Saturday, March 20, 2010


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 racism 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 prison 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
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 Health.
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 ´jineteras´, 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 school 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 education, 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
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 apartheid 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 train 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,
Venezuela, 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.

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