Starting from a strange public exchange of letters between a US African-American group and several representatives of Cuban intellectual circles, the issue of Cuba’s “racial” problem suddenly acquired a prominent international profile in recent weeks.
With Obama as president, this matter can intermittently occur as a fleeting interest of the media, “turning on and off” cyclically like Heraclitus’s fire, or it can involve a more sustained period of emphasis. Alternately, this issue can become a permanent fixture.
At least for the public of Havana Times, we know that the “racial” issue in Cuba is ongoing; one needs only review the website’s most popular posts.
Faced with this situation, I wanted to refer to the dissimilarity between perspectives on “race” as seen in the US and in Cuba. Contrary to what many imagine, the “race” problem is not only a consequence of what happened in Cuba after 1959 (nor only what has occurred in the US following the major moments of the civil rights struggle of US African-Americans). To a great measure, this also goes back to the historical beginnings of the European colonization of America.
Almost one month ago (November 14), I was invited by the Catholic Seminar of Havana to participate in a day of study and debate on the “racial” issue. The city’s archbishopric and its magazine “Espacio Laical” (Lay Space) invited a large number of intellectuals and citizens who have maintained a visible public interest around such social problems.
According to anthropologist Antonio Martinez, who presented a paper titled “Anthropological Aspects of the Racial Question,” the perception among the Cuban public, especially its intellectuals, is opposed to what can be observed in the US and some European countries concerning the importance of the “race” factor, from a biological point of view.
That’s to say, Cuban “common sense” tends to consider the biological “race” of people as a significant fact to be taken into account, while the opposite opinion holds that one’s racial background -assumed from a biological perspective- does not constitute a key fact (for example, in a person’s capacity to perform certain occupations, or for their susceptibility to some illnesses).
In such a sense, Cuba appeared in the surveys accompanied by countries like Russia and China. It was also noteworthy that popular Cuban classifications of “races” differ visibly from those used in other countries. On the other hand, the presenter held that miscegenation has increased noticeably in recent years, and that most children born in Cuba today are multi-racial.
Another anthropologist, Jesus Guanche, spoke about the social-historical aspects. One of the most remarkable moments in his presentation was the recognition of the existence of hidden racism in the interior of bureaucratic institutions.
An important case profiled by Guanche was UNESCO’s “Slave Route” project, dedicated to rescuing the memory of the transatlantic African slave trade and slavery itself. Although this project has all the appropriate institutional backing, in the real lives of ordinary Cubans, as well as tourists who visit us, there are many more opportunities to appreciate the historical presence of white elites than the sectors most oppressed by them, those whose labor provided those elites their wealth.
Practically all of the historical and architectural patrimony of the Cuban colony bears the mark of oppression; but usually it’s only possible to view the “elitist” side of that reality. This involves not only the African presence; hidden racism was also behind in the change of the indigenous name of a Havana hotel.
This reality contrasts to the visible impact of this historical issue on oppressed groups in other countries. I believe that in Cuba we are only at the beginning of the path to historical decolonization. We have made significant intellectual contributions, but the general public is still not sensitive to the complexity of these problems.
In 50 years of efforts toward socialism, economic inequality has not disappeared between “racial” groups, emphasized sociologist Rodrigo Espina. But perhaps the most controversial of these themes was that contributed by writer Victor Fowler.
Fowler related the current interest in the racial theme to the effect the collapse of Euro-Soviet “Marxist-Leninist” ideology caused among Cuban intellectuals; many went to drink from the well of US cultural studies, and post-modernism arrived in Cuba dressed in the garb of “minority” cultures (feminist, gay, African ancestral…). Post-modernism vanished, but the interest in the “other” voice (other than that which is so often our own) seems to have come to stay.
I would like to insist in that a “race” problem in Cuba undoubtedly exists, but in a way that is distinct from what we see in the US, Haiti, Great Britain or France, for example. This does not diminish the role of Cuban citizens who have taken up the emancipative demands of people in other countries – just the opposite. One of the great pioneering songs of Cuban hip-hop was dedicated to Malcolm X.
I believe that the path to solving existing inequality and exclusion will not be found through declarations, but through popular leadership and action. More than in the recent exchange of missives across the Florida Strait, the growing importance of the “race” issue in Cuba is visible in these debates organized within Cuba and in independently convened actions like that of this year’s November 27 “Day of Historical Decolonization.”
But the key to everything is internalizing the fact that where there is a social relationship (be it libratory or exclusionary), both parts necessarily participate. The racial debate is not one among one sole “race.” In Cuba there are not “black things”… that are not at the same time “white things.”