A Brief Example of Institutionalized Racism in Cuba

Isbel Diaz Torres

Police ID check. File photo: opositorcubano.blogspot.com

HAVANA TIMES — While talking to some German socialists in a noisy and touristy cafe on 23rd and O Streets, in Vedado, I watched a policeman in action on the corner of La Rampa cinema, asking to see the ID of passers-by.

After 30 minutes, we decided to escape the booming sounds of “Cuarto de Tula”, as we could hardly hear our own voices over, and I took advantage of the situation to go up to the officer, who was wearing an unusual dark blue uniform this time.

This was our conversation.

– Good afternoon.

– Good afternoon.

– Could I ask you something?

– Go ahead – the policeman replied in surprise.

–  Is there a law which states that you must ask for the ID of… – he quickly cut me off here.

– As the authority, I am legally authorized to ask for EVERYONE’S ID – he stressed to me.

– But my question is, whether this law only refers to black men – I insisted.

– And who told you that I only ask for black people’s ID?

– I’ve been watching you for 30 minutes from the cafe over there, and every time you’ve asked someone to show you their ID, they have been black men.

– That’s not true! – he fumed and continued – You know that for questioning an authority figure, I can drive you down to the police station?,  he threatened me.

– Yes, I know you can, although that wouldn’t be legal. Thanks and goodbye.

(end of the conversation)

As well as the clear example here of institutionalized racism, it’s also evident how the term “authority” is confused with “authoritarianism”.

The situation for black Cubans who dare to walk through touristy areas like Vedado, Old Havana or Miramar, is this wretched. They can live a bit more peacefully in the rest of the city, because our police aren’t only in the streets to protect us from criminals, but to protect tourists from alleged “pestering”.


Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

16 thoughts on “A Brief Example of Institutionalized Racism in Cuba

  • On a political delegation to Cuba in 1978 our group, all African Americans, asked about the presence of racism in Cuba. We were all engaged in ant-racist movements in the United States and looked to Cuba as a possible alternative the the conditions we faced.

    The officials that initially responded to our inquiry gave us the predicted answer. “Racism had been abolished by the revolution. It no longer existed in Cuba.” But as we got to know some of our hosts better and as they got to know us, a different conversation emerged.

    Our hosts acknowledged the continued presence of racism in Cuba, but also acknowledged that aside from official laws and statements not much was being done to prevent it.

    To be sure the government supported many cultural activities reflecting the contribution of blacks to Cuban culture. But underneath these official events a range of color distinctions and treatments seemed to persist.

    What accounts for this? Cuba seems on the surface a more integrated country than the US. At least below the class of the political elites it appears so.

    When we discussed the issue of affirmative action in the US, our Cuban hosts said it was unnecessary in Cuba because the revolution had guaranteed equality to everyone, black, white and mulatto. But when we looked around it appeared as if certain jobs tended to be occupied by black Cubans and others by much lighter skinned Cubans. Could this be a result of racial discrimination?

    Beyond official declarations, what is being done to undo the legacy of slavery in Cuba? How successful is this effort? What needs to be done? I haven’t been to Cuba since 2004 and hope to return soon. I am deeply interested in the social challenges and social changes that are underway and appreciate this newsletter as a source of information.

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