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Cuba Begins to Answer Its Race Question

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By Eugene Robinson
Monday, April 13, 2009; 3:29 PM

Editor's Note: This column was first published in The Post on Nov. 12, 2000.

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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 her husband.

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 street corners.

The officer stopped Cano's husband and demanded to see his identity papers, letting the white man pass without a second look.

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 black physicians.

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 getting worse.

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 underrepresented 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."


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