Being a Black Male in Cuba

May 5, 2009 | Print Print |

By Lucia Lopez Coll

In theory, racial discrimination and racism were banned in Cuba after the revolutionary victory of 1959. Photo: Janis Wilkins

In theory, racial discrimination and racism were banned in Cuba after the revolutionary victory of 1959. Photo: Janis Wilkins

HAVANA TIMES, May 5 (IPS) – In his neighborhood they call him Eddy. In the hospital, where he works as an orthopedic specialist, he’s known as Dr. Leyva.

In his community he’s respected, because when somebody has spine or joint disorders they will immediately look for him. In the hospital, he has the reputation of being a “troublemaker,” because he protests too much when things are not as they should be.

In his neighborhood he likes to wear Bermuda shorts and sandals. In the hospital, everyone says he’s the best dressed doctor there, because he always wears a tie-one for everyday of the year.

In his neighborhood the police asked him for his ID card. They searched the bag in which he was carrying clothes to be laundered. Then, when he protested the search in full public view, they took him to jail. Now Dr. Leyva has a police record for “disobeying the authorities.”

“Yes, I protested; I had to protest, because on the same corner there was a group of men talking, the same ones as always, the ones who don’t work and live off of ‘inventing.’ Yet and still, it was me they stopped. Do you know why? Clearly it was because I’m black.

“It’s not the first time that the police have asked me for my ID or searched me, but it has never happened in the neighborhood, in front of a whole group of people who know me. I felt so humiliated I had to protest.”

“That doesn’t mean that I feel discriminated against all the time, but it happens in very precise instances. Especially when they call me ‘my negrito,’ or ask if I’m a “negro blanco’ [a "white black," meaning uppity], or ask if I feel blanco por dentro [white inside]. It’s something that makes my hair stand on end, but I have to look the other way. I have no other remedy than to every day make myself stronger and better.

“I believe in personal effort to advance in life, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. Of my four siblings, only Regina and I studied at the university, and we’re generally respected and have friends of all colors. On the other hand, I don’t believe that my older brother can say the same thing. It’s not because he’s a bricklayer, black or doesn’t have a degree, but because he drinks too much. He can’t hold a job, and even his own family doesn’t think much of him.

“That is my personal experience, but I believe that there is indeed still racism in Cuba, even among people of my own color, because the lighter ones think they have adelantado [advanced] the race.”

The Law and Reality

Nevertheless, 50 years later, the question of racism and racial discrimination are emerging with a strange force. Photo: Samantha

Nevertheless, 50 years later, the question of racism and racial discrimination are emerging with a strange force. Photo: Samantha

In theory, racial discrimination and racism were banned in Cuba after the revolutionary victory of 1959. Equality-in terms of woman’s rights with regard to men, and for blacks and mestizos with regard to whites-was among the most just and significant advances in the development of the new system, from a social point of view.

Nevertheless, 50 years later, the question of racism and racial discrimination are emerging with a strange force, given the fact that for a long time the controversial issue had been buried, as if at any time it had really ever been resolved and overcome.

In the 7th Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) complaints were repeated that had already been heard in the 6th Congress (1998), when it was recognized that the economic crisis had taken a costly toll in the social environment, whereby inequalities had been accentuated and a loss of values had taken place. This was said to have been accompanied by a certain setback in the mentality of people, which reactivated supposedly eradicated manifestations of racism.

At that instant, the group Color Cubano was created within UNEAC with the objective of systematically addressing the problem of racism by influencing the presence and treatment of blacks in the media. The group was also charged with renewing the awareness of black people’s historical contribution to the liberation of the Cuban nation.

The issue of values was reintroduced by the delegates at the Congress, in 2008, who decided to create a permanent commission dedicated to promoting deep and fundamental reflection on racism. As Minister of Culture Abel Prieto expressed at the conclusion of the assembly, this responds to the need “to restore the spiritual fabric of the society in places where it has been damaged.”

From that call emerged the forum Debates Unión, which meets on the second Thursday of every month for members of the organization, various specialists, and all those interested in participating. The exchanges are held in UNEAC’s Rubén Martínez Villena Hall.

Presided over by poet and essayist Victor Fowler, the gathering recently benefited from the participation of Esteban Morales, an outstanding economist and researcher who in 2007 published the book Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba (Challenges of the racial problem in Cuba), with the Foundation Fernando Ortiz. The work deals with the lingering prejudices and negative stereotypes that sustain discrimination against blacks on the island.

Morales believes that in Cuba there is a clear need to address the racial problem, though-from the scientific point of view-very little inquiry into the issue has been conducted, since the matter was considered legally resolved in 1962.

With the crisis of the 1990s, it became evident that, far from disappearing, the problem had become embedded. Now it is impossible to hide it, but it is still cloistered, and as long as it is not discussed, it cannot be solved. Photo: Samantha

With the crisis of the 1990s, it became evident that, far from disappearing, the problem had become embedded. Now it is impossible to hide it, but it is still cloistered, and as long as it is not discussed, it cannot be solved. Photo: Samantha

“Later we became aware that it had been an act of voluntarism and idealism,” the specialist asserted. “For a long time, if someone approached the topic they could be accused of being racist and divisive; this created an atmosphere of social and political repression in this respect,” he pointed out.

“With the crisis of the 1990s, it became evident that, far from disappearing, the problem had become embedded. Now it is impossible to hide it, but it is still cloistered, and as long as it is not discussed, it cannot be solved,” Morales added.

He believes to approach the matter scientifically, it is necessary to generate reliable statistics. The last census taken in the country considered skin color only from the macro-level.

In the 2007 Statistical Yearbook, the indicators “have no color,” which makes it impossible to assess the advances of a specific group. Likewise, the true level of poverty is concealed. Though a struggle began against that evil in 1959, not all poverty is same, the expert indicated.

The percentage of poor in Havana is higher among blacks and mestizos in Havana, Morales notes. “Race doesn’t exist, but color does,” he highlighted, “and it has an ancestral history behind it. For that reason it is important to measure the advances of those who started out the furthest behind.”

“Generally, skin color is not considered as a variable of social differentiation in Cuba, but when it is ignored, it is more difficult to understand many of the problems that we face, such as family violence and marginality,” Morales noted.

“Nor are there ethno-racial studies, only minor surveys, and therefore the untouched realities of the matter return to haunt us. At the moment, there is a campaign abroad against Cuba that resorts to the issue of race, but here there are no counterarguments,” he concluded.

Essayist Victor Fowler believes that even though problems related to racism have not been completely resolved, there are undeniable advances. He notes that there is a variation in the terms and essential vectors that endured from slavery to neo-colonial Cuba and from there to socialism.

What prevails now, in his opinion, is cultural racism, based on the persistence of prejudices and deeply ingrained stereotypes.

Only Studying White Culture

 Essayist Victor Fowler believes that even though problems related to racism have not been completely resolved, there are undeniable advances. Photo: Caridad

Essayist Victor Fowler believes that even though problems related to racism have not been completely resolved, there are undeniable advances. Photo: Caridad

Professor and researcher Mirta Fernandez, a specialist in African and Caribbean literature, believes it is indispensable to revalue the contributions made by blacks to the Cuban nation. “What is known about the peoples who were brought to Cuba, their original cultures and their traditions?” she asked.

“In our schools we ignore that history, we don’t consider it, and in a country of blacks and whites, you cannot only study white culture,” she stressed.

Another criticism that arose in the discussion was directed at the use of the female image, specifically, the mulata as a sex symbol in tourism campaigns.  Added to this, an alert was sounded about how racism is accepted in jokes and pejorative attitudes, despite the need to combat and eliminate these expressions.

Gisela Arandia, who presides over the Color Cubano Project, that among its objectives includes raising awareness about the problem of racism, identified the lack of systematic treatment and approach to the situation as preventing true progress.

Some specialists agreed while pointing out that among the evident advances over the years has been a growth in self-esteem among Cuban blacks and mestizos.

It is no coincidence that a remarkable percentage of Dr. Leyva’s co-workers-excellent professionals-are black or mestizo: Alicia, a dermatologist; Caesar, an endocrine specialist; Armando, a geriatrician …

In his neighborhood of Guanabacoa, Armando lives in the same solar (tenement) that his parents moved to when they married, 60 years ago. He grew up in a very low-income household, but one in which the children were raised to have good manners and were encouraged to study for a professional career as a way to obtain social recognition.

In his surroundings, Armando is just another guy, though he has aspirations that not everyone around him shares.  He hates the ruckus and promiscuity of the densely populated quarter, and would like to have a calmer life, with more privacy to study, but he has not found the way to improve his housing situation. Nevertheless, he doesn’t blame the color of his skin or racism for not having been able to fulfill his aspirations, instead he points to the current circumstances facing the country.

The importance and significance of this phenomenon demands that concrete actions be taken. If the racial problem is social-as the participants in the Debates Unión forum believe-it will not be solved if an anti-racist approach does not become entrenched.

However, it is also evident that while it is not possible find an immediate solution to the array of challenges that face Cuba, progress will be much more difficult in an environment where such a complex problem exists.

Translation by Havana Times


What's your opinion?

  • Milagros

    The importance and significance of this phenomenon demands that concrete actions be taken. If the racial problem is social-as the participants in the Debates Unión forum believe-it will not be solved if an anti-racist approach does not become entrenched.

    My question is why now? Why now is this being discussed? Why have Cubans, regular every day Cubans not spoken out against this terror. in the past.
    I walk these streets everyday in Havana and i see exactly how i am looked at. I have been stopped with my american passport and questioned until they find that my Spanish is as good as theirs and better andf they discover whom i am related to and whose daughter i am.

    i have been stopped by a few yoing people here and asked if i am the rabble rouser to which i declare sure am! and why do they ask? maybe they read the havana times..you think..LOL
    Perhaps they want to pick my mind, and ask the question How can we change this..
    I am a firm believer in organizing, i am also a supporter of the revolution but know that some things must change and the arrest of those who are do gooders in the community must cease.The same ideals which lead the leadership to throw out Batista are the same ideals that must lead to change

    So back to organizing..When will it begin..i am available

    Let me tell you why..because the majority of those who are racist are those whose forefathers owned us and to say anything different now is to be seen as a traitor.