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Amid sweeping changes in US relations, Cuba’s race problem persists

In 1959, Fidel Castro said he would work to erase racial discrimination, but inequality is still widespread

Official Cuban census figures say black and mixed-heritage people are about 35 percent of the island’s population, but a quick stroll around any Cuban town will provide visual confirmation of just how many Cubans of color deem themselves “white” when the government is asking. That may not be surprising, given that race is not an objective scientific category, but rather an organizing principle of political power — both before and after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

The black and mixed-heritage share of Cuba’s population is closer to a two-thirds majority, according to other sources, including the U.S. State Department (which puts the figure at 62 percent), the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (also 62 percent) and Cuban economist and political scientist Esteban Morales Domínguez (who says it may be as high 72 percent). Most of these assessments break down the population into roughly equal blocs of white, black and mixed.

Even the dominant Cuban terminology signals the issue’s knotty intricacy: the decidedly un-PC term mulatto is used tenderly in conversation, defiantly on official documents, and derisively by the concerned neighbor who asks what color skin a robber had.

Now, as the country enters a new era of fast and sweeping change, a long-taboo political conversation about race is on the table as never before in art, music, film, and writing; in both official and dissident narratives; and in diverse circles across the socio-economic strata.

This conversation is new. Cuba pre-Fidel had been a place where multiracial alliances coexisted with persistent, entrenched racism and vast racial inequality. The last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista, was a mulatto who may have had some Chinese and Indian blood. While he may have firmly ruled that system of inequality, he was, demographically speaking, more inclusive than were the white revolutionaries who overthrew him.

From its start, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement was dominated by middle-class white men. So white were its ranks, in fact, that during initial clashes with Batista’s army, the government men were shocked.

“When Captain Yañes came upon Castro hiding asleep in a bohío, it will be recalled that the soldier who found them cried: ‘Son blancos!’ ‘They are white!’ … It is not clear how many of the rebel army in the Sierra were black but a majority certainly were not, and Almeida, a mulatto, was the only officer of importance who was,” wrote Hugh Thomas in his encyclopedic history tome “Cuba, or, the Pursuit of Freedom.”

But once the rebels won and tens of thousands of the wealthiest whites fled to Florida, Castro emphasized independence from American capitalism, improvements in healthcare, and literacy drives — and he also told American journalists in January 1959 that his new government would work to erase racial discrimination once and for all. In 1962, a North American survey found that 80 percent of black Cubans were wholly in favor of the revolution, compared to 67 percent of whites.

The ensuing years saw visible gains towards social equality. The entire country was literate, regardless of color, and the 1980s, in particular, saw a generation of young black Cubans whose parents had been sugarcane and service workers enter the workforce as doctors, engineers and professionals. Still, despite major economic and social gains, black Cubans — apart from General Juan Almeida Bosque — remained unrepresented in the political leadership. In the years between Castro’s ascendance and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, race was an issue kept under the rug.

“Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about,” wrote Roberto Zurbano, editor of the government-owned Cuban Casa de las Américas publishing house, in a 2013 The New York Times op-ed. “Before 1990 … to question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.”

‘The term that was used by the police force to refer to citizens who weren’t white was ciudadano con caracteristicas — citizen with characteristics.’

Alexis Romay

mixed-race Cuban writer

When Soviet subsidies ended and the country stumbled into a deep economic crisis, racial inequality became more pronounced. Remittances from Cuban Americans — who are 85 percent white, a bit more than 10 percent black or mixed-race, according to U.S. census information — mostly benefited white Cubans. Flicking on a TV to watch a Cuban telenovela revealed whites in leading roles. Staff in the country’s lucrative tourism industry were also white.

Morales Domínguez found that in 2005, 73 percent of scientists and technicians were white; 80 percent of professors at the University of Havana, too. These numbers held for the rest of the country. Blacks were unemployed at double the rate of whites. Blacks spearheaded more black-market activities; jails held 85 percent darker-skinned Cubans.

In Cuba’s particular version of stop-and-frisk, Morales Domínguez also found that blacks were stopped on streets at far higher rates than whites.

“The term that was used by the police force to refer to citizens who weren’t white was ciudadano con caracteristicas — citizen with characteristics,” mixed-race Cuban writer Alexis Romay explained to Al Jazeera. “If you were walking around with a group of friends, and the friends were a mixed variety of races — white guys, mixed race guys, and black guys — when the police stopped you, only citizens with characteristics would have to hand over their IDs.”

And despite official silence on the race issue, an overwhelming majority of Cubans — three-quarters, according to Morales Domínguez — agreed with the statement that “racial prejudice continues to be current on the island.”

The very fact of Morales Domínguez’s book — put out by an official Cuban publishing house, printed in Cuba — pointed to an awakening, in the nascent era of Raul Castro, in the discussion of race. But the narrative remained stilted. After the publication of his Times op-ed, Zurbano wasn’t fired, but he was demoted.

Raul Castro’s economic reforms between 2007 and 2013 have further exposed racial tension. Cubans with tourist-corridor homes or startup capital leverage resources to take full advantage of new laws that allow for restaurants, non-professional businesses, the purchase and sale of private property, and more.

“The problem,” said Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Institute of Afro-Latin Studies at Harvard University, “is that the new policies produce losers, because their chief concern is not social justice, but economic growth and survival. None of these policies is racially defined, but they produce new forms of social inequalities, and those inequalities tend to be racialized quickly because of unequal access.”

Recent months, and arguably years, have seen increasing public discourse around race: a two-day forum in December, a Ministry of Culture-sponsored rally, themed exhibits. A lot more, said de la Fuente, has yet to happen to fully remedy Cuba’s race issues: better, more accurate information, to start, along the lines of accurate census data and analysis, followed by policies that address the realities that information reveals.

But, he added, “The great success of the Afro-Cuban movement is that now, the starting point [of the official government perspective] is that there is indeed a problem.”

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