Racism in Cuba: a Controversial Issue

Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Cuban kids. Photo: Yinet Pereira
Cuban kids. Photo: Yinet Pereira

HAVANA TIMES — Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of posts published here on Havana Times dealing with the subject of racism. I have appreciated the large cause for concern that this awful scourge has sparked in the majority of those who have written articles and commented. Many of them emphasize the persistence of racism in our country and accuse the Cuban Revolution of being racist.

I am a socialist-democrat who criticizes the Revolution’s mistakes in adherence to what is right and the political, economic and social reality that we’re living. However, the fact that I disagree with our authoritarian regime doesn’t mean that I should exaggerate on a subject where I have seen and know very little, just to add disgrace: I prefer to be fair. This is the spirit that moves my opinions and although I’m no expert in the subject, I can at least explain what I have seen and make my contribution to this debate.

I’m from the Holguin province, where most of the population is white. I studied in its capital city, which goes by the same name, for three years and I worked there another two years. I would be a liar if I told you that I saw one act of racism. Yes I have met many white or mestizo people who said that they didn’t like to go out with a black person, arguing trivialities. I see it as a question of hypothetical tastes because sometimes they say these things and then end up going out with a black person and accept it easily.

It’s true that the persistence or non-persistences of inherited racist prejudices are tested when couples are involved. Yes, things do go on within families and these guarded low attitudes like strongholds in the subconscience do surface, but they normally disappear soon enough. That’s the truth of the matter.

We can say that racism here in Cuba, just like in the rest of the world, hasn’t died out completely but it has been decimated. There is still prejudice and socio-economic consequences that have been dragging on throughout the centuries. It’s a great challenge to put an end to this debt and clearly it hasn’t been dealt with enough so as to successfully get rid of it entirely. Luckily, in Cuba we don’t have openly white supremacy people; and if we do they are very discreet because nobody knows who they are and they don’t reveal themselves as such.

With regard to targeted racism by the Government and the Revolution, I would like to make another analysis. I don’t know what goes on inside our leaders’ minds, but at least from what they reveal, and in line with what has been written down in law, they have demonstrated that they are against racism. It is fair to recognize the fact that the Revolution saved Cuba a long fight for black people’s civil rights.

Photo: Yinet Pereira
Photo: Yinet Pereira

The problem is that those who came into power and held leadership positions were almost all white, due to a problem of cultural hegemony at the time. The same thing happened in the wars for independence. More and more black people filled important positions along the way, however, while the ascent was spontaneous, they continued to be a minority due to white cultural hegemony, which continues to exist today. This brought a lot of international criticism upon the Cuban Revolution, labeling it “racist”. And consequently, more black figures are being promoted rather than white, deliberately, which has been going on for quite some time now.

I believe that what we have to do isn’t to promote black people at the expense of white people, because that would be another form of inverse discrimination. The logical thing to do would be to create special social programs directed at black people so that we can achieve a cultural balance among all of the Cuban population in the medium term; and therefore, they will grow proportionally in number according to their achievements.

Right now, we have a system that chooses our representatives and leaders at all levels with a tap on the shoulder, and it can create a strategy advocating racial equality, however, when democracy comes it should be spontaneous and the problem will resurface if we don’t resolve it at its root.

I share Jose Marti’s own thoughts when he said, “When you say “men,” you have already imbued them with all their rights.” If a leader is black he isn’t so just to represent black people, or to give preference to black people; and the same goes for a white leader. A Cuban leader, no matter what the color of their skin is, should represent all Cubans.

What is really happening is that the Revolution only points out its achievements and if there had been an instance of racism, it would have hid it in the same way it does with political protests or any other “uncomfortable” problems. They don’t legally allow spontaneous groups from civil society to form either out of fear that they may become influential and oppose them, not even when they have fair reason to protest such as that of fighting against the remains of racism.

Years ago, along with some of my friends, I tried to create a Marti club in my workplace and they didn’t let us because it had to stem from the Communist Youth (UJC) or the Communist Party (PCC); just imagine if they’d let an organization form which highlights problems of racism, one of the government’s main achievements to shine immaculately in foreign eyes.

Farinas can die tomorrow because of his hunger strike, his protest fallen on the Government’s deaf ears, and it won’t be because he’s black, but because he’s dissenting. On the other hand, to say that the Revolution “made black people people” is a racist expression and a cheap chauvinistic shot. Part of this manipulative strategy is to throw the Revolution’s social achievements in our faces, as if it didn’t cost us anything to forcefully renounce our rights which are crucial to our human dignity.

Being correct is not confusing one thing with another: the Revolution has a lot of problems with democracy and human rights and that then also affects independent civil society’s fight against racism. However, accusing it of being “racist” seems a little bit exaggerated, unless of course there is evidence to prove the contrary.  It would be safer and fairer to judge it for its obvious flaws, without that meaning abandoning the fight against any remains of racism: that should be more than enough.

6 thoughts on “Racism in Cuba: a Controversial Issue

  • The participants in the Cuban revolution of 1957-1959 were not all of communist persuasion. Following the revolution, Fidel Castro initially deceived by making statements about democracy. Then he declared that the revolution was a communist one and neatly disposed of those revolutionaries who were none communist – either by mysterious disappearance or by jail or by firing squad.
    Like Stalin, Fidel Castro another Jesuit was a believer in and operator of purging. I mention the Jesuit connection because as you probably know, part of their mantra is that the end justifies the means.
    In Canada that mantra lay upon Pierre Elliott Trudeau as another Jesuit. The current Pope Francis who has been seen to provide succour to the Castros is likewise a Jesuit and in total contradiction of Pope John Paul II who supported the oppressed, has chosen to support the oppressors.

  • So you believe the Revolution ended in 1959. If you had said 1990 I might of had more time for you, though I would still disagree, but to dismiss the entire epoch shows at best a complete lack of any grasp of reality and at worst a wilful attempt to mislead. You keep going on about being stopped by the police, something which by the way has also happened to me, in order to prove that you know what racism is, whilst some people have experienced it all their lives as an overbearing environment, not just a momentary action. As I said, Cuba is still racist, despite the Revolution. With regards to racial profiling, I could add what an Afro-Cuban friend of mine said when pressed on the issue: “Yes, but all of the police officers are black”. However I don’t care to defend the practice. The Revolution, I will defend, because I know personally what a difference it has made to lives around the world in the struggle against racist imperialism. I also know the steps it took to address racism internally, and whilst insufficient, they were amongst the forefront of any country in the world at that time. Has the process come to an end? I will quote Zurbano before the distortions of the NY Times translation: “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution has just begun.”

  • The use of the word ‘Revolution’ to describe the political process which has been pursued by the Castro family regime for almost 58 years, is inaccurate, The revolution was over all those years ago. Today the concern is the dictatorship which followed it. If as you with obvious lack of experience believe that the revolution was anti-racist, why has the subsequent Castro administration failed to address it, but chosen instead to utilize its State Police (which come under MININT) to utilize it as a part of their repression?
    When going about ones lawful business and stopped in the street because of racial mix, am I and my wife “opportunists”? How stupid a statement!
    You George have got your head so firmly imbedded in Marx and Lenin, that you fail to understand reality in today’s Cuba or to accept that racism is alive and well supported by that dictatorial regime which you so admire.

  • I have recently returned from Cuba. Racism is alive and well in Cuba. Here in San Francisco it’s worse and in the suburbs just outside SF, it’s worse still. But to deny racism does not exist in Cuba, especially in Havana would be a lie. Cuban racism is far more subtle nearly entirely unspoken. But, make no mistake, it exists.

  • Nobody but opportunists would call the Cuban Revolution racist. The argument is that Cuba is still racist, despite the Revolution. Even Mercer Brown who believes the Revolution has been “betrayed” said that “The revolution of 1959 was a continuum of the liberation struggles of the Afro-Cubans.” Thus the Revolution was primarily anti-racist in nature. The question is has the Revolution come to an end or is it ongoing?

  • I share Osmel’s view that introducing a form of reverse racism by appointing people of colour not by merit would be wrong. But equally as he has recognised many whites in Cuba have been promoted because they are not of colour.
    As a measure of racism operated by the MININT State Police in Havana and as I have previously described, my wife and I in our brief visits to Havana totalling not more than twelve days, have been stopped in the street four times and once in a taxi going to Jose Marti International Airport by the State Police.
    My wife in my company has spent a total of some seven months in Europe and Canada. We have not been stopped once by the police.
    The first essential in addressing a problem, is to recognize that it exists. Nothing can be achieved without doing so. In Cuba it is the State itself that is guilty of racism. In our own community which I think has a higher proportion of people of colour than Havana, we have not experienced difficulty. But, in discussion of the difficulties of our experiences in Havana a white professional responded by saying that we were probably being stopped because they thought my wife was a Jintera. My response was to query if there were no white Jinteras ?

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