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17 December, 2008

'Obama Effect' highlights racism in Cuba

News Analysis
New America Media

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, US 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.
“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.”

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