Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island

Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island
By: Achy Obejas
Posted: July 26, 2010 at 6:17 AM

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black
intellectuals like to think it is. Today, on the 57th anniversary of the
start of the Cuban Revolution, The Root launches its series exploring
the island's color complex.

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was allowing Cuban artists to
travel relatively easily in and out of the United States, I invited a
well-known Cuban visual artist to visit my graduate class at Columbia
College in Chicago. I wanted her to show the students her work and talk
a little about what it was like to create art -- such a personal
endeavor -- in a society that focused on the collective rather than the

The visit to Columbia, an urban school with a strong arts focus, went
well until the question-and-answer session. An African-American student,
eyes misty with hope, asked, "Is it true that there's no racism in
Cuba?" My friend, a red-haired and white-skinned Cuban, nodded
enthusiastically. "No, there's no racism," she affirmed, and there was a
collective sigh in the class over the very notion that such a utopia
could really exist.

Like my friend, I am also light-skinned -- white in Cuban society -- but
unlike her, I didn't grow up in Havana hearing, and thus believing, in
this human-relations miracle. I was born in Cuba but grew up outside
Chicago in the 1960s and '70s; I'd lived through the U.S. civil rights
movement and worked for Harold Washington's mayoral campaign. I'd
struggled with racism all my life -- racism directed at me as a
Cuban-Latina by white and black Americans, racism by Cubans and other
Latinos of all colors directed at anyone darker, and, of course, my own
racism. And instinctively, I rejected her assertion that racism had been
vanquished on the island -- and I said so right there in class.

This didn't go over well. My students preferred her version of events --
she was the Cuban from the island and had the edge on credibility by
virtue of residence -- but perhaps more importantly, they wanted to
believe her. The idea of a racism-free space was intoxicating.

My friend was also upset. She felt that her credibility had been
publicly assailed and I had failed to understand the real achievements
of the Cuban Revolution. I had gone back to Cuba and missed the point; I
had been obviously brainwashed by my years in exile in the United States

We remained friends but agreed to disagree on this issue. She went back
to Cuba and told her friends her stories about her first visit to
America, including the tale of this silly Cuban-American who'd suggested
that there was still racial discrimination in the homeland.

To her surprise, her black and mixed-raced friends -- including close
and longtime friends -- used the opportunity to express their own
misgivings about the racial situation in Cuba. My friend was flabbergasted.

Why, she asked, if the truth didn't conform to the official story,
hadn't anyone ever said anything before?

And again they replied: When would that have been possible? How could
that conversation ever have taken place?

There's little question that, whatever else the Cuban Revolution has
done or not done, it triumphed with a strong and progressive platform on
race. At every single official level, it explicitly and forcibly banned
racial discrimination. In fact, it may have done so too forcefully.
Because Cuba is a top-down society -- especially under Fidel Castro --
the new anti-racism codes rained down without explanation and, more
importantly, without process. People understood that racism was no
longer tolerated but not how they participated in racist structures, how
they were affected by the legacy of racism and, least of all, how
light-skinned Cubans -- especially on the island -- benefited from those

Because racism was banned and did not officially exist, where was the
venue, the safe space, in which these things could be aired? If there
was no racism by virtue of decree, didn't its mere mention in some way
imply a revolutionary failure? Moreover, the lack of process meant that
there was virtually no vocabulary -- particularly no revolutionary
vocabulary -- with which to talk about racism in Cuba.

The government's good intentions -- combined with a willful silence on
internal conflicts, national pride, a desire to protect a revolution
that seemed constantly under siege, and the goodwill, especially from
Africans and African Americans, that was inspired by the idea of
eliminating racism in Cuba -- made it almost impossible to have an open
and honest discussion about what was really going on.

And there was plenty going on, especially during the Special Period,
which came after the crushing demise of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Suddenly Cuba was at the mercy of a capitalist world economy and
trafficking with foreign investors who brought their own prejudices with
them. Foreign-run hotels delegated black-skinned workers to
behind-the-scenes jobs. Color fetishists in the sex industry re-awakened
the stereotype of the oversexed black woman.

But the problems were not just brought from abroad. With a breakdown in
Cuba's highly regimented economy, the government gave a wink-and-a-nod
okay to a no-rules black market, where day-to-day expression brought
back old prejudices unbridled. Racist language and attitudes came
screaming out of the closet. One of the worst: Negrada -- which means,
literally, a group of black people -- came to signify a screw-up, a
fucked-up affair. ¡Que negrada! became as common as hustling foreigners.

Curiously, the blooming racism, especially when it could be pinned on
foreign inspiration, allowed an opening to discussion. Even Fidel
publicly admitted in 2000 that the mission had not been accomplished.
Afro-Cuban thinkers like Ariel Ribeaux, Pedro Perez-Sarduy, Carlos Moore
and, more recently, artist groups like Omni-Zona Franca and Los Aldeanos
began to tackle Cuban racism head-on.

Their targets have been less foreign influence than Cuba's racist
legacies and the revolution's paternalism. A quick glance at who is
actually in power in Cuba -- a look at who the government actually is --
suggests that there is a big gap between Cuba's talk, especially on the
world stage, and its walk, especially in its own backyard. Many, if not
most, of Cuba's internal dissidents are, in fact, black, including Darsi
Ferrer and Guillermo Fariñas, to name but two. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a
young political prisoner who died recently during a hunger strike and
had been the face of an energized global dissident movement, was also black.

Word has been late to get to the African-American community, which has,
in many ways, held on to the dream of a racial utopia, just as my
students had so long ago. Last November, Moore, now exiled in Brazil,
organized and published a letter critical of Cuba that was signed by
prominent African-American intellectuals, including Cornel West.

Cuba's official response was signed by a handful of intellectuals --
about half of whom are white by Cuban society's definition. But it
started a much-needed discussion on the island. This week, The Root
launches a series taking on the question of race in Cuba today, with
writers on both sides weighing in. This isn't meant to be definitive --
only the start of a longer conversation. We invite you to join in.

Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about
Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the United
States by boat in 1963. Since then she has returned to Cuba innumerable
times. She writes about Cuba for The Root and other U.S.-based publications.

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