Cuba’s complicated relationship with race

Story posted May 15, 2014 in CommMedia in Cuba by Stephen Pianovich.

HAVANA – Esteban Morales Dominquez has studied Cuban race relations more than anyone. And while race may not be the most discussed issue on the island, the historian says that inequality toward non-white people is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The official word from the Cuban government, and one that many citizens are quick to reiterate, is that regardless of skin color, “we are all Cubans.” But, because of what Morales and another black historian, Manuel Cuesta Morua, identify as a lack of opportunities for non-white people and a regression in the way they have been treated, some Cubans are feeling less Cuban than others.

Morales and other black intellectuals want to shed light on what they believe is still a prevalent issue.

“We have a lot of ignorance about the problem,” said Morales, a white-bearded 72-year-old black man, who has spent 30 years studying race relations in his home country. “Black or white people can say ‘In Cuba, we have no problem of race, it’s not real.’ But we have a problem.”

Morales explained mixed-race, and especially black people face multiple obstacles in a society where chances are supposed to be equal for citizens regardless of skin color. According to Morales and Cuesta, blacks and mixed-race people in Cuban are often not considered for powerful jobs, are targeted by police and historically live in more rundown neighborhoods.

The government says 65 percent of its citizens are white (meaning they are most likely of Spanish decent), 25 percent are mixed race (mostly either mestizo or mullato) and 10 percent of the population is listed as black, though there have been flags raised over the accuracy of those figures.

In socialist Cuba, mixed-race and black people have had, on the surface, the same chances as white people in terms of education and work since Castro came to power 55 years ago. According to the CIA fact book, Cuba has just a 4.3 percent unemployment rate and 99.8 percent of its citizens are literate.

But Morales – who was reinstated in the Communist Party in 2011, two years after being expelled for speaking out against some of its policies -- says the issue of racial equality goes much deeper than statistics.

“The problem of race is not inside the signs – the social signs. …The racism is here,” he said pointing to his head and his heart. “It’s not outside.”

Despite efforts from Morales and other outspoken people, the government rarely speaks about race relations publicly. But that was not always the case.

Fidel Castro first brought up the issue of racial equality in the workplace just after his successful revolution in 1959. Just three years later, Castro deemed the problem of discrimination to be over.

Morales, who has written three books on the matter, including 2012’s Race in Cuba, which was published in English in the United States, would be the first to tell someone just how complex race relations are in Cuba, and how they impact daily life.

The historian pointed out whether it be the Spanish, the United States after the Spanish-American War or one of the Castros, white people have been at the top in Cuba for hundreds of years, and that has had a trickle-down effect throughout society.

Both Morales and Cuesta noted, for example, that in tourism – which has been one of Cuba’s biggest industries since it opened up to the world in the 1990s – black and mixed-race people will working at hotels, but as doormen and in the kitchens. White people, on the other hand, are much more likely to have management jobs.

Cuba does not have affirmative action policies, which are common in the United States. And while it may not be the conscious choice of white people to keep themselves higher on the totem pole, there seems to Cuesta to be a glass ceiling for most black and mixed-race people in Cuba.

“They put barriers for black people to be promoted and be bosses,” Cuesta said through an interpreter. “Headquarters, politics have always been dominated by white people.”

Cuesta has analyzed race in Cuba for 15 years, and he noted the idea of the ceiling for non-white people certainly stretches beyond the realm of employment and governance.

“There’s a saying in Cuba: A white man can say, ‘My best friend is black, but I wouldn’t want him to marry my sister,’ ” said Cuesta, who lives in an apartment with his white girlfriend.

Cuesta also pointed out Greek and Russian Orthodox – which are very much minority religions in Cuba – are allowed to build churches, but people who practice Santeria, a religion brought to the Americas by African slaves, have to do so in their homes.

Santeria is one of the fastest-growing religions in Cuba. Santeria is a predominately black religion, but accepts all races, and as it has grown, has seen more white and mixed people begin to join its practices.

 “Our religion does not discriminate. We accept everyone,” said Alberto Perez Amelo, who practices Santeria.

Like Perez, many Cubans say they do not view race as a problem – no matter what their racial makeup is.

“Even though I have mixed roots and am a mestizo, I am Cuban,” said Higdalys Yanet Horilla Fernandez, a mestizo woman who lives in Havana. “Black, white, mestizo, mullato – everyone is Cuban.”

Ana Julia Grant, a 54-year-old black woman, said even if there were bad feelings between whites and blacks years ago, they are gone now. She added Cuban people are “like siblings.”

“Forty years ago, the whites may have exploited the blacks,” she said. “But the revolution made it better. Schools were open, more opportunities were there for all people.”

Cuesta said that the health of Cuba’s economy has had a great impact on race relations, and over the past 30 years the economy has been struggling. When more people had money, he said, tensions between races diminshed.

“In the 80s, there was more equality, both socially and economically,” he said. “It was more difficult to see difference between blacks and whites, because all people were better off.”

Cuesta added “the economy fluctuates, but culture hasn’t” in terms of race. But to get to that point, both Cuesta and Morales believe there needs to be change in both the way racism is taught in schools and the way its represented in the country’s statistics.

Morales is a part of a commission on race that is trying to have black history taught in schools and discussed more openly in the mass media. Named “Aponte” after the group of slaves who led the first revolt against the Spanish in the 19th century, the commission’s mission is to get reports on racism from all provinces in Cuba and give a presentation to the country’s National Assembly on the findings.

Morales is confident the committee can make a difference. And even if it does not result in immediate change, he at least wants there to be a conversation.

“In Cuba, we are doing nothing for the debate of racism,” Morales said. “The complaint is not real, about the racist people. And because of that, at this moment, we have problem of race again in Cuba.”