubans are failing to earn
university degrees in proportion to their numbers -- a
situation to which Castro has alluded publicly. The upper
echelons of the government remain disproportionately white,
despite the emergence of several rising black stars. And
while perceptions are difficult to quantify, much less prove
true or false, many black Cubans are convinced that they are
much less likely than whites to land good jobs -- and much
more likely to be hassled by police on the street, like
Cano's husband, in a Cuban version of "racial profiling."
Even the most outspoken critics of the way the government
has handled, or ignored, the issue of race in Cuba do not
believe the racial problems here are as acute or widespread
as in the United States. They share the worry of Cuban
officials that foreign observers will oversimplify the
situation, seeing it in stark terms of black and white
when the more appropriate image is a spectrum of beiges
Several black Cubans interviewed for this article were
especially anxious that reports of Cuba's racial problems
not be seized on by the Cuban American community in Miami,
which is overwhelmingly white -- and which was founded by
a core of people who made up much of Cuba's pre-revolution
white elite. Many here question whether there would have
been such hubbub in Miami over Elian Gonzalez had the boy
been black instead of white.
"There is a feeling that to talk about this issue is
to divide the unity that is necessary to face American
imperialism," said Tomas Fernandez Robaina, senior
researcher at the Jose Marti National Library and a
preeminent scholar on race. But he added, "In many places,
blacks have more problems getting a job than white people.
I'm not telling you a secret."
Recently Castro has acknowledged lingering traces of racial
discrimination, using a speech last year to pin the blame on
racist attitudes introduced during the U.S. occupation of
Cuba following the Spanish-American War.
His brother, Vice President Raul Castro, the second most
powerful man in Cuba, tackled the subject in March, in a
speech that black Cubans still remember and parts of which
they cite verbatim. He used a more down-to-earth example
that people could relate to their everyday lives: If a hotel
denies entry to a person because he is black, he said, then
the hotel should be shut.
When black Cubans gather, the topic of racism readily emerges.
But the government does not permit clubs, associations or
movements based on race; there is no NAACP in Cuba, nor
would one be allowed.
Cuban race relations are thus conducted on the individual
level, and because of cultural factors they lack the element
of confrontation. This is a nation where a man can refer
to his dark-skinned girlfriend as "mi negra," or "my black
woman," without giving it a thought or raising any hackles.
It is a society where friends can tease each other about
how dark their skin is and no one takes offense; where a
tan-skinned woman can casually say of a party she attended,
"Oh, there were a lot of negros there, so I left," and no
one seems uncomfortable or embarrassed. Cubans love to
laugh, love to employ their well-developed sense of irony.
"There is an important difference between our two
countries," said Alexis Esquivel, an artist who has helped
organize groundbreaking exhibitions here on the theme of
race. "In the United States, you can't joke about race, not
at all, but you can talk about it seriously. Here in Cuba,
you can joke about race all you want. But you can't talk
about it seriously."
Cuba's Racial History
Cuba has a familiar history of slavery and emancipation,
but also a history of widespread intermarriage. The result
is that racial lines are not nearly so clearly drawn, or so
immutably fixed, as in the United States. There has not been
a census since 1980-81, and at that time a majority of Cubans
identified themselves as white. Most Cuban scholars discount
that result, estimating that the Cuban population is between
60 percent and 70 percent black or mulatto (mixed-race).
They also question the usefulness of official government
statistics on race that are based on that census.
Cubans reserve the term "black" for people with very dark
skin and kinky hair. Many African Americans who consider
themselves black would be called mulatto in Cuba, and some
-- with light skin and straight hair -- would be called
white. The pre-revolution racial hierarchy put whites on the
top, blacks on the bottom and mulattos somewhere in between;
the revolution ended all official discrimination, but as in
virtually every country with a history of slavery, traces
"The economic crisis has taken the lid off," said researcher
Cano. "Now there is new space for racist attitudes to exist."
She referred to the implosion of the Cuban economy following
the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc,
which ended a lifeline of subsidies and eliminated the only
viable markets for Cuban goods. The early 1990s were desperate
years in Cuba, a time when people accustomed to a reasonable
standard of living were suddenly hungry, when gasoline was
in short supply and power outages were a daily occurrence.
The government calls it the "Special Period" -- and although
the situation has greatly improved, Castro has not yet
declared it at an end.
The crisis exacerbated tensions, and many black Cubans began
to feel that in this egalitarian society, they were getting
the short end of the stick. After Castro made it legal to
possess and spend dollars, remittances from overseas relatives
eased the pain for some Cubans. But since so many of the Cubans
in Miami and elsewhere who could afford to send money home were
white, the relatives on the receiving end in Cuba also tended
to be white.
During the leanest years there were episodes of unrest.
The worst came in the summer of 1994 along the seafront in
Central Havana, a neighborhood that happens to have a high
percentage of black residents. Crowds took to the streets
and police officers came under attack. It did not qualify
as a race riot, but arguably was the closest thing
post-revolution Cuba had seen.
The turmoil prompted Castro to allow a limited safety-valve
exodus of rafters to set out for Florida -- the first mass
departure in which there were substantial numbers of blacks
as well as whites.
The conventional wisdom to that point had been that blacks
were among Castro's most faithful and avid supporters --
beneficiaries of both concrete benefits and memorable
gestures, from Castro's legendary choice to stay in Harlem
during his first New York visit to his decision to send
thousands of Cuban troops to faraway wars in Africa. Shortly
after the 1994 disturbances, the government accelerated a
move to promote young, activist black officials to key
posts, even inviting them into the inner circle.
The Communist Party leader in Havana city, Esteban Lazo, is
black, as is the party leader for Havana province, Pedro Saez.
Blacks also hold the top party posts in Santiago, Cuba's
second-largest city, and Camaguey, as well as leading
positions in several other party organs.
It is unclear, though, the extent to which these brash,
can-do officials have convinced black Cubans that the
government is addressing their concerns about race.
In Santiago, a young black man named Lazaro -- he did not
want his last name used -- spoke of how he admired black
leaders in the United States, like Jesse L. Jackson.
Asked who were the black leaders in Cuba, he gave a sardonic
"Look, man," he said. "In Cuba, there's only one leader."
Carving Cultural Space
"The first thing you're accused of when you do work like
this," said artist Alexis Esquivel, fingering his long
dreadlocks, "is that you're doing something to damage
the image of Cuba."
"Work like this" means the exhibitions that Esquivel, 31,
and a group of Cuban artists, black and white, organized on
the theme of race in Cuba. The first was called "Keloids," a
reference to the raised scars that form when African skin is
One artist, Manuel Arenas, showed two paintings that dealt
with black Cubans' experience in the streets -- one titled
"Look Out, There's a Black Man," and the other titled "ID
Card" and showing a black man, set against the national
emblem, opening his identity card as if to show it to a
policeman. Another artist, Rene Pena, played against the
stereotype of the Cuban black man as sexually voracious
with a photograph of a black man's nude torso in which
the penis is replaced by a knife blade.
Esquivel's work in this show, mounted at the Center for
Development of the Visual Arts, centered on the soga -- a
rope that was used long ago at dances and other functions to
separate blacks from whites. The soga is a theme he returns
to again and again, sometimes installing a rope high in a
gallery so that only the observant notice it, sometimes
using the rope as a barrier, sometimes tying rope tightly
around his face like a horse's bridle -- or an instrument
To Esquivel's surprise, the exhibition was reviewed in the
official Communist Party newspaper Granma. The review was
generally positive, if somewhat cool, but the significant
thing was that the show was acknowledged at all. Esquivel
went on to help mount a second "Keloids" exhibition.
Esquivel's own history is instructive. A mulatto by Cuban
standards, he grew up in a small town in the interior. His
artistic talent was recognized and he was sent to another
province, Pinar del Rio, to attend a special school. Almost
all of his classmates were white, and to hear him talk of
the experience is like listening to a young black man talk
about how he felt going to St. Albans or Sidwell Friends.
"I had to suppress my musical tastes," he said. "I liked
traditional music, music you could dance to, but my friends
were all into rock. I was conflicted."
"People would say something like, 'Those blacks, they're
horrible.' Then they'd turn to me and say, 'Oh no, Alexis,
we're not talking about you, you're fine.' Imagine what
that does to a person."
He recalls the moment of his radicalization: For an
assignment in school, he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm
X." From that point, he identified himself as black.
"I remember going home on a visit," he said, "and telling my
mother not to use hair straightener anymore."
Esquivel's partner in putting on the exhibitions was a Cuban
art historian, Ariel Ribeaux, who wrote the manifesto for
this gathering movement of black-themed art. Ribeaux's
award-winning essay was entitled "Neither Musicians
That title was a comment on the space that blacks
traditionally occupied in Cuban society, praised for their
athletic prowess -- Fidel Castro himself went out to the
airport to greet Cuba's returning Olympic athletes, most
of whom were black or brown -- and their contributions to
broadly defined Cuban "culture," especially religion and
Black Cubans have begun to use that cultural space to express
racial pride and to comment on their position in the society.
The Afro-Cuban religion that most Americans know as santeria,
but that most believers in Havana call "the Yoruba religion,"
recently was allowed to open a cultural center in an airy
downtown building near the pre-revolution capitol. Rafael
Robaina, a researcher at the Center of Anthropology who
specializes in the religion, calls it "the only black
organization that we have in Cuba."
Antonio Castaneda, president of the Yoruba Cultural Center,
says the building, with its museum devoted to the Afro-Cuban
saints, is "a bastion in defense of black people, a source
of pride." Castro helped fund the $2 million project by
instructing banks to lend the necessary money for
In music, meanwhile, young Cuban songwriters slip in sly
lyrics about skin color, about unemployment, about racism.
At a recent performance by the popular group NG La Banda,
for example, the singer added a line about a black man
being stopped by police on the street.
In a bit of commentary that would do Richard Pryor or Chris
Rock proud, the singer, who is black, used the Cuban slang
word that most closely approximates "nigger."
Walking While Black
That is the one concrete, on-the-ground issue that almost
all black Cuban men, especially young men, can relate to:
being halted by police and made to produce their documents.
To foreigners, the officers are unfailingly polite -- even
if, for example, the foreigner happens to be barreling the
wrong way down a one-way street. But when they are not just
standing and watching, generally they are stopping young men
and asking to see their papers. Anecdotally, but also in the
universal opinion of black Cubans, the men being stopped are
more likely to be black than white.
Recall the case of Maria del Carmen Cano's husband, who was
stopped in Havana while an identically dressed white man was
allowed to breeze by? According to Cano, her husband was so
indignant that he demanded to know why he had been singled
out. "We were looking for someone with physical characteristics
like yours," the policeman replied.
A few days later, Cano says, she and her husband went to
a party where there were a number of black couples, and he
told the story. Everyone laughed. "Four or five black men
there had had the same thing happen to them. And they had
been told the same thing -- 'We are looking for someone
with physical characteristics like yours.'"
She goes on, "My husband was even more angry. He said, 'If
you're going to lie to me, at least be original.'"
Copyright (c) 2000 The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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