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    RACE AND COLOR IN CONTEMPORARY CUBA

    RACE AND COLOR IN CONTEMPORARY CUBA
    Gayle McGarrity

    When I first returned to the United States in 1982, after living for a
    year and a half in Cuba, I was eager to share with my colleagues the
    extent to which and class divisions were still a glaring reality
    in ´Revolutionary Cuba´. However, no one wanted to listen then.
    I had visited Cuba for the first time in 1976, when I travelled there
    with a group of Jamaicans interested in the legal and penal system. As
    it turned out, we never got even a glimpse of the system, but it
    was a great opportunity to get a first hand view of other aspects of
    Cuban society. One of the first things that made an impression on me was
    the way in which white and mulato Cubans stared at a couple in our
    group, composed of a very beautiful part Chinese, part Indian and part
    African girl and a very handsome, very black gentleman.
    As I stayed longer in Cuba, I was very disappointed to find that
    attitudes towards race and ethnicity were similar to those in the
    English speaking Caribbean in the 1950`s. I soon realized that the
    reason that the "interracial couple" from the Jamaican legal tourism
    group had been stared at so much was that their relationship violated
    the norms of´ blanqueamiento´- literally whitening. It was expected that
    a girl with the characteristics which I described above, would yearn to
    ´whiten´ herself, or more precisely her progeny, by finding a lighter
    hued as opposed to a more Negroid sexual partner.
    White Cubans on the island prided themselves on having eradicated
    racism. However, racism to them meant legalized segregation, lynching
    and other manifestations of the ideology of white supremacy in pre-
    Civil Rights United States. The fact that there was no longer legalized
    discrimination in public places was touted to mean that there was no
    longer racism. I soon realized that Cuba was not really a socialist
    state anyway; that is, one based on true Marxist Leninist principles.
    But even if we are to accept that the government was really based on
    these principles, no serious attempt had been made to root out the true
    ideological bases of racial injustice.
    As an anthropologist, I base my conclusions on techniques of participant
    observation, which simply means immersing oneself to the greatest degree
    possible into the society and learning about attitudes, behaviors and
    practices from the inside. As a woman of mixed racial descent, who is
    fluent in Spanish, I was in a unique position to capture the ideas and
    beliefs, i.e. the ideology, of Cubans of all different racial
    classifications. According to popular perceptions, Cubans are usually
    divided into the following phenotypical groups:
    • prieto, which means very black;
    • negro, which means black;
    • mulato, which means more or less half black , half white;
    • moreno, which is a little lighter than mulato, with whiter features;
    • jabao, which means with light skin but negroid features;
    • indio, which means that one appears to be like an Amerindian, but is
    actually a light skinned mulato or darker white;
    • trigueno, which is almost the same as moreno or indio, but literally
    means wheat colored;
    • blanco, which means white in appearance
    • rubio, which is blond.
    It is important to emphasize that these categories are not carved in
    stone. They often overlap, and different individuals will consider the
    same person to belong to a different category. Also, as the aim of the
    racial hierarchy in Cuba, and in most of the Hispanic Caribbean and
    Latin America, is for everyone to gradually whiten themselves or
    ´mejorar la raza´- literally improve the race – persons will be ascribed
    a ´higher´ position in the racial hierarchy if the observer likes them
    or wants to ingratiate him or herself to the observed individual.
    During my first trip to Cuba, I also observed that those of similar
    phenotype tended to date each other, almost without exception. That is,
    a mulato claro would be seen with a mulata clara, a rubio with a rubia,
    a prieto with a prieta, etc. I found this strange, expecting that, in a
    society moving towards color blindness, one would not find people
    sticking to their own precise category in their choice of a partner.
    When someone of a darker complexion did go out with someone lighter,
    they were generally considered to have really 'improved' themselves
    (adelantar la raza- to improve the race).
    I was also disappointed to see that there were absolutely no
    contemporary books on blacks in Cuba, or under the topic of Afro Cuba in
    the bookstores. The exception was books by Fernando Ortiz, a
    pre-Revolutionary ethnologist and folklorist. Whites claimed that there
    were virtually no blacks in higher government positions because blacks
    had not really participated in the Revolution. I determined that I would
    find an opportunity to return to Cuba and to really assess the situation
    methodically.
    As luck would have it, my home in Kingston, Jamaica, was right next to
    the Cuban embassy, so I went there often. When I told them excitedly
    that I wanted to study blacks in Cuba, I was told that I should go to
    Oriente, the Eastern part of the country, as that was where all of the
    blacks were. I would come to learn that this was an expression of the
    white Cuban tendency to claim that all blacks were descendants of
    Jamaican and other West Indian immigrants to Oriente. When I would
    protest that the Spanish had lots of slaves and that all of the blacks
    could not possibly be descendants of the West Indian immigrants, known
    derogatorily as pichones (literally blackbirds), I was told that all of
    the ones who had come as slaves had intermarried, as the Spanish were so
    much less racist than the British. White Cubans expressed sympathy for
    the Jamaicans who were under the British, who did not mix with them,
    supposedly, and so the black population there was not able to dilute
    itself and move up the racial hierarchy.
    I returned to Cuba on several occasions between 1976 and 1981, when I
    returned to pursue a Master´s degree in Public .
    It did not take me long to realize that ´culture´ in Cuba was European
    culture. This perception was not only a result of a history of European
    colonialization and slavery, but was also a reflection of the tenets of
    Marxism Leninism, as promoted under the Cuban so- called socialist
    system. The text by Constantinov, used in all educational institutions
    on the island, and called Fundamentos de Marxismo Leninismo
    (Fundamentals of Marxism Leninism), supported a Darwinist view of social
    evolution, under which societies progressed from primitive communism,
    through feudalism and capitalism, and on to socialism and communism. The
    problem with this approach, as far as perpetuating erroneous views of
    human history, is that it places all of African traditional societies at
    the lower rungs of evolution and the European societies near the top.
    Part of the reason for the Eurocentric concept of culture which is so
    pervasive in Cuba is that the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1959, and has
    remained relatively isolated from world intellectual currents since
    then. Only information that the government wants to enter the island
    does so. So all of the changes in mentality and practice that occurred
    in the United States, Brazil and throughout the region, during the 1960s
    until the present, have only recently filtered into the island and into
    the cultural framework of inhabitants. Despite the indisputable
    limitations of the Black Power movement in the United States, and the
    more recent growth of a similar phenomenon in Brazil and in other parts
    of Latin America, the transformation of Eurocentric views of history,
    culture and aesthetics has been invaluable in successfully attacking
    manifestations of cultural imperialism. Black began to be seen as
    something beautiful and not something that needed to be diluted in order
    to be acceptable. Numerous studies revealed the richness of African
    culture and the important contributions of African history to world
    culture and social development. Yet in Cuba, when manifestations of this
    new consciousness timidly emerged, they were brutally repressed, despite
    current government claims that concepts of negritude -a movement with
    roots in the Francophone world, which promoted black civilization and
    culture – were encouraged.
    As I continued to live and study in Cuba, I desperately struggled to
    cling to the belief that those party members who were blatantly racist
    were exceptions to the rule. I wanted to believe that the suffocating
    white superiority that transcended all parts of the society was only a
    vestige of the past. But then I began to see how this institutional
    racism was being reproduced in revolutionary Cuba. I became familiar
    with the Ley de la Peligrosidad (Dangerousness Law), which was used to
    dissuade Cubans from interacting with foreigners, but which
    disproportionately affected darker skinned Cubans. This law allowed
    Cuban police to harass, arrest and even imprison anyone whom they deemed
    to be a potential or actual delinquent, without any specific charges
    being placed. Under this law, young blacks, both male and female, are
    still routinely questioned if they are seen around foreigners, and a
    general perception is created that all who are involved in the black
    market and other ´criminal´ activities are black. Black women seen with
    foreigners are automatically assumed to be ´´, or prostitutes,
    whereas white women who associate with foreigners are usually left alone.
    Although I was treated much better than darker skinned Cubans, I was
    still not considered white, so I did feel discrimination. When I would
    attempt to enter places reserved for tourists, I would always be
    questioned and had to make sure that I always had my foreign passport
    handy. At I was considered a 'mulata para salir,' loosely
    translated as a mulata good enough to go out with publicly which, of
    course, implies that there are some mulatas good enough to be intimate
    with but not to go out with publicly. I had short hair at the time that
    I would sometimes wear curly and sometimes straight. Fellow students,
    both white and mulato, would encourage me to always wear my hair
    straight, as I had ´pelo bueno´ (good hair) and so I should not reduce
    my status by wearing styles more associated with black phenotypes.
    Although there are some blacks and mulatos in administrative and
    director positions, most ´bosses´ are white. A friend of mine in
    Santiago de Cuba did an informal survey to determine in how many
    situations blacks were in charge of white and other workers. In 1995,
    just by observing activities around his majority black city in Oriente
    province, he could find none. Those in the Cuban government who respond
    to complaints – from African Americans and others – that blacks are in a
    subservient position on the island, point to the fact that there are
    several institutes dedicated to the study of Afro-Cuban folklore. They
    fail to mention that, as of 1997, whites headed virtually all such places.
    White Cubans, and those who defend their interests, also argue that most
    of the police who harass black Cubans are themselves black. I have not
    seen proof of this, but even if it is true, it is still no different
    from the fact that the police used to repress blacks in racist South
    Africa were overwhelmingly black. We all know how oppressed people are
    often used by their bosses to oppress their own. In the Cuban case, this
    is why the police are often recruited from amongst ´palestinos´ (a
    derogatory term for those who have immigrated to Havana from Oriente),
    so that they feel less affinity to the black Habaneros and thus have
    fewer qualms about harassing them. The term palestinos (Palestinians) is
    used to designate the residents of Oriente, who are seen as fleeing
    adverse economic and social conditions there to take refuge in the more
    developed capital.
    In the last decade, more and more tourists have gone to Cuba, not only
    to enjoy tropical beaches and cabarets, but to explore Afro-Cuban
    culture. This is laudable, as the cabarets were other places in which
    racism was blatant. It is amazing how Americans, both black and white,
    who are so critical of phenomena like blackface when it is found in the
    United States, do not criticize it when they see it at Tropicana (the
    most prestigious Havana cabaret). When I expressed my dismay in 1981, I
    was told that it was not racist, just an example of Cuban culture. This
    is just what white Southerners in the U.S. said when they were
    criticized in the 1950´s and 1960´s for segregationist practices.
    As the tourists are now quite interested in the black population and its
    cultural expressions, blacks have become quite in fashion. Police no
    longer harass people sporting dreadlocks as much, and foreigners are not
    steered away from aspects of black Cuban culture like rumba and
    Santeria, to the extent that they were when I lived there. Darker
    skinned women are not harassed for consorting with foreigners to the
    same extent but, as with so much else in Cuba, the policy changes from
    day to day. One day, state security can be seen finding girls and boys
    for tourists´ sexual pleasure, some of them very young; a few weeks
    later there will be a crackdown on jineterismo and offenders will be
    systematically rounded up.
    When I was living there and the dollar was prohibited for all Cubans,
    some santeros –traditional practitioners of African religion – charged
    foreigners only in dollars. The practice led me to question whether or
    not the African deities were only concerned with the welfare of those
    who had divisas (foreign exchange). One of the great contradictions of
    the Cuban system is that all Cubans are by no means equal. Those who are
    in superior positions in the party and government have more privileges.
    At the time when I was living and travelling to Cuba (during the 70s,
    80s and 90s), only those Cubans who were high up in the party could
    enter the diplotiendas – diplomatic stores- and travel abroad. Now,
    there is a complicated system through which Cubans can travel if they
    are sponsored. This involves considerable expense and paying fees, but
    at least it gives ordinary Cubans a chance to see the outside world. As
    more and more Cubans take advantage of this, so do more and more black
    and brown Cubans. I have not yet had a chance to study the extent to
    which these new possibilities have altered the system by which mostly
    white Cubans sent remittances to their families back home, thus
    increasing their purchasing power and standard of living. I suspect,
    however, that the fact that more non-whites are travelling and sending
    money and coming back with increased financial resources may have
    somewhat increased their social status.
    I have been motivated to write this article by the words of a black
    Cuban supporter of the Revolution, Esteban Morales . The latter, in a
    statement refuting what an influential group of sixty African Americans
    were saying about the government´s failure to protect the civil rights
    of blacks on the island, claimed that many blacks lived in inferior
    situations because they did not know how to transform their situation.
    ´No saben como aprovecharse de las oportunidades que la Revolucion les
    ha dado´ (They don't know how to take advantage of the opportunities
    provided by the Revolution). My position is that the blacks are
    perfectly able to take advantage of opportunities when they are
    presented to them. I know too many very well educated blacks,
    particularly those who studied languages and other careers connected to
    the tourist sector, who have been unemployed for years. It is a well
    known fact that the best jobs, in fact almost all of the jobs in the
    tourist sector, are reserved for whites. When I was visiting the island
    frequently in the 90´s, the argument was that white Cubans had to limit
    the amount of non-whites in the tourist sector because the Spaniards and
    other Europeans did not like to see them. I would argue quite the
    contrary, that it is white Cubans who do not want to see them.

    While apologists for the Revolution claim that most black Cubans support
    the Revolution, during my years of contact with the society, I have not
    found that they do to a lesser or greater extent than other Cubans. As
    in all systems, those who stand to gain from the system, support it.
    Those who continue to live in dilapidated homes, who suffer from
    discrimination in jobs and , who form the majority in the
    prisons, who are noticeably absent from local television and are the
    brunt of most jokes, obviously expected more from the Revolution. Of
    course, when they begin to protest they are told that things are much
    worse in the United States and, if they complain, they are playing into
    the hands of U.S. imperialism. Apologists for those in power point to
    Juan Almeida, the only black who has maintained an elevated position in
    government, as proof that blacks in Cuba have power. However, these same
    individuals say that Colin Powell, former Secretary of State in the
    United States, and President Barack Obama, both African American, are
    just "puppets." Why is it that the proponents of the Revolution see the
    latter as mere figureheads, while Almeida is seen as being so powerful?
    Although Almeida is usually trotted out to receive foreign dignitaries
    from black countries, I would suggest that he has very little real
    power. In this regard, Cuba is essentially not much different than
    Brazil – not all the poor are black, but virtually all of the rich are
    white.
    In Cuba, as I have implied above, racism and discrimination are linked
    to lynching and dogs being set on peaceful demonstrators. The fact that
    blacks are the brunt of most jokes is not considered racism. The fact
    that most white Cuban men cringe at the thought that a white woman might
    have sexual relations with a non-white man is not considered racism. The
    fact that the participation of blacks in world history, and more
    particularly in Cuban history, is left out of text books is not
    considered racism. The fact that African phenotype (like kinky hair,
    broad nose and big lips) is largely regarded with contempt, is not
    considered racism. The fact that the most deteriorated residential areas
    are where the majority of blacks live, is not considered racism. The
    fact that Fidel always refers to his Spanish father and never to his
    light skinned mulata mother, is not considered racism.
    Those who take exception to the petition by the African Americans to
    which I referred above, claim that the Revolutionary government cannot
    be accused of racism as it helped defeat and colonialism in
    Southern Africa, sent doctors and other professionals to work in
    underdeveloped nations and has allowed students from many black
    countries to study free of charge on the Isle of Youth.
    It is not clear whether or not the present Cuban government provided
    assistance to liberation movements and governments in Africa for purely
    altruistic reasons, or because of geo-political considerations. Helping
    to cadres in these countries has done much to secure support for
    the Cuban revolution in international fora like the United Nations. Just
    because doctors and other professionals go to work in black countries
    does not mean that they do not have racist ideas. Many of those who went
    abroad, either as military personnel or as professionals, and with whom
    I spoke in Cuba, expressed great resentment that they had to go there.
    Albeit, many of the professionals did not object, as they received
    consumer goods, like cars and electrical appliances, and often improved
    housing, when they returned.
    Some assert that Armando Hart Dávalos, who was Minister of Culture for
    far too long, is not racist and Eurocentric because he allowed black
    musicians to travel and even live abroad and to return when they liked,
    in contrast with earlier policies that made it impossible for those to
    leave to come back. First of all, the main reason that he allowed
    musicians, not only black ones, to go in and out is that the government
    has been very embarrassed by the number of 'cultural workers' who have
    defected while away on foreign trips. Secondly, his cultural policies
    have always been very Eurocentric. There is no comparison between the
    way that the Conjunto Folkorico, which is largely but not exclusively
    Afro Cuban in orientation, has historically been treated, and the way
    that the Ballet Nacional has been nurtured. The Director of the National
    Ballet, Alicia Alonso, was criticized some years ago for not having any
    dark- skinned dancers in her group. She apparently reluctantly relented.
    In conclusion, Cuba is not the only racist country in Latin America. The
    kinds of manifestations of white superiority that are discussed here are
    by no means exclusive to Cuba. We could be talking about Brazil,
    , Dominican Republic or Colombia. But Cuba is the only country
    in this hemisphere which has had a successful revolution that has
    claimed to be dedicated to eradicating social and economic injustices
    and inequality.
    I will never forget when I presented a paper on Racism as a Public
    Health problem in the Americas, at a conference on Social Sciences and
    Medicine in Caracas in 1995 and I was interrupted after only 5 mins. of
    the 20 mins. allotted and reprimanded. I was told by the outraged chair
    of the conference that racism was only a reality in the United States.
    It was unknown in Latin America. As I talked about subjects like the
    ways in which white elites abandoned their mixed race offspring, who
    often grew up resentful and disenfranchised, the cheeks of the almost
    exclusively white male participants grew crimson. The exact same kind of
    reaction is occurring now, at the end of 2009, when a brave group of
    African American intellectuals dare to protest manifestations of racism,
    epitomized by the unjust arrest and detention of a mulato activist on
    the island. In a response by black Cuban intellectuals, identified with
    the government, we are told that these Americans have no right to
    comment on race relations on the island because the United States is the
    most racist country in the world, and Obama only became president by
    denying his ´blackness´. The fact that African Americans live in a
    racist society is no reason why they cannot criticize racism in other
    countries, just as members of this group of intellectuals have always
    done at home. As I emphasized throughout this article, we expect more
    from a Revolutionary process than from societies that are unabashedly
    capitalist. The fact that unconditional defenders of the Revolution fall
    back on the old tired accusation that those who criticize anything about
    Cuba, even in a spirit of constructive criticism, are agents of
    imperialism, is lamentable.

    http://miamiherald.typepad.com/files/mcgarrity-on-cuba-and-racism.doc

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