By Yusimí Rodríguez
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 2 – Three years ago I was still working at a national newspaper. On the afternoon of July 31, 2006, the Cuban people learned of the sudden illness of President Fidel Castro – at least it was sudden for most of us.
The party that had been planned for the following day at the newspaper was of course canceled. So around mid-morning that day, after having translated a couple of news items for the paper’s webpage, I was sitting in the lounge with a group of co-workers. This was a common practice when we had a little free time.
That day, though, all of the comments revolved around the state of health of the commander-in-chief; there was speculation and uncertainty about the future of the country.
One of the co-workers sitting with us talked about how his neighbors were throwing a party when the leader’s illness was publically reported. I wasn’t clear if the party simply coincided with the news or if it was the very reason for the celebration.
My co-worker -assuming the position that we’ve been trained to assume in circumstances like that- told how he went over to his neighbor’s house to chew out the mother.
This same comrade, who holds one of the most important positions at the paper and is a member of the Communist Party, had fought in the underground risking his life in the 1950s struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship – despite his privileged position in our country as a “blanco hijo de ricos” (white son of rich people).
I learned about all that as he delivered his dissertation standing up in the lounge of the newspaper. His authority -according to him- also came from having walked several kilometers daily from his house to his job in fulfillment of his duty during the most difficult years of the “Special Period” economic crisis that began in the early 90s.
He didn’t mention that this was exactly what many Cubans had done back then, not out of heroism but because they had to earn and “live” off their salary. The alternatives in those days consisted of spending hours at a bus stop or getting around on a bike, assuming you had accumulated sufficient merit to deserve one from your job or you could pay the fortune needed to buy one.
The crowning point of my co-worker’s monologue was the moment he said that if he -the white son of rich people- had been able to sacrifice then blacks had to do the same, because “the Revolution had allowed blacks to become people.”
I didn’t know if the guy had something else to add, because I cut into him calling him a racist, among other things. It turned into pretty ugly argument, over which he finally chose to retreat into his office.
He did the right thing because I don’t know how that exchange would have ended. I now regret not having maintained the necessary calm or even having shown the maturity to hold that discussion in a more civil tone. Respect is not achieved through violence.
However, not only black people, but everyone who due to the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation or even what the dominant spheres consider an incorrect ideological orientation, is subject to some form of discrimination.
‘Ignorance is Strength’
We are told, from the time we begin studying the history of Cuba, that our revolutionary process is a singular one. We are told that it began on October 10, 1868, with the uprising led by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes at the La Demajagua sugar mill after he granted freedom to his slaves and appealed to them to join the freedom struggle.
But could Cespedes have initiated the war while retaining his property and slaves? Without denying his upright and abolitionist character, it was not solely a moralistic decision to free the slaves, keeping in mind they would represent a significant number within the Liberation Army and that they also struggled for their own freedom. They had little to lose and a great deal to gain.
What would have happened if the slaves had decided to decline the invitation, in addition to all other the blacks and “mulatos” who participated in the conflict? The independence forces would have been composed only of the white Creole landowners of the island. Instead, blacks did fight in the war, barefoot and half-naked and suffering incidents of racism even within the Liberation Army.
In 1898, as the US government prepared to intervene in the “Spanish-American War,” eighty percent of the Liberation Army consisted of blacks and mestizos, according to the book “A People’s History of the United States,” by Professor Howard Zinn. He provided this fact as being one of the concerns of the American elites confronted with the possibility of the Mambises independence fighters triumphing in Cuba and establishing another black republic, similar to Haiti’s.
In “The History of Cuba,” which I studied in junior high and high school, brushstroke mention is made of the Independent Party of Color, founded on August 7, 1908. It emerged principally due to the distain and scorn that the black veterans of the war of independence were subjected to under the US-dominated neo-colonial republic.
The Independent Party of Color was led by Evaristo Estenoz, and one of its main actions was the “Armed Uprising of the Independents of Color.” Though they put forward the most advanced program of the time, I still don’t recall the teacher ever mentioning them even when I again studied the history of Cuba at the university.
Perhaps there wasn’t enough time. We only get a semester on the subject during the first year of the program, so I suppose it was necessary to zip through the content and focus on what’s considered the most important. But important to whom?
Every November 27, the entire country commemorates the 1871 shooting of eight Cuban medical students by Spanish colonialists. That same day a group of black members of the secret African-inspired Abakuá fraternity died in the attempt to prevent that massacre.
But this is not a fact raised by the official news sources in our country, at least not to date. I wasn’t told about this when I studied history in primary school or secondary school or at the university. So far I haven’t even seen it in the public-service program “Este Día,” which is dedicated to historical anniversaries.
I learned about this a couple years ago when a friend commented that he had been invited to participate in an exhibit organized by a group of youth to commemorate the historic event. My friend also learned about those Abakuá at that time. I never found out if they were able to hold the exhibit.
One of the people involved in the idea was Mario Castillo, and it was through his article published in the magazine “Caminos” that I found detailed information about the Abakuá members who also died on November 27, 1871.
The Revolution’s Burden
What is it that we blacks must infer from the comment of my former co-worker – that fighter against the Batista dictatorship, this eminent journalist, a member of the Communist Party of Cuba? That black people possess dignity thanks only to the victory of the Revolution?
What’s the message? That whites were already people prior to the Revolution, contrary to blacks? Or that white people can even oppose the government; they can decide not to continue sacrificing, but black people can’t because “the Revolution allowed blacks to become people”? Enough questions come to my mind to fill the page, but that’s not the objective.
To feel ourselves in debt to something or someone limits our freedom of thought, opinion and action is a form of restricting our rights. A debt is a stone around one’s neck. But what happens if we are taught that even the fact of being human is owed to someone or a certain process.
My former co-worker’s statement implies that this applies not only to all black people who now live in the country, but even future generations are people only thanks to the Revolution. Therefore, even before coming into the world we are in an inferior position regarding other people; we have an eternal debt and therefore less or no right to protest or to be in disagreement with the powers that be.
There are things, however, that are real, and cannot be denied. There remain a litany of race-related problems: the greatest number of people in our jails are black, the patterns of marginality continue prevailing among the black population in our country, black people continue being the most socially and economically disadvantaged, mainly black citizens are stopped by the police for ID checks with no explicit reason (the police do not need a justification to request to check someone’s ID s card).
I could add that despite the fact that any black person in the company of a foreigner is considered a “jinetero” (hustler or prostitute), it’s not necessary for the companion to be a foreigner – they need only have white skin. Once I was at the beach with a white-skinned Cuban friend, and a policeman asked for my ID because he thought that she was foreign.
Though the conditions of life of most of people are better than those before 1959, that improvement didn’t occur only among the black population. Can anyone feel within their right to affirm that Cubans are people thanks to the Revolution?
On many occasions, the leaders of the country have been forced to recognize that despite their struggle to eradicate it in our country, and even with the achievements attained in this respect, examples of racism still survive in Cuban society.
It is understandable that it’s impossible to eliminate in 50 years what had been practiced for four hundred. But what’s really scary is to hear similar expressions coming from the very mouth of a member of the Communist Party of Cuba, because this leads one to wonder what is the vision of our leaders regarding we blacks, and it even makes one question whether the true motivation of their efforts was to improve the quality of life of this group.
However, the most alarming and saddest thing in this whole incident was not in hearing a member of the Party use such a pejorative expression, but that two other black people present didn’t react when the comment was made, not even during the argument. They later told me, “You’re right, but it’s better to be quiet. It’s not good to attract attention.”