Cuba Begins to Answer Its Race Question
HAVANA Maria del Carmen Cano, a scholar at the Cuban Institute of the Book, studies race in Cuba. For years that was an obscure and lonely task, but now people are beginning to pay attention. To illustrate why, she tells a story about her husband.
He is tall and very dark-skinned. Not long ago, on a day off from work, he was making his way through a downtown Havana neighborhood in shorts, tennis shoes and T-shirt, a bulging knapsack slung over his shoulder--he was taking the family's computer to be repaired. Approaching from the opposite direction was a white man, also in sneakers and T-shirt and shorts, also toting a full knapsack. They crossed paths right in front of one of the policemen who stand, sphinxlike, on Havana's busy street corners.
The officer stopped Cano's husband and demanded to see his identity papers, letting the white man pass without a second look.
When the policeman learned that he had just detained a lieutenant colonel in the Cuban military, he was effusively apologetic. "But from then on," Cano says, "my husband had a greater appreciation for my work."
Breaking a long-standing taboo on discussing Cuban society in racial terms, scholars and even officials here are delving into issues of race, racism, racial stereotypes and stubborn patterns of discrimination. They have found, as Cano says, that "it's unrealistic to assume that a good communist or a good revolutionary can't also be a racist."
Black Cubans, by any material or educational measure, have made great advances in the past four decades, their progress often cited by officials as one of the signal accomplishments of President Fidel Castro's revolution. As one example, officials report that in this country of 11 million people, there are more than 13,000 black physicians; by comparison, in the United States, with a black population four times as large, the 1990 census counted just over 20,000 black doctors, according to the leading U.S. association of black physicians.
Intermarriage between whites and blacks is commonplace in Cuba. Race relations, especially among individuals, are much more relaxed and amicable than in U.S. neighborhoods--and unlike in the United States, virtually all Cuban neighborhoods are racially integrated.
But many young Afro-Cubans--those too young to remember what things were like before the revolution--contend that a form of structural racism exists in Cuba, and that it is getting worse.
The Cuban version of the "New Economy" is based not on computers or the Internet but rather on tourism, which is growing by leaps and bounds while the rest of the Cuban economy languishes. Young blacks say they are underrepresented on the staffs of the big new five-star hotels and the ancillary service businesses springing up around Havana, the Varadero beach resort and other major cities. In today's Cuba, with the economy substantially "dollarized," those with access to tourists--and the dollars they spend--form a kind of new elite, and this elite of waitresses, doormen, tour guides and cab drivers appears much whiter than Cuba as a whole.
The government's position, famously expressed by Cuba's independence hero Jose Marti, is that race does not matter, that "we are all Cubans." But to scholars, including those who remain fully committed to the revolution, some worrisome racial issues have become self-evident.
Academics say that black Cubans are failing to earn university degrees in proportion to their numbers--a situation to which Castro has alluded publicly. The upper echelons of the government remain disproportionately white, despite the emergence of several rising black stars. And while perceptions are difficult to quantify, much less prove true or false, many black Cubans are convinced that they are much less likely than whites to land good jobs--and much more likely to be hassled by police on the street, like Cano's husband, in a Cuban version of "racial profiling."
Even the most outspoken critics of the way the government has handled, or ignored, the issue of race in Cuba do not believe the racial problems here are as acute or widespread as in the United States. They share the worry of Cuban officials that foreign observers will oversimplify the situation, seeing it in stark terms of black and white when the more appropriate image is a spectrum of beiges and browns.
Several black Cubans interviewed for this article were especially anxious that reports of Cuba's racial problems not be seized on by the Cuban American community in Miami, which is overwhelmingly white--and which was founded by a core of people who made up much of Cuba's pre-revolution white elite. Many here question whether there would have been such hubbub in Miami over Elian Gonzalez had the boy been black instead of white.
"There is a feeling that to talk about this issue is to divide the unity that is necessary to face American imperialism," said Tomas Fernandez Robaina, senior researcher at the Jose Marti National Library and a preeminent scholar on race. But he added, "In many places, blacks have more problems getting a job than white people. I'm not telling you a secret."
Recently Castro has acknowledged lingering traces of racial discrimination, using a speech last year to pin the blame on racist attitudes introduced during the U.S. occupation of Cuba following the Spanish-American War.
His brother, Vice President Raul Castro, the second most powerful man in Cuba, tackled the subject in March, in a speech that black Cubans still remember and parts of which they cite verbatim. He used a more down-to-earth example that people could relate to their everyday lives: If a hotel denies entry to a person because he is black, he said, then the hotel should be shut.
When black Cubans gather, the topic of racism readily emerges. But the government does not permit clubs, associations or movements based on race; there is no NAACP in Cuba, nor would one be allowed.
Cuban race relations are thus conducted on the individual level, and because of cultural factors they lack the element of confrontation. This is a nation where a man can refer to his dark-skinned girlfriend as "mi negra," or "my black woman," without giving it a thought or raising any hackles. It is a society where friends can tease each other about how dark their skin is and no one takes offense; where a tan-skinned woman can casually say of a party she attended, "Oh, there were a lot of negros there, so I left," and no one seems uncomfortable or embarrassed. Cubans love to laugh, love to employ their well-developed sense of irony.
"There is an important difference between our two countries," said Alexis Esquivel, an artist who has helped organize groundbreaking exhibitions here on the theme of race. "In the United States, you can't joke about race, not at all, but you can talk about it seriously. Here in Cuba, you can joke about race all you want. But you can't talk about it seriously."
Cuba's Racial History
Cuba has a familiar history of slavery and emancipation, but also a history of widespread intermarriage. The result is that racial lines are not nearly so clearly drawn, or so immutably fixed, as in the United States. There has not been a census since 1980-81, and at that time a majority of Cubans identified themselves as white. Most Cuban scholars discount that result, estimating that the Cuban population is between 60 percent and 70 percent black or mulatto (mixed-race). They also question the usefulness of official government statistics on race that are based on that census.
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Carving Cultural Space
"The first thing you're accused of when you do work like this," said artist Alexis Esquivel, fingering his long dreadlocks, "is that you're doing something to damage the image of Cuba."
"Work like this" means the exhibitions that Esquivel, 31, and a group of Cuban artists, black and white, organized on the theme of race in Cuba. The first was called "Keloids," a reference to the raised scars that form when African skin is wounded.
One artist, Manuel Arenas, showed two paintings that dealt with black Cubans' experience in the streets--one titled "Look Out, There's a Black Man," and the other titled "ID Card" and showing a black man, set against the national emblem, opening his identity card as if to show it to a policeman. Another artist, Rene Pena, played against the stereotype of the Cuban black man as sexually voracious with a photograph of a black man's nude torso in which the penis is replaced by a knife blade.
Esquivel's work in this show, mounted at the Center for Development of the Visual Arts, centered on the soga--a rope that was used long ago at dances and other functions to separate blacks from whites. The soga is a theme he returns to again and again, sometimes installing a rope high in a gallery so that only the observant notice it, sometimes using the rope as a barrier, sometimes tying rope tightly around his face like a horse's bridle--or an instrument of bondage.
To Esquivel's surprise, the exhibition was reviewed in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma. The review was generally positive, if somewhat cool, but the significant thing was that the show was acknowledged at all. Esquivel went on to help mount a second "Keloids" exhibition.
Esquivel's own history is instructive. A mulatto by Cuban standards, he grew up in a small town in the interior. His artistic talent was recognized and he was sent to another province, Pinar del Rio, to attend a special school. Almost all of his classmates were white, and to hear him talk of the experience is like listening to a young black man talk about how he felt going to St. Albans or Sidwell Friends.
"I had to suppress my musical tastes," he said. "I liked traditional music, music you could dance to, but my friends were all into rock. I was conflicted."
"People would say something like, 'Those blacks, they're horrible.' Then they'd turn to me and say, 'Oh no, Alexis, we're not talking about you, you're fine.' Imagine what that does to a person."
He recalls the moment of his radicalization: For an assignment in school, he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." From that point, he identified himself as black.
"I remember going home on a visit," he said, "and telling my mother not to use hair straightener anymore."
Esquivel's partner in putting on the exhibitions was a Cuban art historian, Ariel Ribeaux, who wrote the manifesto for this gathering movement of black-themed art. Ribeaux's award-winning essay was entitled "Neither Musicians Nor Athletes."
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© 2000 The Washington Post
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