‘Obama Effect’ Highlights Racism in Cuba

New America Media, News Analysis, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Dec 15, 2008

Editor's Note: Barack Obama's victory has made Cubans more willing to speak out against the institutional racism that exists half a century after Fidel Castro established a "color blind" egalitarian society.

MERIDA, Mexico – As Cuba prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, U.S. President–elect Barack Obama’s victory is raising disturbing questions about the institutional racism in the so-called egalitarian society, where racism is said to have disappeared along with capitalism.
SignIn Cuba, signs in windows have begun to appear that read,
“Si se puede, coño” or “Yes we can, damn it.”

“Cuba, I am inclined to believe, is nervous about the impact that a black president in the White House could have upon its own black population,” writes Carlos Moore, a black Cuban of Jamaican ancestry and author of “Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba,” in the Miami Herald.

Since the first days of the revolution, Fidel has been aware of the racism that permeated Cuban society. “In the daily life of defense, loyalty, brotherhood, and shrewdness,” Fidel wrote in January 1959, “there has always been a Negro standing beside every white man.”

Castro envisioned a “color-blind” society, an aspiration that dated back to the 19th century liberator Jose Martí who fought to end the vestiges of slavery as part of severing ties with Spain. But there was paradox in Castro’s declarations: Castro, the son of European immigrants from Galicia, Spain, was a white man who had overthrown the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a light-skinned mulatto born to parents who were both of mixed race.

In the decades that followed, Castro’s vision of giving Cuban blacks equal opportunities was thwarted by the realities of race outside the island nation: Soviet and East European allies preferred white Cubans, and these were granted scholarships to study for advanced degrees throughout behind the Iron Curtain. The growing disparities between white Cubans and black Cubans remained a lingering problem throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

It was the official policy of the government to deny the existence of racism, arguing that Communist “egalitarianism” made discrimination based on race “an impossibility,” simply because it was incompatible with a socialist state. This was a polite fiction. As Alejandro De La Fuente wrote in his authoritative book, “A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba,” (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000) the color of one’s skin determines the life one leads in Communist Cuba.

“(A) strong correlation between race, the regional distribution of the population, and the quality of the housing stock persisted through the 1980s,” De La Fuente wrote. “A traditional geography of race and poverty had not been dismantled, largely because of the government’s failure to provide adequate housing to the entire population. No neighborhood was racially exclusive—this was true, for the most part, in pre-Revolutionary Cuba also—but in the most dilapidated areas of the big cities, the proportion of blacks and mulattos was greater than that of whites.”

This was considered slander against socialism. Castro shot back, and Cuban authorities offered statistical analysis to bolster their view, which revealed the lengths to which Havana was prepared to deceive others even as it deceived itself. Of Cuba’s population of 11.2 million people in 2002, officials declared, 65 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 25 percent were mulatto. This racial breakdown matched exactly the breakdown of members of Cuba’s parliament: 65 percent white and 35 percent people of color.

The implication was as obvious as it was ridiculous: Cuba had achieved “perfect” racial representation between the people and their representatives. Europeans scoffed at such claims. In fact, most independent census reports of the Cuban nation puts the number of “whites” at anywhere from 20 to 35 percent; everyone else is black or mulatto.

The European Union recently dispatched anthropologists to study racism in Cuba. Their findings were shocking: Not only was racism alive and well in the workers’ paradise, but it was systemic and institutional. Blacks were systematically excluded from positions that involved coming in contact with foreign tourists (where they could earn tips in hard currencies), they were relegated to poor housing, complained of the longest waits for healthcare, were excluded from managerial positions, received the lowest remittances from relatives abroad, and were five times more likely to be imprisoned.

The report, “Race and Inequality in Cuba Today,” by Rodrigo Espina and Pablo Rodriguez Ruiz, published in the anthropological journal TEMAS in 2006, infuriated Cuban officials.

But the findings were irrefutable, and they reflected an acceleration of racism in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union only exacerbated the problem, particularly as Cuba now competed with Cancun and San Juan for European vacationers. As Democracy Now! reported in 2000, Cuban officials continued to exclude blacks from tourist-related industries.

When Maria Carrion of Democracy Now! interviewed a black Cuban identified only as Victor, he told her that the only jobs black Cubans have access to are in construction and cleaning. Blacks are randomly stopped on the street by police, he said, and are unable to denounce racism in Cuba for fear of going to prison for being anti-Communist.

This is why Cubans are dizzy with excitement at Obama’s victory. “I still feel my heart skip a beat,” Victor Fowler, a black Cuban, told Spain’s El Pais newspaper last month. “I listen to Barack Obama … I look at my skin, I look at my children’s skin, I cry and I smile.”

Obama’s ascendancy has emboldened Cuban blacks in their criticism of the racism in Cuba. “The bottom line is that racism is Cuba's most intractable problem,” Carlos Moore wrote in the Miami Herald. “Only an arrangement implying effective power sharing between the island's two dominant groups can prepare the ground for a reversal of Cuba's socio-racial conundrum. This would call for an entirely new institutional framework that includes the reinvigoration of civil society, the implementation of robust racial affirmative action policies in all spheres, the revival of independent cultural and social institutions, an independent media and free press and the existence of autonomous political movements, associations and parties.”

In other words, when it comes to racial progress, blacks in Cuba complain that their nation resembles the United States circa 1963, the year before the Civil Rights Act was passed.

This was precisely the point that Esteban Morales Dominguez, an economist, political scientist and essayist made last year in his book, “The Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba” (Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2007), which was promptly banned by authorities.

Yet there is rising anger among Cuban blacks who view Obama’s victory as a sharp reminder of the racism that still exists in Cuba. In a country where few dare to post messages in public view that are not in support of the government, signs in windows have begun to appear that are startling: “Si se puede, coño” or “Yes we can,” with a Cuban twist – “Damn it.”

Related Articles:

Blacks in Cuba: Forgotten and Far from Power

Can Afro Cuba Survive After Fidel?

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User Comments

Mark Santiago on Dec 18, 2008 at 05:22:13 said:

Aubrey LaBrie, who writes of her own experience as an African-American tourist in Cuba, should find validation in knowing that American blacks who visit Cuba are shocked to see how differently they are treated from White American tourists. African-American anthropologist, L. Kaifa Roland, wrote about it in the peer-reviewed journal, TRANSFORMING ANTHROPOLOGY. In it, she writes: “Walking into a hotel nightclub, the security guards would let the others pass without incident but step directly in my path, asking me where I was going. I quickly learned to look confused and to respond in my best American-accented English that I did not understand because I did not speak Spanish.” The name of the article is "Tourism and the Negrificación of Cuban Identity" and it was published in TRANSFORMING ANTHROPOLOGY, October 2006, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 151-162. Racism in Cuba is finally being spoken about, and there is great anger: Half a century after the revolution, there is more division by race than before Castro.

Aubrey LaBrie on Dec 17, 2008 at 00:22:46 said:

I have admired the Cuban Revolution from afar since its inception. Accordingly I was excited at the prospect of visiting Cuba which I have done on two occasions during the past five years. I was impressed with what appeared to be governmental attempts to balance the equities among its population isofar as providing housing, education, medical treatment and other necessities as well as certain social amenities.
My big disappointment was a perception of lingering racial inequities. Admittedly my perception is sharpened by the fact that I am African American. The talk about mulatto and multi-racial is a smoke screen. Even Stevie Wonder could see that the majority of frontline jobs, e.g., airport employees, hotel clerks, etc. were held by Euro Cubans or those who approximate the features/ complection of Europeans (One light skinned Cuban told me about a straight hair test).

The owners of Casa Particularies which I exclusively patronized during one of my visits were in this class. I was rudely turned away from one such casa that had been recommended by a White American friend. Twice in the company of literally black African Cuban males, we were stopped by police and my male friends were asked for id's and interrogated.
Some of you may recall that the government recently relaxed restrictions on Cubans entering the big hotels; my experience was that the restrictions were imposed primarily against black Cubans who were virtually always checked at the entryway even if they were with us black tourists.
Likewise, a big disappointment was seeing the Martin Luther King Center in Havana staffed predominately by the aforementioned class of more Euro looking Cubans.
I have nothing against this group; it's just that the disparity is so glaring, particularly if you are from the Bay Area or make frequent visits to U.S. urban centers such as Atlanta where you are accustomed to seeing at least the frontline clerical/retail and lower management positions held largely by black persons.

I love the socialist agenda of the Cuban government and must give it props for good intentions but unfortunately am not able to join in with the apologists who seem to be blinded to or oblivious of the conspicious racial disparites which place the substantial population of black Cubans at the lower end of the social strata.

Moska on Dec 16, 2008 at 20:45:18 said:

VERY VERY few have full access to education, health care,and/or food on the Island of Cuba. Notice how few have the good high ranking government jobs. Cuba is in shambles and falling apart, time for change.

Jose Villa on Dec 16, 2008 at 14:17:48 said:

The fact is that Cuba is composed of about 70% blacks or mulattos.However,of the Approx. 2,000,000 that have left the island,maybe five percent are black.Also,when you examine the Cuban hierarchy i.e. Raul,Fidel,Valdes,Ventura,etc.there is only one black,Almierda.Very few blacks have high political positions.Thats because the Castro brothers would have it no other way.

joder Mas Que ayer on Dec 16, 2008 at 12:00:18 said:

As usual, Cubanophobos try to discredit Cuban or Cubans on any issue. They can\'t stand the fact that Cubans pay no hamage to anybody. Go fudge yourselver. Hands off Cuba

Joseph Villa on Dec 15, 2008 at 23:57:19 said:

I have traveled to Cuba many times during the last eight years, and as a multi-racial native black american I am very sensitive of obvious racial disparities based on skin color. I have been all over Habana, Santiago de Cuba, and the surrounding villages, and it is clear to me that the color of one's skin seems to determine what jobs or profession that people are involved in, and the "light" and white looking Cubans seem to be favored. In addition I have been told by my "black" Cuban friends that racism does exist, but not has rampant as in the past. It also appears that the government is aware of this and is trying to change this left over vestige of Cuban society. In addition, I find it interesting that many Cubans and white europeon are of the opinion that if a person is of light skin, that person is a mulato, and this is not true because a true mulato is the offspring of a so-called pure black person and a so-called white person. All others light and dark skin are multi-racial or mixed people who can be considered black or white, depending on the lightness of their skin.

Dan Martinez on Dec 15, 2008 at 19:32:36 said:

Sounds like those posting here want to proclaim that the studies, published in peer reviewed journals, have no merit and are dismissive attempts to discredit Cuban progress. The truth is that there is significant institutional racism in Cuba today, being married to an Afro Cuban or anyone else's anecdotal evidence cannot erase professional studies by actual Cubans or the frustrations of those who live it. It's easy to live elsewhere bearing the fruits of capitalism and yet defend the Cuban model from a distance.

Carol R. Campbell on Dec 15, 2008 at 15:07:53 said:

I visited Cuba this spring, as an 'independent' traveler. I took close to 1000 photos, in both Havana and Cienfuego. I traveled by bus between cities, and spent a lot of time walking with my camera in both places. I stayed with local families [six different ones] in their houses and apartments, and shopped at the local stores and restaurants, using both the Cuban Peso, and the official tourist dollar.

The society I visited was a multi-ethnic mix, similar to Hawaii. Most people were a blend of the various races and cultures that make up the society as a whole. Looking at some of my photos, the only people I can easily identify as 'white' are the Europeans and Canadians.

I visited the Hotel Seville often, for breakfast and to use the internet. Most of the employees were the same blend as the people strolling on the Prado. I'd guess they were hired for their language skills rather then the color of their skin.

The easiest way to recognize a tourist was that they were white. I never mistook a local for one of the tourists, and I was seldom wrong. I was surprised that the one obvious black tourist I met was from New York City, and I visited with one girl from Japan.

When you live in a truly cosmopolitan city, you don't go around dissing the locals to the people who look like 100% Caucasians. You'll find yourself backpedaling when you discover that the fair-skinned blond woman has a Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, father and a family with more races and ethnic groups than most UN Committees.

FYI, If I saw the sign "Si Se Puede, Cono" I would assume they were referring to recovering from the 4 hurricanes, or perhaps, outlasting the US Embargo and freeing the Cuban Five...

John Allison on Dec 15, 2008 at 07:49:06 said:

Being married to an Afro-Cuban, and being an anthropologist who has visited Cuba many times, most recently to work with a Cuban Crew in rebuilding a school destroyed by the recent hurricanes, I do not come to the same conclusions as those anthropologist, Rodrigo Espina and Pablo Rodriguez Ruiz.
I am not saying that a correlation between skin color and political status as well as financial income does not exist, but that this is not a function of wide-spread racial discrimination within the government nor in the society in general. Personal motivation to contibute to the revolution as well as to one's own personal development seems to be more important as a factor here.
Most people who appear "white" are, in fact mulato; and many dark mulatos are more European in genetic background than they are African.
Many of the people working in the tourism industy and travelling to European countries to organize tours or in Cuba to guide tourists are in fact quite dark.
The attempt to discredit Cuba's progress in changing the status of former slaves and later plantation workers into full citizens with full access to education, health care and participation in the nation's political process is neglected in this one-sided article.




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