Did the Revolution End Racial Discrimination in Cuba?

April 15, 2016 |

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Norberto Mesa

HAVANA TIMES — The United Nations designated March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, Cuba’s official media, tasked with covering (and criticizing) US President Barack Obama’s address in Cuba, made absolutely no mention of the day.

Civil society organizations, such as the Citizens Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) and the Black Brotherhood (Cofradía de la Negritud), did celebrate the occasion. I attended the activities organized by both organizations.

Norberto Mesa Carbonell, the founding member of the latter, invited me to the event for the second consecutive year. In 2015, the function was held at the Cuban Chapter of UNESCO. This time around, the condition for holding the gathering at this venue was that dissidents and independent journalists were to be excluded. Norberto replied that his organization condemns all forms of discrimination. The activity was held at the Veterinary Scientific Council, located on Paseo Street, Vedado.

As in 2015, the function was an opportunity to condemn and analyze inequality and racial discrimination in Cuba. Norberto Mesa spoke of how he lost his job as a porter at the Hemingway Marina in 2009. “They had to cut back on personnel. There were three black and two white employees. The manager, who was also white, fired the three blacks.”

From Engineer to Porter

I wasn’t able to include Norberto’s story in Quienes se preocupan por la discriminacion racial en Cuba (“Those Concerned with Racial Discrimination in Cuba”), an article dealing with the activity published in Diario de Cuba, because of space restrictions. A month later, Norberto granted me an interview on a Sunday, the only day he gets off his current job (at a parking lot) a bit early. All other days, he works from 8 to 8.

When we begin our conversation, I find out that this man, who fought to keep his job as a porter in 2009, is an agronomist and expert in genetic procedures for the livestock sector, and that he was once Assistant Professor at the Havana Higher Institute of Agronomy. My first question is how this engineer ended up a porter.

Norberto Mesa: I was the head of the Genetics Department at the Niña Bonita Company and I was in Ethiopia from 1987 to 1989. Our government had donated a lot of cattle to the Ethiopian government. I was sent there as a genetics expert to help get the most out of the cattle.

When I got back, Niña Bonita had merged with Los Naranjos, another company, and I started work there. There were some inconsistencies in the data there. The chief of production was doctoring the results to impress foreign visitors. They were falsifying data to improve indicators. Cattle mortality rates were behind concealed, saying the calves that had died had been slaughtered. I resigned, submitting a letter that said I was ashamed to work there.

Norberto didn’t look for engineering work. The Special Period had begun and genetic work in the livestock sector had “been razed to the ground.” A friend found him a cashier-receptionist training course. After some time and overcoming a number of initial hurdles, he began working as a hotel receptionist. Before leaving Niña Bonito, he made a commitment.

Norberto: I promised that, if Niña Bonita ever became a company again, I would go back. It happened, and they immediately called me. I also lived in an apartment owned by the company. A friend of mine thought I was crazy to leave the hotel, but livestock is what I like.

Niña Bonita became a leader in the sector and my work was also acknowledged. But the deputy chief of production was from Los Naranjos. They counted the cattle and some cows were missing. He tried to convince the manager that the cows had been slaughtered, because telling the truth involved a long explanation. I was against this and, even though he was my superior, we did what I said we should: tell the truth. Afterwards, I started having problems with him and decided to leave.

The commission was in charge of deciding who would be representative

Norberto couldn’t return to his job as hotel receptionist. He started working as a watchman. He had a friend who was the manager of a chain of stores at the Hemingway Marina and he went to him for help.

Norberto: When this whole business of the People’s Power councils began, he was advanced as candidate, but only because they needed another candidate, so that there were at least two. I presented myself as candidate, knowing he would be elected in the end and that I had to vote for him as well.

HT: Why?

Norberto: That’s how it worked. The blessed commission decided who would be representative. He went on to become First Secretary of the Communist Party in Bauta. I had completed my cashier-receptionist training course and went to see if he could get me a job at a store. He said to me: “I’m going to get you a job at a warehouse, but I can’t have you in direct contact with the public.”

Norberto Mesa

HT: Why?

Norberto: Why do you think? Because they didn’t want black employees interacting with the public at the Marina.

HT: Did he say that to you?

Norberto: He didn’t have to say it. At any rate, the warehouses were shut down. Another acquaintance of mine got me a job as a watchman in 1997. Two years later, they fired two porters because of a problem they had and their positions opened up. I had level-two English and level-one French, I was working at the Marina and I got the job. There, I got to level-three English and level-two French.

Three Blacks and Two Whites

Norberto: In 2008, I was voted best reception employee. Then came the cut backs. There were five porters: three blacks and two whites who were Party members. They didn’t speak English. One of them barely spoke Spanish. They got rid of the three blacks.

I registered a complaint at the Department for Labor Justice, because we were more highly qualified than they were. They didn’t meet the established term to reply to our complaint. The entity acknowledged we were more highly qualified, but ruled in favor of management.

I went before the Municipal Court, which also didn’t meet the response term. They made up evidence there. They said those two workers had an excellent employment record. That was a lie: the three of us had gotten a B, because an Excellent had to be justified thoroughly.

HT:  They didn’t take the fact you’d been voted best employee into consideration?

Norberto: No. The court refused to hear my defense attorney. They included nothing of what I said in the ruling. You’re inexperienced and they make you sign a document. Then you find out nothing of what you said was included in it.

I decided to initiate proceedings

Norberto: I went to the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC) and the affiliated National Tourism Trade Union. They all acknowledged the irregularities but no one did anything. The fellow at the Trade Union Bureau, perhaps feeling a bit guilty, wrote a letter saying that only seniority had been taken into consideration and performance at work had been neglected.

HT: Isn’t seniority enough?

Norberto: Only if one’s work record is good. Neither one of them spoke a foreign language. I submitted that letter to the Supreme Court. They also ruled against me. The ruling had the name of a different person.

They hadn’t completed my employee evaluation at the hotel either, even though I’d submitted all the documents in time.

I decided to get a legal process going. At a public law firm, they suggested I approach the Attorney General’s Office. I explained to them I wanted to press charges for violation of the right to equality in the workplace. The acting attorney didn’t know Article 295 of the Penal Code, dealing with this type of violation. She asked a clerk to look over the Code. When they saw the article, they apologized. They had never received this type of complaint before. They sent me to the police. Neither the receptionist, nor the officer on duty nor the chief knew of the article. When the chief of police confirmed the article actually existed, they had them take my statement.

In 2011, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in connection with racial discrimination in administrative organs and legal proceedings, reminded the Cuban State that the absence of cases related to this issue may be owed to the fact victims lack information regarding existing legal mechanisms, and suggested the State should ensure national legislation include appropriate provisions to effectively protect these, as well as efficacious resources to prevent the violation of the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, duly informing the general public of their rights and the legal resources at their disposal in this connection.

During the 2013 Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, the Cuban State received the recommendation of continuing to strengthen its legal and institutional framework to combat discrimination and racial prejudice.

Norberto: Days later, my old friends from the Marina called me to tell me the police had gone there, “asked questions, said you had pressed charges. They got rid of Cristo, the manager.”

A month later, they summoned me and told me there had been no crime and, as such, the case was being dismissed.

HT: Then why did they fire the manager?

Norberto: There’s allegedly no racial discrimination here. They won’t open up a case for that. I was the first to press such charges and the prosecutor never spoke with me, but decided to dismiss the case nonetheless.

HT: Perhaps the manager’s decision had to do with the fact they were Party members and you weren’t.

Norberto: Perhaps. But, after the second process, one of us three got his job back. Of the two who had kept his job, they got rid of the one who was less qualified. As for me, they didn’t give me my job back or reassess me.

With the government’s approval

HT: During the function for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Esteban Morales affirmed they have always relied on the government’s approval – both from Fidel and Raul Castro – to combat racism. But your case, the fact authorities were not aware of Article 295, and the fact you couldn’t register the Brotherhood in the Associations Registry, demonstrate the opposite.

Norberto: During his interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro said that fighting against racial discrimination is one of the sacred duties of revolutionaries. Today, the Party’s attitude is reactionary. Instead of being at the forefront of this struggle, they hold it back.

The Ideology Secretary of the Young Communists League University Committee at the Central University of Las Villas invited us to hold a debate about the documentary Race, with students and young people there. They blamed the Party for the fact the fight against racism isn’t making headway. The next day, we had a debate with professors and university students about the Brotherhood’s letter of introduction. I reminded people of what Che Guevara used to say: that the university had to be open to blacks, mulattos and poor people. Now, we don’t see that many black or people at university. A white girl said that, there and then, among so many professors and students, there were barely any blacks.

When we left, the Ideology Secretary was pulled from the UJC. The professor at the Social Sciences Faculty was expelled from the Party.

In 1959, Fidel Castro shook the country when he rallied against racism and called on black Cubans to be the most devoted revolutionaries, to work so as to be beyond reproach. He told Ramonet he was dissatisfied with the situation of Cuba’s black population. We believed his words, we considered him a soldier in the fight against racism. But, in his last article, following Obama’s visit, he says the revolution swept racial discrimination off the map. That’s not true. The revolution thought it had swept it off the map. It’s hard to acknowledge it still exists.

HT: What do you expect on the subject from the upcoming Party Congress?

Norberto: I’m not optimistic. I don’t think they’ll even debate the issue.

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What's your opinion?

  • Chuck1938

    I commend you deeply for your hard and courageous fight. This uphill battle should not weaken your fighting will. There are so many, mostly tragic examples for blacks in Cuba for standing and fighting = for our rights that has been shamefully robbed from us. From Aponte, Quintin Banderas, Ivonnet, Jesus Menendez until today, very little as changed except the names.
    I did not have the pleasure of meeting you in Cuba, although we both were in the same line of work. I was a Pathologist at the National Laboratory in Arroyo Arenas in 1970 with Dr. Tomas Verdura, Elpidio Chamizo, Juan Ramos, Hugo Fernandez and opportunist, unprincipled Dr. Rafael Urquiaga Varela, who is Black, but worst than some of those who denied you a job and justice.
    In Bayamo, as head of Diagnosis of the Province of Oriente, I challenged the Provincial leaders, who were corrupt, acted as if the laboratory were their private farm and for confronting these individuals, I was accused of the worst crimes against the state, sentenced to 8 years out of thirty in Boniato prison, in Santiago de Cuba.
    No door went untouched, no leader in the judicial and political field did not hear about this horrendous crime, but it was easier to become an accomplice than stand up and defend the truth.
    Since, I have been fighting and seen these rotten individuals fall one by one. Don’t give up the fight for justice, never stop denouncing these crooks or tire. The future of our children is in our hands and we dare not let them down. Abrazos.

  • Moses Patterson

    Racism in Cuba, while much less virulent than the racism that exists in the US, is every bit as real. The problem with racism in Cuba is that far too many Cubans, both white and black, continue to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

  • sandra lally

    No mention is made of how mixed the blood is throughout Cuba. When I visit the island, at least in the Granma area, I cannot tell a “white ” from a “black” unless they are very black and very white. The majority seem a blend. I guess they are mulattos but there seem to be degrees to the skins of mulattos. So are you then saying only the whitest of the white get preference and the blackest of the black are never hired?

    • Griffin

      Good observation, but you can be sure, the Cubans know the difference between the shades of colour.

      If anybody wants to understand racism in Cuba, then you must read the classic Cuban novel, “Cecilia Valdés” by Cirilo Villaverde. Although much has change in Cuban politics, economics and society, race relations have changed very little.

      Blacks in Cuba get hired, but only to certain types of jobs. At hotels & resorts, the managers are pure Spanish, the front desk & waiter jobs go to Creole or mixed race Cubans and the chambermaids, laundry and menial jobs go to blacks. Various shades fill the levels in between.

  • Gordon Robinson

    Your racial background is extremely important in Cuba on how you advance. How many Cubans with a strong African background are employed in the top jobs in Cuban resorts ?

  • Nick

    The revolutionary government was rightly lauded by international civil rights movements for outlawing racism very early in it’s tenure. This was a big step forward for Cuba back in the day.
    However, to outlaw something as deep rooted as racism is one thing and to actually get rid of it is a different story.
    I sometimes see Cuba as great racial melting pot and as a leader in this regard.
    At other times I am shocked by casual racist attitudes which can often pass without comment.
    Black people in Cuba are typically regarded as having a natural affinity towards the entertainment industry, sports, physical labour etc.
    But are not thought of as being the right material for ‘the professions’ (despite the numerous examples which by now should have blown away this mind-set).
    I would agree with Mr Paterson when he says that racism in Cuba is not as virulent as in the USA and that many Cubans of all colours like to think that they have got rid of it.
    But it is the casual racism, the stereotyping and the underlying mind-set which seems to be so difficult to shift in Cuba.
    That someone should have their career path blocked because of skin color is a failure by Cuban politicians and by Cuban civil society.

    • Dro

      Interesting too. All that racism, primarily coming from those Euro descendants, and yet, they can’t help but lay claim to the culture that is primarily African in origin. Not my opinion, but a blatant fact. They all love fried plantains (staple of Africa), drums (product of Africa) and celebrate any black representation of Cuba where the country is made famous (Celia Cruz) but they treat their fellow black man (who helped to fight for and free the island from Spanish colonial rule) like a second class citizen…

  • Gordon Robinson

    Four questions :::
    1. What was racism like prior to 1959 ?
    2. How many of the 82 people on the M.V. Granma had an African back ground when it landed near Niquero in 1956 ?
    3. Which area of Cuba has the highest concentration of Cubans with an African back ground?
    4. Where did the last large immigration to Cuba come from ?

    • Dro

      1. Prior to 1959, racism was far more pronounced. As my father actually noted, during the Batista era (and mind you, Batista as mixed) blacks were not allowed into white owned establishments or properties. He and his mother were actually rejected from a beach because of their mixed ancestry. Batista himself was also refused entry into white owned establishments because of his mixed ancestry, and he was president of the country. That should paint the picture.
      2. I could not tell you. I am sure there were quite a few since many blacks supported Castro.
      3. Eastern Cuba is where many African descendants settled, so the Oriente province is where you find the highest concentration. Some of them came from Haiti and Jamaica, but many came from Africa and were settled there during the sugar boom. However, Western Cuba has a very high concentration as well, Matanzas being home to just about every African cultural element you can find in Cuba. Pinar Del Rio is actually much more African than i originally thought given it’s Congolese history.

      4. Not sure what you mean here. Are you referencing the colonial era during the slave importations? If so, they came from various parts of Africa, Mozambique was one of the last places. If referencing something else, then Haitians and Jamaicans were the last to come in when they arrived to cut sugar cane and make money. Many were sent back home or chose to return home of their own volition.