Cuba: The Experiences of Someone My Color

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

Foto: Juan Suárez
Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — When I was a teenager, I used to hear people repeat that there was no racism in Cuba. At school, teachers would insist we all had the rights, duties and opportunities. This is what I believed when I studied at the tourism entertainment school, graduated and started working.

It was an exceptional opportunity unique to the 1990s. The country was developing its tourism industry and needed qualified young people to make the stay of tourists at Cuban hotels more pleasant. That said, I did notice some hints of prejudice and racial discrimination (though I didn’t take them seriously then).

When we graduated, the Empresa Turistica Playas del Este instructed us to go to the Itabo Hotel to begin working there as entertainers. This is where I had my first awful work experience, owing to the color of my skin. They turned me away, knowing full well there were job vacancies. My academic record was very good, but I was the only black person in the group.

“I don’t need any black entertainers,” said the hotel manager.

“I didn’t come looking for a job,” I immediately replied, as I was the only black person in the group. I got up and left the meeting.

I already had a job, not as an entertainer, but renting motorcycles to tourists. With time, and my skills, I knew I could get a job as entertainer at the Villa Mirador del Mar Hotel, at the Santa Maria del Mar beach.

The following year, I had the job: I was hosting important shows for tourists. One night, after the show was over, the manager who previously hadn’t wanted any black employees sent for me. He congratulated me and offered me a job at his hotel. I accepted because I wanted the acknowledgement of being the first black persosn to graduate from the tourism school to work there.

I worked at the hotel for several months and the manager in question was very happy with me, to the point of acknowledging the work I was doing (though, during the week, he would have to get me out of the police station once or twice, where I would end up on charges of “stalking tourists”).

The other entertainers didn’t get bothered, they were white. Some would tell me I was unlucky. Others didn’t want to go out with me, out of fear of getting into trouble with the police. That was the height of hypocrisy, a very shrewd way of evading the issue and refusing to recognize the reason behind such problems.

Our society is based on what many call a “white mentality.” Established stereotypes, habits and customs have been repeated and reproduced since colonial times, when the criteria of the dominant class – the colonialists – prevailed over those of the black slaves, torn from their distant lands and subjugated to enrich their exploiters. That is the reason racism endures.

Thus, white, black and mixed race people tell jokes and make racist allusions without “realizing” that they are denigrating non-whites. It is a historical legacy.

The fact that, when the revolution triumphed, one of the major aims declared by the new government was the elimination of any type of discrimination on the basis of skin-color, has not been enough. A little over 50 years isn’t enough to rid us of the burden of centuries. The racial divide was far too great, and not even those who have managed to leap across it – thanks to perseverance and a spirit of self-improvement – are immune to discrimination.

It is clear that if we marginalize or segregate people, we hurt, not only human beings, but also the unity that ought to distinguish us as a nation. It is not enough for the Constitution to condemn racism, or for civil society to attempt to eradicate an ill that continues to reproduce rather vigorously.

Today, far from any tourist context, I continue to observe the same phenomena I described above and do not see any adequate legal framework to combat that ill.

Jorge Milanes

Jorge Milanes: My name is Jorge Milanes Despaigne, and I’m a tourism promoter and public relations specialist. Forty-five years ago I was born in Cojimar, a small coastal town to the east of Havana. I very much enjoy trips and adventure; and now that I know a good bit about my own country, I’d like to learn more about other nations. I enjoy reading, singing, dancing, haute cuisine and talking with interesting people who offer wisdom and happiness.

6 thoughts on “Cuba: The Experiences of Someone My Color

  • I won’t argue with your experience, but I will wager you that the US will elect a black president long before Cuba ever will.

    Oh wait…

  • As a form of murder, lynching was already banned. What was needed was not another law, but the enforcement of the existing laws.

    Racism exist in every country. That does not make any given country “racist”.

    Carlyle, your impression about Canada is accurate enough, admitting even the cruel history of the treatment of aboriginals in Canada. The issue of the Indian boarding schools continues to fester.

    I should mention that the former Canadian Governor General, and as such our Head of State, Michaëlle Jean was a black woman born in Haiti.ëlle_Jean

  • Firstly, no one can argue with Moses view of racism in the USA. Although never having an official apartheid policy, many in the US -including the administration practiced and/or supported it. It was not without reason that in 1950 when addressing the United Nations, that the late and great Paul Robeson accused the US of “genocide”. In 1948 he had asked Harry S. Truman to introduce legislation banning lynching – and Truman refused! Childrens story books with rhymes including: “Ten little ****** boys” and songs including: And I jumped upon a ****** ‘cos I thought he was a hoss” being a legacy of appalling discrimination.
    For “See Racism All The Time” to represent Canada as equal to the USA in terms of discrimination is frankly nonsense. I do not excuse Canada for its discrimination against the Chinese or later for turning away a shipload of Jews to return to Europe prior to the Second World War -many to their deaths. I do not excuse Canadians for their discrimination against their original countrymen – the North American Indians – but Canada never rewarding people for collecting native scalps it limited such payments to those collecting gophers tails. Today’s Canada largely accepts immigrant peoples, predominantly racial and political refugees. Last weekend my wife and I attended the three day Heritage Festival in Edmonton, Alberta with 62 ethnic pavilions, Canada I understand has immigrants from over 70 countries of all shades of colour.
    Being married to a black Cuban, I can vouch from personal experience for the racism of Cuba. Being stopped in the street by the state police justy because we are of different colour is both disgraceful and disgusting – especially when it is repetitive.
    I promised my wife that when eventually she received a visa to visit Canada, that we would not be stopped by the police and that she would not suffer racism. As she has now spent over three months in Canada, she finds it a racism free society.
    In the 2012 Census in Cuba, question number six was:
    What is the colour of your skin?
    There were three options:
    Apart from obvious questions about where to place people of Chinese or Japanese descent, the real question is: “Why does the Castro regime need such information?”
    Those of us who know the reality of Cuba’s Socialismo, know that the figures can be cleverly manipulated to put as few blacks as possible into positions of management or authority, WHITE RULES!

  • The same in Canada, I agree with all that is said..

  • Point well taken regarding the longevity of discrimination. Look at the United States

    we still don’t have a nation free of discrimination.

  • I’ve commented on racism in Cuba here at HT before. Other pro-Castro commenters have accused me of being only negative about Cuba, Here’s a chance to prove them wrong. Sort of. As an African-American, I am an expert on racism in America. Racism in the US is as bad as it gets. Despite the election of Barack Obama, which apparently caused racists even more heartburn than once imagined, racism continues to filter into nearly every aspect of American life. Against this backdrop, as bad as racism is in Cuba, I can personally attest to the fact that it is worse in the US. I have suffered many times from racism in Cuba. Walking down La Rampa with white tourists, I have been stopped by police and asked to show ID. I have gone upstairs to use the computers at Hotel Parque Central and had hotel security stop me on the way to ask me where I was going. I sat quietly in the lobby of the Hotel Riviera waiting for a friend to come downstairs and a front desk clerk asked me to wait outside, until I spoke and she apologized and sheepishly said she thought I was somebody else. I have travelled to Cuba 20 or more times. I am always amazed at how “white” the waiting area is with passengers waiting to board their flights out of Cuba. Bottom line: Racism exists in Cuba but it is worse in my own country.

Comments are closed.