Foreign diversity and Cuban xenophobia

Dmitri Prieto

HAVANA TIMES – Tourists who come to Cuba obviously arrive with certain stereotypes about the society and people that they are going to encounter.  Years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the remark of an Italian friend after her first day in Havana: “there are no ‘typical’ Cubans”.

Effectively, our diversity – and not only in matters of race – runs an immense gamut of colors, faces, complexions, gestures and even ways of walking.

But unlike the phenotypes, the stereotypes persist, and in Cuba there are tons of these: very extensive notions of what is “typical”.

Here, we believe that we “know” the Frenchmen and the Frenchwomen, the German men and woman, the Angolan women and men, the Russian women and Russian men, and the Chinese of both sexes, respectively.

This is nothing unusual: myths about “national character” (a people’s own and others’) exist everywhere. But the fatal blow is struck when – reciprocally – a mold is created for how the inhabitants of some country SHOULD be when they happen to travel to another.

That’s when our own prejudice emerges.  A prejudice that can lead to attitudes that maintain us in a state of ignorance, or preconception, or perhaps even explicit racism, or hidden xenophobia: or up to and including institutional gestures of the clearest racist segregation.

As an intelligent person, Sunny Mann was perfectly aware that he was being the object of racist and xenophobic mistreatment, since they questioned his documents while his white-skinned compatriots were treated with total normality.

Sunny Mann – a British man of Indian origin who lives in Leicester – came to Cuba as a tourist a few weeks ago.  Obviously, he knew that that society here was composed of different types of people, and he also knew (from his own experience) that diversity – and not only racial diversity – is a recognized fact in the current world and one defended by all those presumed to be of good will.

In fact, in the wake of the great empires people of diverse origins dwell together in many places on the planet.  For that reason, each one of such countries now exhibits an immense gamut of colors, faces, complexions, gestures, and even modes of walking.

But when Sunny Mann, traveler from the United Kingdom, arrived at the José Martí airport in Havana (whose facade welcomes visitors with the phrase from our Apostle “PATRIA ES HUMANIDAD” [Humanity is Our Fatherland]”) he was separated from the rest of the group by the airport bureaucrats.

Because “he didn’t look British”, meaning he wasn’t white.  They asked him repeatedly about his citizenship, they made him wait apart from the rest, as if he were a rare animal in quarantine or an infiltrator from some hostile power (even though Cuba has excellent relations with both India and Pakistan, the countries with whose inhabitants Sunny Mann could be confused.)

As an intelligent person, Sunny Mann was perfectly aware that he was being the object of racist and xenophobic mistreatment, since they questioned his documents while his white-skinned compatriots were treated with total normality.

Sunny Mann has now written to Havana Times that he received a very negative impression from his reception at the airport.  The officials there gave him the “gift” of a living an experience of racism in a country such as Cuba, a manifestly multiracial country (more so than old Albion itself) which also proclaims itself as having eliminated the great inequalities among the people of diverse origins who form their population.

I wish to digress here for a moment.  As Cuban men and women, we know very well that the police here routinely make distinctions among people according to their phenotype (principally their race, but also by their clothes or the length of their hair.)

That Lombrosian* treatment has been the object of severe criticism from civil society.  But only rarely do we receive news that something similar has occurred with a foreigner.  (To be honest, I remember that during the 90s I heard about some black Frenchmen who were detained by the police, but when “everything was cleared up” they were issued an apology, even though the agents apparently continued to be surprised by the now oft-mentioned fact of the ethnic diversity in Old Europe…).

One of the most fantastic experiences of my stay in Great Britain (together with the museums and the London parks) was being able to see that diversity in action – and test out the attitude of others as well as my own.

When I arrived at the Heathrow airport, great was my surprise when I looked beyond the large “UK BORDER” sign designating the area for passport inspection, and noted that the small tables of the immigration officials were staffed by people of all colors and ethnic affiliations: sikhs with turbans, copper-skinned Indo-Britishers, mixed race and black descendents of Africans..

There, the whites were clearly in the minority.  Later, I noted that there was also ample diversity among the police, the shop employees, the drivers and even the university professors (although I’d have to say to a lesser degree in the latter case).

As far as religion goes, the presence of non-European belief systems such as Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, was also evident and generally perceived as normal.

As Cuban men and women, we know very well that the police here routinely make distinctions among people according to their phenotype (principally their race, but also by their clothes or the length of their hair.)

In England, women of the Muslim faith use their Hejab scarves in schools as well as in other public places with no problem– something that doesn’t occur in France, for example.

Only at the end of the airport odyssey, when I finally arrived at the exit door with luggage and all, did I spy an elegant and congenial woman of white skin holding up a sign with the emblem of the British Council, my host organization.

She was of an age that evidenced a great deal of life experience, and generally very much in accordance with my – now strongly questioned – stereotype of the British.

We exchanged several comments about the weather in London (as they say it should be)  – yesterday was sunny, today rainy – then, with affection but with almost no display of emotion (as they say it should be), she helped me to change some money and board the metro.

I don’t pretend to be lauding systems of coexistence that could themselves serve as subjects for discussion, and which, as we know, have their origin in a reality of centuries of merciless colonial and social exploitation, slavery and cultural genocide.

My only point is that I sincerely believe that the surprise I received upon arriving in London was much pleasanter and more dignifying that that of Sunny Mann upon arriving in Havana.

Even considering that I was welcomed to Heathrow with a sign proclaiming “UK Border” while Sunny Mann at the Jose Marti airport was greeted by another which said: “Humanity is Our Fatherland.”
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*Referring to Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) who asserted that criminals are a product of hereditary factors and can be classified as a definite abnormal type.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.


12 thoughts on “Foreign diversity and Cuban xenophobia

  • August 23, 2017 at 2:36 pm
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    That as you probably know Fez Fernandez is because the Cuban Government became concerned that the number of blacks might exceed the number ofv whites and in consequence subsidized white Catholic immigrants from Galicia in Spain in particular.
    Who knows what would have been Cuba’s future if a white Catholic Galician farmer had not immigrated and had children by one of his servants. Neither Fidel or Raul would have been around.

  • August 23, 2017 at 7:02 am
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    I know this is years late, however… Michaëlle Jean was Governor General of Canada; which is the title given to the Monarchs representative in Commonwealth countries that still have the British Monarch as their Head of State.

  • December 16, 2015 at 11:28 pm
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    Most cubans are NOT BLACK, so I don’t believe your story, sorry.

  • August 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm
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    HM Queen is head of state in Canada

  • February 1, 2013 at 11:15 am
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    A black colleague of mine when he went to Cuba to get married found that no one believed he wasn’t Cuban. I guess the vast majority of tourists are white europeans or Canadians. It is another good reason to ditch the US restrictions on Americans visiting that country.

    But I think that your view of the uk customs and border police is a bit rosy. A black Zimbabwean friend of mine says he gets nothing but hassle of a racist kind when he tries to enter the country. So much so that he doesn’t like coming here anymore.
    A disabled Irish friend of my father was pulled out and the border police kept on sneering “Paddy” this and so on, until he mentioned he was going to a meeting with a Scottish MEP when suddenly everything turned to “Sir”. I have also when they found out I was Welsh had the response – “that’s the worst possible reason to give anyone a British passport” which maybe true but a bit offensive.
    Another intimidating thing you get in Heathrow is the soldiers pointing their semi-automatic weapons at you and forcing you out of the way with their dogs.

    In contrast I found the airport staff in Cuba a lot more friendly, polite and laid back.

  • January 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm
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    I won’t dispute your experience, but I think perhaps you’re giving French racists a bit too much credit.

  • January 31, 2013 at 2:21 pm
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    The French racist believes blacks are dumb and prone to criminality with poor hygiene. The US racist believes blacks are monkeys who are dumb, prone to criminality with poor hygiene. From my perspective, American racism is more demeaning because it starts from a place that negates my humanity. French racism is largely based in socio-economic differences.

  • January 31, 2013 at 12:06 pm
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    I am curious: have you spent much time in Europe? If so, how do you compare their racism with that of the US? I was stunned to hear the “n” word used openly in otherwise polite conversation, something not much done in America anymore. The everyday racism I witnessed in France was much cruder than what happens in the US or Canada today.

    The French may say they like Barack Obama, but they would never dream of electing as their president a black man with an Arabic name.

  • January 31, 2013 at 12:01 pm
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    A Cuban tour guide taking our group of Canadian tourists around Old Havana was pointing out a mulatto child and trying to make a big thing out of the mixed races one sees in Cuba. We Canadians were unimpressed, as Canada is a multi-racial society, especially in big cities like Toronto, and it’s not big deal to see mixed race citizens. I have 3 races and 8 nationalities in my own family background, and that is by no means unusual.

    The tour guide was genuinely puzzled. He thought Canada was basically a white anglo-saxon colony of Britain. When I told him the (then) Canadian Head of State, Michaëlle Jean, was a black woman born in Haiti, he was sure I was pulling his leg.

  • January 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm
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    I have dealt with racists all my life here in the US. By comparison, Cubans are rank amateurs. The funny thing about what usually happens to me in Cuba is that until I begin to speak many people take me for a Cuban. For example, store workers ignore me or assume I don’t have any money so I must be trying to steal. As soon as I speak and they hear my accent they realize that I am a foreigner. Their attitudes then change and usually for the better. And oh boy, when they find out I am an American, woo hoo, I am always treated well. Moral of the story: yuma trumps racism in Cuba.

  • January 30, 2013 at 5:47 pm
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    I was born in Minnesota, truly the land of blonde & blue eyes. Newsflash people: Boring! I’m a professional photographer and I dread photographing a blue eyed, fair skinned and blonde women in a white wedding dress. My eye yearns for color, and guess what I found in Cuba? Color! Beautiful color. I’ve met some of the most beautiful, and kindest, human beings in Cuba. And when I told my Cuban friends that Americans “pay” money to burn their skin brown in a tanning booth, they looked at me as if I was from outer space! I really don’t think they believed me.

    But more to the point, I think we all want to group people together. Mostly, I feel, out of natural curiosity. “This is my tribe. Where is your tribe from?” I personally have an insatiable curiosity to know everything about the person I’ve just met. And I too have been insensitive in my questions, like asking a girl I met in Costa Rica, who looked (to me) Japanese, where she was from, and when she said the United States, I said “Yeah, but where were you born?” In hindsight I’m surprised she even took the trouble to answer such a rude question, but she did, and said, “I was born in the United States, I’m an American!!”

    To Moses: Cubans usually think, until I speak, that I’m a tourist from Germany, France, Czech, or worse Canadian! (That last part was a joke, my dear neighbors to the north!) But as I walk down the intimate streets of Trinidad, I often over hear the word “yuma” directed at me, but without malice just simply putting me in the right slot, and I actually enjoy the attention.

  • January 30, 2013 at 2:23 pm
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    During nearly every trip to Cuba, someone will ask me “de donde es?” and when I say the US, surprised, they will ask if I have family in Cuba. When I say only by marriage, I then get asked if I am AMERICAN, American? Meaning if I am really from the Bahamas or Jamaica but I happen to live in the US. When I answer that my grandparents were US citizens, they are always very surprised. I have been told that to most Cubans, the stereotypical American is white and blue-eyed. I must confuse them because I am as mulatto as any Cuban. Cubans have been isolated for three generations, if not before. Cuban society is anything but diverse and Cuban tourism is a relatively minor intrusion into Cuban life. Consider that only as much as 3 million tourists are likely to visit all of Cuba in 2013. The nearby Mexican city of Cancun, with only 700,000 locals, will receive as much as 14 million foreign tourists during the same period. Cubans simply don’t get exposed to much diversity and it is reflected in their view of the world.

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