Cuba in the Eyes of an African American

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Fred Thomas III

HAVANA TIMES – Fred Thomas III, my friend Kirenia and I were sitting in a small cafe in Regla, one of those privately-owned places that some ordinary Cubans can afford, as long as you don’t expect to eat the best quality pizza or sandwich.

We were three black people wearing casual clothes, but only Fred was the target of a man who followed us from another cafe where we were looking at what they had, to ask him for money. I think he must have heard him speaking in English and his ear was well-tuned enough to realize that even though I speak English, I am just as Cuban as he is.

But, there are other things that give away foreigners who are Afro-descendants, even if they don’t speak a word: the way they walk, move, dress, look at things with never-ending curiosity. Some Cubans have a better eye than others (than the police for example) for picking out foreigners from a crowd. There are stories (I was personally witness to one) of police officers who have stopped and checked the ID of black or mulatto foreigners.

But, my fellow countrymen who have an internal detector for foreigners, Afro-descendants or not, are mistaken about one thing and that’s that THEY AREN’T ALL RICH, THEY DON’T ALL COME HERE WANTING TO BUY CIGARS, GO OUT WITH YOUNG GIRLS, LEARN SALSA.

Fred Thomas III is 66 years old and he worked until he was 65 years old… since he was 16. He has a degree in Business Administration and another in Marketing. He spent 33 of those 49 years working in the real estate industry, in the mortgages sector. He also worked in the food and insurance sectors, in administration and sports marketing. He has always been involved in community projects.

One of the advantages of being retired is that he now has time to write articles about anything he is interested in and he is interested in many things, from politics to sports, especially baseball. He started his blog Thomas Reports to publish his opinions about different subjects. 

This isn’t his first trip to Cuba. For a long time, he and his wife Julie (a special assistant of Los Angeles county) had heard people talk about Cuba and told themselves they “needed to go one day.” Then, their incomes allowed them to buy a place in Aruba. When they would fly there, they used to hear the pilot tell them from the cockpit that Cuba was the island on the right. They finally came for the first time in 2014.

He is aware that many services are a lot easier to get a hold of and a lot cheaper in other countries, here are they are more expensive and not as good in quality, such as the Internet. That’s why he doesn’t recommend Cuba as a destination for those who depend a great deal on comforts to be able to enjoy their holiday. None of the above discourages him though.

Fred Thomas III

Fred: I like to walk and talk to people. I could spend the whole day walking. I’m not interested in going to an expensive restaurant, where I will be surrounded by mostly tourists and not ordinary Cubans.

As an African American, I can’t help but be interested in its racial issue and see the inequalities that exist in Cuba.

Fred: Before coming, I already knew about the whole issue of remittances. In the beginning of the Revolution, most of the Cubans that left were white. They settled in the US and prospered Cubans who had relatives in the US and received remittances, which enabled them to have a better quality of life, were also mostly white.

Even though it seems that everyone gets on well here, systemic racism does exist because there are less opportunities and resources for black people. However, people get used to living with racism.

Something that really caught my attention the first time we spoke, was the way he talked about black and white people in Cuba: Afro Cubans and Hispanic Cubans. When I explained to him that we don’t use this distinction, and that we just say: black, white or mulatto, he told me that he thought it was necessary to define ethnic origins further so as to understand their impact.

The inequalities he saw in Cuba led him to (mistakingly) believe that our government paid white people in foreign currency and black people in Cuban pesos. But, most of the people who earn their incomes in foreign currency are those who work in the tourism sector, as guides, waiters, restaurant and cafe workers, where they are tipped in hard currency. And what color are the people who tend to be on the receiving end of these tips that tourists leave, both at state-run and private establishments? What color are most of the people who have the amount of money they need to open up their own businesses?

Fred is also a fan of baseball and this is one of the things that has brought him to Cuba. When he comes, he goes to stadiums to watch games, alone or with someone. He is interested in something that isn’t really talked about in our country, the Negro Baseball Leagues, which black players from the US also came to play in. He believes that the decline in Cuban baseball in recent years is the same as what happened to the Negro Baseball League in the US.

Fred: As black players began to move across to the Major Leagues (after the first black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, made the move), the Negro Baseball League became poorer in quality. The same thing is happening here, the best players are leaving to play in foreign leagues.

We had a conversation just a week before the historic agreement between the Baseball Federation of Cuba (FCB) and the Major Leagues (MLB) was made, and we saw each other again two days after this happened.

Fred: It’s a great opportunity for players, but they need to know that this is a very competitive, tough world, and there is also discrimination. Many excellent Hispanic baseball players don’t earn the same as white US players who aren’t as good as them.

However, Fred doesn’t want to impose his point of view, nor come across as an expert on Cuba. He knows he has a lot to learn and understand about this country, and he wants to listen to as many opinions as he can. They are all important in his eyes.

6 thoughts on “Cuba in the Eyes of an African American

  • As a mulato Cuban, daughter of a mulato mother, granddaughter of a black grandmother and a white skin father, for me,to name a person in Cuba as Afro-cuban is just redundant.
    In Cuba to do that is to empower racism. We know were we come from. Everyone in the island is the descendant of a slave, few people are actually white. In Cuba to have light color skin doesn´t mean you are actually white.So to separate us in this categories of “Afro-cuban”, is just, for me, a way to empower those who still believe in racism.
    The situation in the States is different, violence related to racism is still very much alive and to define yourself as African-American or Black is to empower your culture.
    In Cuba and abroad it´s imperative to empower the CUBAN culture, since we as Cubans are rejected in many countries, just for being Cubans, not for the color of our skin. We are first of all Cuban, then race.

  • I sincerely hope your wrong about that Mosses . But from having read quite a few of your comments I can’t say you’ve been wrong about much .

  • Really Mosses ? This is my first comment on here . I live in Western Canada .
    I have read dozens of your posts and find your writing precise and to the point always . And I only wish I had your knowledge of history .
    But is the US really that bad ? I mean that sincerely . Am I wrong or isn’t it almost/is enshrined in city , state and federal law in the US against prejudice .
    Should the ‘ state do more ‘ lawfully or were you meaning the day to say prejudices of people ? Even that I find disappointing if true . Of course I have not experienced prejudism ( I am white ) but growing up in a working class ethnic neighbourhood we all insulted each other on our individual heritage [ Wapp, Frog , pollock ] daily .

    I am so sorry to hear ( and I believe you ) an intelligent articulate and seemingly kind person like you has experienced this kind of treatment !


  • As I have commented here at HT many times before, while racism in the US is the worst that exists anywhere in the world, racism in Cuba is very real. As an African American with features, I am told, that confuse even Afro-Cubans to believe that I am of Cuban descent, I am ALWAYS stopped on the street by Cuban police for my ID and treated differently by Cuban vendors and store owners at least until I speak and they realize that I am a “yuma”. Despite the inconveniences I have experienced due to racism in Cuba, I would trade it for the savage racism that I am subjected to every day in the US.

  • A great article Yusimi! I am caucasian, visited all over Cuba since 1999 . I marvelled at the blend of skin tones and marvelled , never thinking of racism until ….. In Camaguey, in 1999 i sat in a diner with my friend Isabella, an engineer and basketball player supreme. She had what i consider olive white skin, black hair. She was married to a brown skinned very handsome Cuban man and they have an adorable son . I never forgot her telling me how people would ask why she had married someone black. Never mind he was handsome, smart and hard working. Even an Australian guy living in the city, sat nearby and upon hearing this conversation joined in rudely and seemed to ask her the same thing. I was appalled. Since then i observed how many whites work in the better hotel or government positions. I also saw many white Cubans who could not hold a candle to Isabella’s husband.

  • Well, had the same experience though am white. Anyhow, did enjoy the climate and as I did live in an apartment in the Havana city the people around me very much. I don’t speak Spanish, did try but it’s hard at old age, but usually communication was good an folk were polite and helpful. Really miss that place, is much more of a community than I’ve seen other places.

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