Cuba: Racism, An Unfinished Issue

¨Even in the Cuba of today, it's not the same when you are poor and white than when you are poor and black," says Cuban political scientist Esteban Morales.

"The only way we can solve this is by strictly seeing to it that the job opportunities are the same to everyone, especially in the new economy. I mean tourism, joint ventures with foreign capital and the educational sector. It also takes a strong cultural work. Actually, our skin color should not be an issue when we educate people. But what's really happening is that our students usually grow up thinking that is better to be white, and that being black is a disadvantage."

According to demographic studies, over 50 percent of the Cuban population is composed of black and mixed race people.

Cuba is a multiracial society.

Racism is an unfinished issue in Cuban society. "We have to admit the problem is there. We have to learn about its impact on the social project we defend, and we have to deal with it seriously," says Esteban Morales, an economist, researcher, political scientist and author of articles and essays on this subject.

As a researcher of the Center for Hemispheric and U.S. Studies (CEHSEU), an institution attached to the University of Havana, he is very familiar with that country, from where about 60 intellectuals, including some prestigious ones, accused the government of Raúl Castro of persecuting and harassing people for their skin color.

To Morales, such accusations have "nothing to do" with the reality of his country and "they are based on the same campaigns that the U.S. governments have historically carried out against the Cuban Revolution."

"We talk about racism and we say we have to improve the democratic and civil rights, not only for the black people, but for the entire society. The senor political leadership of the country is our ally in that struggle," he states.

IPS – What are the reasons behind the Cuban Revolution's failure to eliminate the disadvantages of its black population?

Esteban Morales – Despite the radicalness of the process that began in 1959, the social projects did not consider the skin color for many years. Upon the triumph of the Revolution, and as part of the social policy, every poor person received the same treatment and there were no differences between black and white people, which was the right thing to do because the skin color in Cuba is a strong variable of social differentiation.

White people came here of their own freewill, as colonizers, with a life project they quite often carried out. Black people were forced to come and turned into slaves. Those are different starting points, which cannot be forgotten or disregarded. And their influence has lingered on.

Even though everybody climbed up in the social scale, and black people achieved a more favorable position during the last fifty years, the deep differences did not disappear completely. When the special period arrived (the crisis of the ‘90s), we realized black people were the most affected ones by the crisis, they were the ones with the smallest chances to have a life project.

Even in the Cuba of today, it's not the same when you are poor and white than when you are poor and black.

IPS – However, in 1962 the Cuban government said that the issue of racism had been solved.

EM – It was a mistake resulting from idealism and voluntarism. They were pressed by the political circumstances of those years. From that point on, a long period of silence on the issue began, under the justification that speaking of such differences meant playing into the enemy's hands. Those who insisted were considered racists and divisionists.

The issue gained ground during the special period, I would say, with the typical virulence of something which, although considered solved, is really not.

IPS – You have often said that people in this country are educated "to be white." Do you think it is fair to consider this kind of contradiction an "institutionalized" way of racism?

EM – It's sort of an institutionalized way, not resulting from a directive or a conscious process, but from failures and errors in the educational process, in the teaching of history, in the racial representation in our books.

Those problems have nothing to do with the institution, but with aspects and problems of social life, with malfunctions and flaws of our society. In Cuba, there is still not enough racial consciousness. That is not important for white people, because they have always been in power. But black people must have racial consciousness to fight against racism and for their place in society.

Racial discrimination is a phenomenon that remains in people's mind, in the family, in personal relations, sometimes in some institutionalized groups, and that is not something we can solve easily.

IPS – What would you propose to solve these deficiencies in the educational sector?

EM – The only way we can solve this is by strictly seeing to it that the job opportunities are the same to everyone, especially in the new economy. I mean tourism, joint ventures with foreign capital and the educational sector. It also takes a strong cultural work.

Actually, our skin color should not be an issue when we educate people. But what's really happening is that our students usually grow up thinking that is better to be white, and that being black is a disadvantage.

We have to solve the western-like problems in our educational sector. We have to go deeper in the teaching of history, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, in the racial representation in our bibliography. We must discuss the issue of racial discrimination in our schools, so that our boys are ready to defend themselves when they go out in the streets and listen to a racist expression.

IPS – What's your proposal in social terms?

EM – The "we are all equal" thing was also a slogan of the republican demagogy. Equality is the project, the desiderata, while inequality and difference is something we run into everyday.

We have to start from inequalities, which exist in our society, even though we have struggled to eliminate them to the very same edge of egalitarianism. They are an inheritance, and at the same time, a phenomenon that can reproduce itself as a result of malfunctions of our social model, which needs to be improved.

Only if by completely understanding such differences and working on them will we be able to reach the true equality.

IPS – Do you think a specific policy for black people is necessary?

EM – There is a certain policy of affirmative action in Cuba, although we do not call it like that. After thoroughly researching into the situation of the family, into the problems of children, of the disabled, of the different social groups, we then carry out affirmative actions in practice, because in that way we can make a connection with the most historically deprived people, with the most vulnerable ones.

We have issues to solve, and we can only do it separately. Housing, employment, healthcare. We should always take skin color into account, and the bigger the sample (of the studies) is, the more we realize black people are in the bottom, people of mixed race in the middle and white people on top.

IPS – Why is it that this well-known issue is not thoroughly discussed by everybody, including the Island's press?

EM – The issue is gaining ground among intellectuals, in the community and in the cultural centers. But it also needs to move to the State institutions, the political organizations, the social and mass organizations of the country. That's what we are asking for. Because according to our studies, over 60 percent of the Cuban population (11.2 million) is not white (black and mixed race people).

IPS – Do you think it should be part of the political agenda as well?

EM – Absolutely. The fact that president Raúl Castro referred to this issue in his speech before parliament last December 20 (2009), it makes you think that it could be part of the agenda for the coming 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). And if that's not the case, I think it should be in it.

Plus, there are two commissions looking into the problem from different angles. One is from the National Library and the other from the National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC). Parliament should also have its own commission for this issue.

If the National Assembly discusses the religious issue, women's problems, young people's problems, then why not dealing with the racial issue as well, which I think is at the same level and has been more disregarded?

IPS – Is it possible that the discussion could be interrupted by the fear that it might create internal divisions or that it could be used against the Revolution?

EM – On the contrary. What the enemy is really using in its campaigns is how long it has taken us to deal with this topic. Not talking about it is what could really divide us.

In terms of our external and internal image, what really affects us politically is to talk about something that is not in line with reality, because until very recently we used to say that there were no racial problems in Cuba.

Taken from IPS 2010-05-03