In November 2019 the Council of Ministers in Cuba approved a national program against racism and racial discrimination, which aims to combat and definitively eliminate this scourge in Cuban society.
To talk about the working premises of this program and how racism manifests itself in modern times, Fernando Rojas, Vice Minister of Culture, Pedro de la Hoz, Vice President of UNEAC (writers and artists union), historian and vice President of the Aponte Commission, Rolando Rensoli and Raquel González, actress, teacher and television director, appeared in the Mesa Redonda discussion programme on national television.
Background: How the Revolution fought structural racism
To explain the history of the struggle against racism in Cuba, Pedro de la Hoz, president of the Aponte Commission, commented that work really began after the triumph of the Revolution.
“Before 1959 there were racist patterns in many areas of society. The first thing the Revolution did was to dismantle most of these practices, although this did not guarantee the eradication of the problem.”
De la Hoz recalled in his speech the poem by Nicolás Guillén, ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’), a reflection of the situation before 1959 and of the changes that took place from that year.
“(…) I have, let’s see,
I have the pleasure of walking around my country,
owner of what is in it,
looking closely what before
I did not have nor could I have.
Zafra I can say,
mountain I can say
city I can say
army I say,
forever mine and yours, ours,
and a broad glow
lightning, star, flower (…) ”
“The Revolution dealt a blow to structural racism, but by decrees, by laws, by changes in economic structures, etc., there could be no guarantee that vestiges of discrimination would remain, because it was in the minds of the people.”
The problem was not discussed further until the UNEAC Congress in 1998, when Fidel Castro talked about how things could be changed, de la Hoz explained.
From there UNEAC began to take the lead on the issue. Later, in 2009, the José Antonio Aponte Commission was created, founded by Miguel Barnet, as a permanent working group to fight racial discrimination and rescue African roots in Cuba.
The name of Aponte honours the forerunner of anti-racism and anti-slavery:
“Aponte is a symbol, he was the first.”
“When the commission was created, a new vision was given to the study of the problem. We have worked over these years in a very intense way, making it clear that the Revolution cannot accept any aspect of racism”.
According to de la Hoz, there came a time when the discussion, from both the government and civil society, demanded a leap in quality and be led by the country’s leadership.
“However, a program does not ensure that racism does not exist,” he clarified.
Current situation: “Racism is a cultural problem”
When referring to the diagnosis of the current situation of racism in our country, the researchers highlighted:
- Insufficient awareness of the prejudices and distorted perceptions of the reality of Cubans of colour.
- Persistence of historically inherited patterns that influence social psychology with long-lasting and latent effects.
- Prolonged silence, from 1962 to 1998, on the survival of discriminatory attitudes and prejudices in our society.
- Distortions due to racial prejudice in the labour market.
- Historically accumulated disadvantages associated with ethnic origin and skin colour that translate into economic and social asymmetries and vulnerabilities not sufficiently studied, although perceptible in today’s Cuban society.
- Not enough progress has been made in understanding the subject in school, including teacher training. It is necessary to examine the situation in higher education.
- Lack of deepening and cohesion of promotion in the media, of Cubans of colour and anti-racist education.
- Need to articulate the fight for the promotion of an anti-racist conscience in our society with that of other peoples, such as the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
- It cannot be ignored that regionalism is not ‘a simple folklore’: prejudices about regional or local origins touch points of contact with xenophobia and this is not far from racial prejudice.
Rolando Rensoli: “I believe in the Cuban colour, [as described by]of Nicolás Guillén”
For Rolando Rensoli, vice-president of the Aponte Commission, the problem of racism is cultural. “In fact, we shouldn’t even be talking about racism. In the nature of man, racism is not applied to his own species.”
It is, Rensoli explained, historical roots with a cultural, economic and psychological background.
But “the most difficult are the psychological roots that racism has in Cuba. There are people who unintentionally practice acts of racism. ”
The researcher also referred to the scientific and social investigations carried out by the national program against racism in Cuba to diagnose the objective and subjective problems.
As part of the current situation, the vice president of the Aponte Commission highlighted the problems of inheritance of instruction, cultural patterns and prejudices in the collective imagination.
“We are talking about [ourselves as] a mestizo people. Ortiz did not compare us with a mixed salad, but with an ajiaco [stew], which is cooked into a mixture.”
For this reason, we are talking about a government program with concrete actions, which includes the ideas of Fidel Castro, José Martí and Raúl Castro.
“The program cannot remain as a slogan. You must have concrete actions. One territory does not look like another. Each locality of the country and each economic and social sphere will have to look inward and see what the problems are and resolve them. ”
Raquel Gónzalez: Art is essential to confront these prejudices
Raquel González, theatre and TV actor, when speaking in the Mesa Redonda programme, considered that an artist, as well as pursuing their vocation and talent, must be clear that their work is making the audience think.
For her, racism underlies the minds of many Cubans and art is essential to face and try to eradicate these prejudices from human consciousness. “The problem is cultural, and art is part of culture,” said González.
“It is a very long battle, talented figures have fought for that. Fidel said in the book ‘One Hundred Hours with Fidel’ that it pained him that black actors were almost always used to play criminals (…) If I am an artist, and Cuban, I must reflect the nuances of our society, “added the actor.
Fernando Rojas: “This is a good and realistic program”
“Starting from guidelines that mark the horizon of utopia, we are recognizing the problem and the patterns that become behaviours,” said the Vice Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, when he began his speech in Mesa Redonda.
Rojas called for converting each reflection into actions and public policies to definitively eradicate this problem.
Amongst these measures, the vice minister mentioned the need to create ways to report all acts of discrimination and address this issue within the media.
The commission is made up of 18 state entities, 18 civil society organizations and 12 research bodies.
The commission, which has already held four sessions, is coordinated by the Ministry of Culture, UNAC, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CITMA. All the work is directed by the President of the Republic, who systematically checks it.
As part of the plan approved by the commission for the year, Rojas said that it will analyze how racism is debated in the international arena and how civil society and leadership structures are projected around the issue.
The solutions will lead to public policies and other tasks, said the deputy minister, who highlighted the words of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, referring to the anti-racism program as “optimal and realistic.”
Minutes before concluding the television program Pedro de la Hoz assured that socialism must necessarily be anti-racist.