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Cuba Begins to Answer Its Race Question

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.

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."

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 and browns.

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 remain.

"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 smile.

"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 wounded.

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 of bondage.

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 Nor Athletes."

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 music.

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 construction.

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.' "

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