Invisible Racism in Cuba

By Regla Ismaray Cabrera Piedra  (El Toque)

Photo: Emilio Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – “What’s on your head?…” women are asked when they decide to leave their natural afro hair the way it is. “Once you go black, you never go back…”, people say among friends. “It had to be a black person,” one person says to another as they are pushed in a bus aisle and the other person doesn’t apologize. All of these everyday expressions, some of which are more subtle than others, but they can all be heard in any context here in Cuba.

While these are behaviors and comments that some people might deem “low intensity”, they are also the result of the population’s instilled racist preconceptions.

Racism doesn’t have to be overt or radically expressed as the persecution, slavery and extermination of a race, as these extreme situations are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s what we can’t see that is the most worrying because it isn’t aggressive, it forms a part of our everyday lives.

When I try to visualize this matter within my lifetime in order to make sense of it, I remember my years at the Vladimir I. Lenin vocational school. I remember being surrounded by white kids. The same thing happens when I think about my university years.

Now, I wonder: is it just a coincidence that there are so few black people in university classrooms and high-achieving pre-university centers, when we live in a country with such great racial diversity?

Cuba is a country of living together, and the integration and mixing of different cultures which emerged throughout our history. Black and Iberian (mostly Spanish) immigrants, indigenous people and the Chinese, all joined the “seasoning” that makes up “Cubanness” today. Cuban intellectual Fernando Ortiz put it wisely when he said: “Cuba is a stew (…) A mix of cuisines, a mix of races, a mix of cultures. A thick stew of civilization that bubbles on the Caribbean stove.”

In a country of 11.2 million inhabitants (reported in 2012 by Cuba’s state-led Office of Statistics (ONEI)), this was the racial breakdown of the population: 64.1% white, 9.3% black and 26.6% mixed race.

Even though the above figures indicates that the population is predominantly white, experts consider these results to be quite unreliable, given the fact that this was how the population identified themselves, who might not recognize themselves as Afro-descendants, even if they are.

Meanwhile, a genetic study carried out by the National Center of Medical Genetics in 2018 concluded that all Cubans are mixed-race, regardless of the color of their skin. The study confirms that civilian origins are structured in the following way: 2% Asian (China), 8% indigenous (Meso-American and South American people), 20% African (mainly from Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and Angola) and 70% are European (predominantly from Spain and some parts of Italy).

However, these figures aren’t enough because they don’t tell us anything about what they mean in today’s national context. Nor do they tell us about the connotations that are hidden and what they represent. For example: what is the relationship between different skin colors and social inequality today? Absolute silence.

One of the biggest challenges is the fact that the problem isn’t being recognized in the first place. In the report Cuba presented at the Third Session of the Regional Conference on Population and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, it claims that the term “Afro-descendant” is not in keeping with our reality.

As a result, the intellectual baggage that exists surrounding this issue, which has been used to defend the anti-racist struggle and to delegitimize self-recognition of groups who identify as such, has been completely ignored.

“If we all deny the existence of this issue and the social shortcomings that nourish it, we are not only compromising the future of those who have yet to be discriminated against, but of all Cuban society. As the racial issue continues to be one of the most complex, challenging and overlooked in our social reality today,” US researcher and political analyst, Esteban Morales, stated.

Cuba has made great progress in the fight against racism, and these should be kept in mind when considering its positive contribution to the problem. However, we can’t just assume it has been overcome because of this, which is what government officials try to prove.

Racism has been creating this “great unknown” because of how invisible the issue is. The abovementioned report confirms this.

In this same document, it states that Cuban legislation in force condemns and sanctions any form of racial discrimination against a person, group of people or institution. However, in reality, things are different. A lack of statistics is a latent problem that this report uses to dilute out-of-date data and to deny its existence, thereby sweeping away any trace of the existence of ethnic minorities.

Referring in some cases to “Cubans with non-white skin”, the report explicitly omits an ethnicity that has its own name. Plus, there is no analysis of social minorities because they are said not to exist.

Women and men, black and mixed race people… they are all thrown into the same broken bag, which has been poorly stitched and has patches that try to feign alleged equality.

There hasn’t been a solution to the outcome of out-dated results of a census that lacks a deeper analysis of the race issue and real data that can confirm it, yet. It’s not as easy as taking out a variable from a mathematical equation.

The equation needs to be changed, putting the problem under the microscope, so that we can see that our belly button is also flawed, that the alleged “traces of racial discrimination” that this report mentions, have greater dimensions than what we think.

8 thoughts on “Invisible Racism in Cuba

  • June 17, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Good comment Dan. In Cuba there are virtually no immigrants. The 2012 census revealed less than 5,000 people resident in Cuba who were not born there. Most of those are Russians who chose to remain in Cuba when given a Hobson’s choice. We have a couple of elderly Russian ladies in our community.

  • June 16, 2019 at 7:52 am

    As a kid growing up in the US we were always told the US was a “Melting Pot”. Meaning that it was a place where people from all over the world could come together to live the “American Dream” or at least to start a new life in a new system where we were all Americans. Yes, you had to leave certain things behind to do this…The interesting question in our melting pot has become clearer again lately: how much of your original culture is appropriate to retain, and how much should you give up as the price of being ‘American’? My family came to the US in the immigration wave of the early 1900s. They were eager for a chance to have a life without fear of violence or repression from government, and were glad to dive in, struggle in poverty for a while with a larger goal in mind, give up certain things, assimilate into the new culture, adopt new values and ideas…the story is that my great grandmother was placed in 1st grade at age 16 when she arrived in the US because she spoke no English. But they also kept certain ways and ideas and customs from the ‘old country’. In other words, being an immigrant was about finding a balance between old and new. There is always–in every country–a sense that certain people belong here and certain people don’t. Those that are seen as not belonging will always have that battle. Of course I don’t think it’s fair or right, but it is true in every country…As usual with so many things in Cuba, the absence of a free market works as a brake (el freno) to keep things from changing. Immigrants are a good example (or any of the poorest among us): they have a harder time taking charge of their own lives over time, if there is not a clear path for them to make more money. In a capitalist society, even if immigrants are treated worse for a generation, they can eventually rise above poverty and earn some respect that comes with some financial stability. It’s a Darwinian model–in fact capitalism and Darwinism are just about identical–but in whatever you want to call Cuba’s model, even that desperate idea of rising above racism through financial success is mostly an impossible dream.

  • June 7, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Nick your observations about colour deserve extension. The skin colour of black people varies very little. But, white folks when hot turn red, when cold turn blue, when sick turn green and as you point out, when lying in the sun (or in sun-tan parlours) turn tan.
    So who Nick are “the people of colour”?

  • June 7, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    One of the first things the Cuban Revolution did was to make racial discrimination illegal. This was in an era whereby apartheid systems were still entrenched in many parts of the world including much of Africa and parts of the USA.
    This was a commendable move and is one of the reasons why Fidel Castro had such massive popularity in places where people were oppressed due to their race or skin colour.
    However, making something illegal and removing it from the psyche of the population are two different things. Likewise it is difficult to rid institutions of something that seems so inherently institutional.
    Rascism still exists in Cuba despite the fact that the country is very much a ‘meIting pot’ and on the surface seems pretty well integrated.
    Rascism continues to simmer in a way that is specifically and uniquely Cuban. I fear that this will be the case for many years to come regardless of the political persuasion of future Cuban Governments.

    In my own opinion there is only one race and that is the Human Race.

    Although I do find it wierd that many darker skinned people spend huge sums on dubious skin lightening products.
    Whereas many lighter skinned people devote much time to lying in the sun or applying fake tan products in order to darken themselves.
    I think this says something of the human condition with its self loathing and envy………

  • June 7, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    The El Prado walkway. There is a lot of history in old Cuba.

  • June 7, 2019 at 10:40 am

    As a couple of mixed race, I can speak of our experiences in Cuba, England, Scotland and Canada. In doing so it is necessary to speak of both the general population and the police forces.
    In Cuba, our experiences with the police have been far too numerous to not conclude that MININT goons are racist. In England, Scotland and Canada we have yet to speak to a member of a police force. They are more visible in England than Scotland and Canada. In London, they are almost a tourist attraction.
    Our community in Cuba is far less racist than Havana. But racism is a subtle thing. I have in the past mentioned as an example my friend the local vet, asking me about what I found best and worst in Cuba. The best is easily described – the people, the country itself and the music, but I spoke of the worst apart from the politics being racism and our experiences of being stopped repeatedly on the street by MININT goons when in Havana. His reaction to the latter was to say that that was because the police thought my wife was a jintera (prostitute) because she is black. He was surprised by my question to him in response which was: “So their are no white jintera?” his response illustrates a latent racism, although he would be offended if I said so.
    In the Canadian city where I spend some time, the annual “heritage days” three day event has over seventy different pavilions – each operated by people originating in different countries. Now, that is diversity and a far more mixed “stew” than that described by “El Toque” in Cuba.
    Homeless people in Canada have community halls where they can sleep in freshly washed linen, shower and eat. They also receive financial support far greater than working Cubans can ever dream of. So where are the Cuban homeless in a country with low crime rates, the MININT goons walking the streets and that extremely high rate of incarceration? We had two in our community – who used to lie totally intoxicated on the street, but they suddenly disappeared.

  • June 7, 2019 at 8:47 am

    In France the term “race” has been banned from public discourse as having no scientific validity.

    It’s true. Race is a just a social construct. But we all live in societies 🙂

    Cuba is committed to justice and fairness to a high degree. I don’t see homeless people in Cuba. But I see them prominently in Canada and every other country I’ve visited – including highly ordered societies like Taiwan.

    Inequality is necessary in Capitalism which has too main motivators for hard work: greed and fear. For most people, fear is the stronger motivator. Which is why homelessness is necessary.

    As long as a despised underclass is not created in society, can we not say we have a post-racial society ?

  • June 7, 2019 at 8:30 am

    I don’t think all distinction based on race or body characteristics can be eliminated. What must be eliminated is having any group disadvantaged in opportunity, based on race.

    Is Cuba a post racial society ? It is probably closer to that state than any other place I have been. It has to work to improve and maintain.

    I’m not worried about hair styles, or whire people being proud of being white or black people being proud of being black.

    What is troubling is the entrepreneurial class seems to be mostly white – because the Cuban diaspora in Miami, who send money home for investment, is in the majority white.

    As for other racisms, I do find it annoying abd rude to be hailed by a loud “Chino!” in any Cuban city. I usually wave and call back “Cubano !”

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