HAVANA TIMES, January 7 (IPS) – The persistence of racism in Cuba is disturbing to some of the island’s thinkers, who are calling for a debate on the problem in this country, where equal rights have not guaranteed equal opportunities for all social groups.

A slice of the racial mix that is Cuba, photo by Caridad
A slice of the racial mix that is Cuba, photo by Caridad

The first documentary on racial discrimination in this Caribbean island nation was filmed here in 2008, incorporating opinions from well-known artists and intellectuals that go to the heart of the controversy. “Raza” (Race), by young filmmaker Eric Corvalan, could serve as a starting-point to launch the long-delayed debate.

“So far, racism has only been talked about in academia, among intellectuals. I think there should be an open, public discussion, even in parliament,” the 36-year-old Corvalan told IPS.

“In 50 years (since the revolution), women’s issues and homosexuality have been debated: why hasn’t racism?” asked the filmmaker. “It’s a revolutionary topic that concerns everyone, because there are black women, black homosexuals and black men.”

“I think silence is worse. The longer nothing is said, the more the racism fermenting underground is rotting the entire nation,” singer/songwriter Gerardo Alfonso says in the documentary.

According to Roberto Zurbano, head of the Casa de las Americas publishing house, to carry on “hiding” the issue would lead black people to think that “they belong to another country, and that there are two Cuba’s as there were in the 19th century, a black Cuba and a white one.” Another possible implication is that “the issue could become a political football, outside and inside the country.”

In the debate on race in Cuba, the media have drawn some of the heaviest criticism for allegedly fomenting stereotypes that identify black people and people of mixed ancestry with crime, or with very specific activities like sports and music, while establishing the idea of white “normality.”

“The media must help to create a balanced portrait of black people, which is lacking, so a racist stereotype is constructed by society,” Corvalan said. “Why can’t we make films starring blacks, whether as lawyers, doctors or engineers?”

According to Irene Ester, who holds a degree in audiovisual communications, television will never contribute to demythologizing race as long as it only emphasizes the high proportion of black people in prison, working as prostitutes, or unemployed, instead of the “heroism” and special characteristics of black families.

There is also an absence of models in the education system, especially in the teaching of national history. The first Africans arrived in Cuba in the early 16th century, brought in as slaves by the Spanish colonialists. Slavery was abolished in 1886.

“In primary education, skin color is not mentioned,” academic Esteban Morales says in the film. “If we are still living in a society where white people have the power, and we don’t mention color in education, we are in practice educating children to be white.

“Cuban history as we teach it is a disgrace, because it is predominantly white history, and explaining the role of black people and mulattos in building this society and its culture is not given its due importance,” says Morales, of the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU).

Blacks and people of mixed-race heritage officially make up 34.9 percent of Cuba’s total population of 11.2 million, according to the latest census, carried out in 2002.

However, most Cuban academics estimate that between 60 and 70 percent of the population is black or “mulatto”

Article 42 of the Cuban constitution states: “Discrimination because of race, skin color, sex, national origin, religious beliefs and any other form of discrimination harmful to human dignity is forbidden and punishable by law.” In May 1961, the government eliminated racial segregation by nationalizing all clubs and associations.

But equality before the law has not succeeded in closing the socioeconomic gaps between different racial groups.

The Cuban cultural journal Temas published studies by the governmental Anthropology Centre in 2006 that showed that on average, the black population has worse housing, receives less money in remittances from abroad and has less access to jobs in emerging economic sectors like tourism, in which blacks represent barely five percent of managers and professionals, than the white population.

“Equal rights does not mean social equality,” Morales says. “We do not have the same social standing, or the same opportunities. This is what has generally happened to non-white and black people in Cuba.”

“If, 50 years after the revolution, there are still visible signs of racism in society, it means that equality of rights hasn’t been sufficient,” says Alfonso.

The issue of racism remains “taboo, a complicated and thorny” question, as Corvalan was told by some institutions where he showed his documentary, made with support from the non-governmental Martin Luther King Memorial Centre (CMMLK), the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and Delfin, an independent producer.

“We made a revolution in this country, which is what sets us apart from other nations,” Zurbano said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity that revolutionaries of any color cannot let slip away, in the sense that we can create a strategy, and it can evolve.”

After the documentary’s premiere at the recent Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Corvalan was thanked by black and mixed-race people, some of whom were surprised to see that a white person was interested in racism.

“I don’t think of myself as white or black or mixed-race, I’m just Cuban,” said Corvalan, who has French and Chilean ancestry.

33 thoughts on “It’s Time to Address Racism in Cuba

  • Patricia, as long as we think of the cancer of racism as an ailment of persons within society, needing cultural, educational and political treatment, we probably will not cure the malady. Our modern cooperative socialist movement in the U.S. sees racism as an expression of “class-ism.” That is, one expression of something more profound and harder to eradicate.

    If racism is an expression of class-ism–the arrogance and prejudice that comes from the existence of social/economic classes–then it follows that the way to remove the malignant growth is to sever its roots. The roots being classes themselves, indicates the need for diminishing and finally eliminating classes. This is the traditional goal of authentic socialism.

    The question of “how to eliminate racism?” therefore becomes “how to eliminate classes?”

    Marx’s answer was to have the state own the land and means of production. It has not worked.

    Ours is state/ employee cooperative co-ownership, to raise…

  • Orlando August 25th, 2009 5:22 pm :
    What are you smoking? Mulatto what is that ..just another African descendant get real!! get real..fess up are an African..

  • There is racism in Cuba and there are blacks that do not take advantage of the free education. There are also many black parents that content themselves with their kids having a mid level technical degree (e.g. electrician) than a college degree, since they didn’t have any degrees in first place. The white families usually push their kids to bigger dreams.
    I graduated from “La CUJAE” as an engineer, there were only 2 blacks (both females) and perhaps 10 mulattoes out of 110 students in my graduation year, and this was 1988, before any Special Period economic hardships.
    By the way I am a mulatto, but before all I am Cuban.

  • Fearing a repeat of the physical and mentally traumatic Special Period I wrote: A Critical look at the Future of Cuba 12/07. 2/08 & 3/08, A Region At Risk of Famine 4/08, Big Problems demands Big Solutions 9/08, Preventing a Second Special Period 11/08 and others, for which I was accused of being paranoid. Sadly, more pain, suffering, anxiety and deaths are hanging again over Cuba, moreso for the Afro-Cuban community with little or no remittances, few jobs earning hard currency or any foreign black institution, religious groups or governments, providing a lifeline as Chinese, Jewish, Arabic institutions and the Spanish government did for their descendents. Blacks and others caring people living abroad must stop complaining and provide our material support to avoid its moral desintegration. Blacks should apply for land, plow &produce food for their family and their country and once again, occupy their post in the frontline as Maceo, Mariana, Quintin and others did before us.

  • Long before four devastating hurricanes ravished Cuba in the year 2008, I was concerned with the slow economical development pace of Cuba , as I contrasted that with large imports coming in from China, Brazil, Russia, Korea, Venezuela and others, knowing they all had a due date, in which payments must be fulfilled or risk default. Although I am not a specialist in any of these related fields, but having seen the traumatic effect that the Special Period had on the physical and mental health of the entire nation, I knew, that everything anyone did to avoid a repetition of this horrendous experience, should be welcome. Writing papers expressing my fears or offering unsolicited ideas, was personally comforting, although my inner feelings was filled with anxiety, knowing that nothing would happen or if it did, it could be only when our country’s survivabllity was on the line. Cuba cannot fail itself and the developing world, totally dependent on our solidarity.

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