By Yusimi Rodriguez
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: 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.