As Cuba prepares to enter its fifth year of sweeping economic reforms to jump-start its lumbering economy, many say the changes have had an unintended effect: drawing attention to the thorny subject of race.
A recent rally on racial discrimination in Cuba, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, was dubbed “Talking about discrimination hurts. Not talking about it, divides us.”
The government-sanctioned dialogue organized by the Regional Chapter of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean (ARAAC) has taken on an educational tone in the form of book presentations, academic discourse and even music concerts.
Another event, the two-day public forum — entitled “Race and Cuban Identity: Cuba’s Past, Present and Future” — was organized by the opposition’s Committee for the Racial Integration of Citizens (CIR). It focused on inequality of Afro-descendants in Cuba “in the midst of economic adjustments.”
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Among the topics: lack of equity for the island’s black community, increased levels of poverty and vulnerability, and the meager number of Afro-Cubans in managerial jobs.
Black Cubans are trapped between “an economy of survival” and “the informal economy,” opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morúa said during the forum.
Reaction to the historic announcement this week that the U.S. and Cuba plan to normalize relations reflected the sharp divisions within the Afro-Cuban community, with some supporting the deal and others opposed.
“The problem is not the embargo or the U.S. government. The problem is the system in Cuba that does not work,” said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White dissident group. “There is no benefit for the Cuban people in this deal, only for the government.”
For decades, Cuban officials resisted talk about racism on the island, saying that such a debate could weaken “the nation’s unity” and undermine the revolution. But economic reforms pushed by Cuban leader Raúl Castro have laid bare vast racial inequities. Now, the government has signaled that it’s acceptable to talk about race and has even initiated some of the conversations.
But CIR’s leader, Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna, said that the ARAAC event was “a political response” to the dissident’s forum, “orchestrated by those same authorities who oppose talking about racism and who try to suppress our initiatives.”
“They’re the same authorities who demonize us as the ‘Afro-right’ and categorize us as instruments of North American politics,” he said.
However, the government’s official support of the ARAAC rally is viewed by some as a positive outcome for activists, especially because it came after its founder, Roberto Zurbano, criticized the organization for lacking public support.
In an editorial in The New York Times headlined, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution hasn’t begun,” Zurbano also criticized the government for not allowing racial prejudice to be publicly debated. Instead, it has tried to pretend as if it doesn’t exist, he said.
“Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications,” Zurbano wrote. “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.”
After the article appeared last year, he was fired as editor of publications for Casa de las Américas, a cultural institution in Havana.
Cuba began showing deep inequality during the 1990s so-called “Special Period” that saw a severe economic crisis and it has increased over the last decade, said Alejandro de la Fuente, director of Institute of Afro-Latin American Studies at Harvard University.
De la Fuente, who has written A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba, said the social and racial equality gap among black and white Cubans widened after the welfare state — which distributed goods in a way that was largely egalitarian — disappeared with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former benefactor.
“Those elements haven’t been restored,” de la Fuente said. “It’s doubtful that they’ll ever be.”
Remittances sent by relatives abroad also contribute to inequality because the funds mostly land in the hands of the island’s white population. While reforms aren’t racially defined and aren’t policies that hold racial biases, they do carry racial implications, he said.
“That’s where we circle back to the issue of remittances and the access to housing and decisions about which buildings and homes will be open for tourists,” de la Fuente said.
Those are, to a greater extent, also in the hands of the white population, he said.
Since the 1990s, the racial consequences of economic policies enforced during the “Special Period” have been debated. Expert recommendations haven’t translated into concrete policy changes. And Raúl Castro’s economic reforms have done nothing to bridge the economic gap among the races, de la Fuente said.
Part of the problem, he said, is the lack of recent data.
According to official statistics provided in 2002, unemployment was 3 percent higher among blacks and mulattos. Whites were 8.3 percentage points above average among the self-employed, and more whites — between 4 and 4.9 points above average — were employed in managerial, scientific and intellectual jobs.
“In the 90s, there were many studies that at least demonstrated that there was a problem, and I think that should be revisited again,” de la Fuente said. “Political debate about this is very important but in order to design concrete policies, we need more extensive information about this and we’ve been lacking in that department.”
Sandra Alvarez, a black activist and author of a blog titled, Negra Cubana tenía que ser (it had to have been a black Cuban woman) said more support is needed for organizations like ARAAC. She also pointed to limited Internet access and the absence of laws allowing incidents of racial discrimination to be reported as examples of obstacles to equality.
“We need things to run more fluidly,” she said. “We can’t let ignorance and fears drain our energies.”
Madrazo, leader of the opposition CIR group, said he mistrusts ARAAC and other organizations with ties to the government.
“It’s only through autonomy that citizen activism can move forward,” Madrazo said. “Empowerment and citizen activism scare Cuba’s powerful.”
Despite ideological differences, activists from all sides of the political spectrum have reached agreement about the need to create “specific” and “affirmative” policies.
What Cuba lacks in order to “dethrone colonial patterns and behaviors of exclusion” is a “change in mentality,” said Leonardo Calvo, a member of CIR.
Calvo called for the implementation of effective means of empowerment and adoption of laws to promote justice for Afro-descendants.
“Affirmative policies can play an enormous role in giving society what it needs,” he said. “People’s self-esteems have to be lifted and social environments created. Without these, it will be impossible for the fractured nation to be complete again.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres