Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Race in Cuba: The Eternal 'Black Problem'

Race in Cuba: The Eternal 'Black Problem'
By: Leonardo Padura
Posted: July 27, 2010 at 6:20 AM

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black
intellectuals like to think it is. As part of The Root's series
exploring the island's color complex, Cuba's best-known novelist weighs in.

After almost five decades of Marxist revolution, the official romantic
idea was that, with the elimination of certain onerous economic and
social practices that promoted racial discrimination, the last vestiges
of racism would be vanquished. Given the usual silence with which Cuban
governmental institutions deal with the thornier issues in Cuban society
-- as might be expected -- the deepest roots of prejudice remain
embedded in time, the country's social structure and the Cuban people's
very soul.

Racism -- like prostitution, corruption and religion -- didn't disappear
because of a socialist magical spell: Although diminished and quiet, it
survived among the people, and today, in fact, in certain nonofficial
circles, its incidence in the complex narrative of contemporary Cuban
society is openly debated.

It doesn't seem necessary to go over the reasons that forged racism in
Cuba. They're the same that, with European conquest and colonization,
were imposed on the rest of the Americas with the hegemonic focus on the
metropolis, which, as we know, depended for three long centuries on the
importation of African slaves to sustain the economies of extensive
regions in which the indigenous Amerindian populations had been or were
being extinguished.

Cuban society was thus built with a strict code in which skin color
placed human beings in certain social classes and even within varying
degrees of humanity: Black, in many cases, was synonymous with beast.

"The black problem" is so fundamental, the matter of ethnic origin among
the island's inhabitants so dramatic, and racism so persistent among
those with decision and economic power that Cuba's independence from the
Spanish empire was delayed by almost a century precisely because of its
large number of blacks. (At certain points in the 19th century, blacks
made up 60 percent of the resident population.) They were a people who
had been exploited and who, in a moment of institutional disorder, it
was feared might try to vindicate their rights and their humanity, as
had happened in the neighboring colony of Saint Domingue.

If, as certain historians and sociologists have claimed, "the black
problem" marked the Cuban political landscape at the birth of the nation
in the beginning of the 19th century, its essence returned a century
later when the island, having recently achieved its tarnished
independence, continued its confrontation with "the black problem" by
treating blacks with particular violence in a series of pogroms that
took place mainly on the eastern side of the island, where the majority
of the African-descended population lived.

The curious, contradictory and painful part is that various historians
and sociologists also agree that the persistent "black problem" is still
with us today, in the 21st century, urgently and tensely waiting for a
definitive solution that never comes, in spite of laws, decrees and
official edicts that paternalistically (but that are, deep down, racist)
try to stipulate ethnic representation in certain affairs of state,
government and the Communist Party. As if a few more dark faces in the
official apparatus could really be an answer to the profound problems
that have so much to do with economics and social thought and so little
to do with the utopian volunteerism of our leaders who, in the end, are
simply practicing politics with their "anti-discrimination" decrees.

The painful truth is that, in Cuba, the vast majority of the prison
population is black or mixed-race. The most physically ruined parts of
the cities are those where most black and mixed-raced Cubans, weighed
down by spiritual burdens and secular misery, have lived for
generations. They are also the ones who, in the economic and social
climbing of the last few decades, are least represented ... and let's
not mention certain attitudes, repressive attitudes -- in other words,
the attitude of the Cuban police, where blacks are mostly concentrated
at the bottom of the pyramid -- that treat dark-skinned persons with
much greater rigor ... precisely because of the color of their skin.

In its culture and idiosyncrasies, Cuba is a mestizo nation: a mix of
spiritual and ethnic elements brought from Europe, Africa, China and
neighboring Caribbean isles that contributed at a cellular level and can
be seen on the skin, in the values and cultural expressions of Cubans.
Cubanness is mestizaje. Nonetheless, the old prejudices live on in the
minds of many people, while the social system, with its egalitarian
laws, hasn't been able to liberate black people from the poorest margins
of society. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the definitive
answer to this problem demands new and more dynamic policies that,
unfortunately, mostly depend on an island bereft of economic
possibilities for white, mulatto and black Cubans so in need of
improvements in their real and everyday life.

Leonardo Padura, Cuba's best-known novelist, is the three-time recipient
of the Dashiell Hammett Award given by the International Association of
Detective Writers. His most recent novel, El Hombre Que Amaba a Los
Perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), features Leon Trotsky and his killer,
Ramo'n Mercader, as its main characters. He lives in Havana and can be
reached via Achy Obejas.

Translation by Achy Obejas. Read her piece on race in Cuba in the first
installment of this series."

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