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.

Isbel Diaz has 196 posts and counting. See all posts by Isbel Diaz

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.

  • Amen

  • When I get together with my black friends in Cuba we agree to meet at a specific place. It just isn’t worth the hassle of the police stopping him or her and going through all the hassle. It is as if they have never seen a white man with a black man and that these two people could actually be friends. And that is racism pure and simple.

  • As an unconditional defender of Cuba’s integrity and sovereignty, I am grateful to Isbel courageous denunciation of the disgraceful and revolting abuses that are blatantly committed against blacks in Cuba.

    Fearful of being lumped with a handful of US-AID paid dissidents or for blinding and meekly following to the Cuban government ill-conceived call for national unity at the expense of our silence, we have been guilty and complicit of tolerating this heinous crime.

    No one with a sense of human dignity, can attempt to explain away, white-wash or ignore the nauseating behavior of the Cuban Media, who has been ready for half a century to denounce lesser and greater crimes committed elsewhere, while pretending to be blind, deaf and insensitive to the nation most abhorrent behavior.

    With the same vigor that our media is willing to denounce police brutality and daily murders of black youths in the United States, the disappearance of students in Mexico, sex trafficking in Bangladesh, or child labor in India, how can we not see, what happens on a daily basis on 23rd street, Obispo, Varadero or Miramar?

    I have written about this despicable behavior in the past and will continue to do so as long as I can breathe. I wish to commend Havana Times, its contributors and commentators for taking up this matter with the seriousness and urgency it deserves and I ask you to remain faithful to what is right, not what is fashionable.

    The Cuban Revolution inherited a wealth of history regarding the noxious effects of racism in our nation going back to slaughter and extermination of our natives, the murder of hundreds of thousands of slaves, tragic race-relations outcome of the war of Independence (1868-78), the massacre of over 3000 blacks in Oriente in 1912 and the segregation, marginalization and degradation of blacks until the triumph of the Revolution when it took the highest ground in early 1960 and tried to wipeout institutional racism in Cuba?

    That single action earned Cuba the admiration and respect of the world. Why is Cuba afraid today of doing the same? How can Cuba morally have thousands of homes to be built on golf courses and elsewhere on the drawing board for wealthy Europeans, while it continue to deny the immigration of English Speaking Caribbean and Haitian men and women, who built with their sweat, tears,blood and lives, a sugar industry that was for 50 years, the nation bloodline and from which derives, everything the world comes to admire and enjoy today in Cuba?

  • Racism among police is a common theme around the world. In the US & Canada, the public, media and elected officials can observe, record, criticize, limit and correct any abuse of police powers directed in a racist manner. Independent courts offer some hope of redress.

    The difficulty in Cuba is the complete lack of independent media oversight, the fear of the general public to voice any criticism, and no independent courts. By long habit, Cuban police are used acting without restraint. The regime uses the police as one line of defence of their monopoly on power, and so they will never consider criticizing the police for excessive force or racial profiling. As far as the regime is concerned, they’re just doing their job as they are supposed to.

    Cuban police will continue to be as arbitrary and racist as they have always been so long as the authoritarian regime continues to exist.

  • CE, In my years living in Cuba and subsequent visits, I saw numerous occasions when a mixed couple, or a group of friends, or people alone, were walking in touristy areas, which are also where Cubans go minding their own business, like the Rampa area for example, and the police asked for the ID of you know who only… As a whitey, watching that happen is very embarrassing, be it a Cuban or a foreign visitor. Imagine for the direct victim! Then imagine if it happens often to the same person! Even if the police are “polite” the damage is done. It’s not a matter of being for or against the revolution. It’s a policy that should be stopped, the sooner the better.

  • Your imagination is working overtime my friend. There was nothing racist in asking for your ID. It might have been your attitude. When he realized you were not a threat, he handed back your passport and “politely” sent you on your way. Nothing racist in any of this. You don’t always need to make negative assumptions. After all, you an against the Revolution, right?

  • “… I think there is a profound difference between profiling and institutional racisim, don’t you?…”

    Of course there is. That’s why my comment was specifically directed towards jineteros and jineteras in my neighbourhood.

  • You missed the point. The infrequency of Black American tourists has nothing to do with the institutional racism I experienced. The police think that I am a Black Cuban so they harass me. Once, I was in Miramar walking with my blond Cuban friend. Who do you think the police stopped to ask for “el carnet”? I do agree that if more black folks from the US travel to Cuba, the racist police will have to be less obvious expressing their racist views.

  • Moses, you do not seem to appreciate the irony of your comment. The reason the police are so surprised at your nationality is because how many black Americans do they see ? Precious few. Why, because most US minorities cannot dream of traveling abroad. Funny world,isn’t it ?

  • Eden I think there is a profound difference between profiling and institutional racisim, don’t you? Just look at the under-representation of Afro-Cubans, still, in visible tourist-related jobs. As for the police: My Afro-Cuban husband is habitually stopped by the police when in Cuba – it is really insulting, especially when he shows them his UK passport and they decide that it is a fake! I don’t know about the situation these days, I imagine some Cubans are trying it on more and more as inequality grows with Cubans ‘coming out of the special period one by one’ (having ‘gone into it together’), but there used to be a range of kinds of jiniteros/as with many just getting commission from paladares etc, a few tips, some drinks and meals etc rather than running major scam rackets. I personally never had a problem with Cubans being this kind of jinetero/a as to all intents and purposes they were providing the service of a tour guide…

  • I also did some hitching when I was much younger and I have often picked people up. Sometimes, when I wasn’t sure of the situation, I would drive 50 or 100 metres past, get out of my car and go back to check the person out. My keys were in my hand, ready to throw into the ditch if it appeared that I might be assaulted or robbed.

  • About ten years ago I was working as weekend house manager at a homeless shelter, where I frequently gave rides to two of our residents (to the grocery store, to downtown, etc.). A few weeks after they suddenly departed from the shelter they were arrested in North Carolina and returned to Vermont. Turns out they murdered a friend in order to steal his $$$–a recently cashed S.S.I. cheque–and his car–a rusty old Plymouth–to head for, where else but Florida for the winter. Before heading South, they dumped his body in the woods off a dirt road. When this all hit the paper, I said to myself: “There but for the grace of the gods go I !” What appealed to my dark sense of humor was that the couple who discovered the corpse in their woods had recently moved to Vermont from N.Y.C. in order “to find some peace and quiet!”

  • I have also done a lot of hitching over the years, and still do, and also the times when I had a vehicle or one assigned to me at work, picked up a lot of people. My strategy for both is say I’m going not very far, the next town or city for instance. In that way if the ride goes well the possibility of journeying further can easily come up. If one of the parties isn’t comfortable with the other the trip can get cut short.

  • Like the U.S.A., Cuba has a long way to go before overcoming racism. During a road trip in 2008, while driving between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, my Cuban friend passed by a black hitch-hiker without stopping. i asked him why? He said that it was dangerous to pick up such people. I asked him to stop, turn around, and pick him up! (He did so since I was paying for the auto rental, which facilitated this trip in the first place, and our final destination was Bayamo so he could visit with family). Besides, it has always been my practice–if not his–to pick up hitch-hikers. During my teens and twenties I had once been one myself, often hitch-hiking from where i was stationed, in Newport, R.i., to Florida, or from Florida to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and vice versa; hence I have sympathy for all those who need rides, and to this day try to pick up folks by the side of the roads (at least the ones who don’t look like the “good old boys” from “Deliverance!” Of course, i’ve sometimes made mistakes, picking up some real crazies; fortunately my luck has held out–at least so far!) What was ironic was that my (former) friend, whose ancestry is peninsular, is married to someone who is very sub-Saharan African! Also, as far as I can figure, she was the only one bringing in any regular income into the house for the past six or seven years, while he prefers to mine the veins of gold provided by his numerous foreign “friends,” including, alas, yours truly, at least until a few years ago when i finally wised up!

  • As a medium brown-skinned African-American, I have first person experience with the institutional racism of Cuba’s PNR. I was stopped on the street many times by Havana policemen who asked me for my “documentos”. Without speaking, I would whip out my US passport and revel in the sheepish look on their faces. More than a few times they would carefully inspect the passport as if to confirm it’s validity. Once even, a near-toothless guajiro cop asked me to speak English. I laughed at him and said ‘alo guvnor’ en my best Cockney accent. He handed me back my passport and politely sent me on my way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.