Monday, May 2, 2011

Racism in Cuba Bounces Back

...or Did It Ever Go Away?

In my 1998 trip to Cuba, I had on language and cultural blinders; unable to see the real Cuba that has been driving so many citizens away since Castro took office. An overwhelming majority of these citizens were white. By the time I arrived in Cuba, more black Cubans were fleeing the island, like my personal friend, Vladimir, who risked his life on a raft made of inner-tubes. I was only interested in improving my Spanish, developing my salsa dancing skills, and learning about Afro-Cuban history and culture.

I felt very much at home with the black presence almost everywhere; on campus, in shops, at the airport, in taxis, not to mention the black doctors and engineers. In fact the first black astronaut in the world is Afro-Cuban. However, my time spent in Cuba was not enough time to experience the racial frustrations of Afro-Cubans. People were generally nice to me, primarily because I'm a gringo, who perceptibly had a lot of money to circulate in their economy.

Cuban civil-rights leader Oscar Biscet is serving a 25-year sentence in a maximum security prison for trying to follow the path of Martin Luther King.

When Fidel Castro took office in 1959, he issued anti-discrimination laws and declared the end of racism and discrimination. I was always wondering why an overwhelming number of white Cubans were fleeing the Castro regime during the 1960s and 1970s, and not too many of the blacks. Perhaps, this had a lot to do with opportunities being opened to black Cubans that were not open to them before. Even though black Cubans have made great advances under the Fidel Castro's regime (blacks in no other Latin American country comes close), many young Cubans contend that a form of structural racism exists, and that it is getting worse. In the tourist industry, which is growing by leaps and bounds while the rest of the Cuban economy languishes, blacks are underrepresented in the big new five-star hotels and the ancillary services springing up, such as waitresses, doormen, tour guides and cab drivers. Organizations like the NAACP are not allowed in Cuba. Dr. Oscar E. Biscet, President of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, attempted to follow the path of Martin Luther King and is currently serving a 25-year sentence at a maximum security prison.

In the film Inventos, black Cuban hip-hop artists speak out against racism and unemployment.

In music, young Cuban songwriters slip in sly lyrics about skin color, unemployment and racism. At a recent performance by the popular group NG La Banda, for example, the singer added a line about a black man being stopped by police on the street. That is the one concrete, on-the-ground issue that almost all black Cuban men, especially young men, can relate to: being halted by police and made to produce their documents. There was a case of a black man who went to a party where there were a number of black couples. When he told his story of being stopped in Havana while an identically dressed white man was allowed to breeze by, and how he demanded to know why he was singled out, the cop said police were looking for someone with physical characteristics like his. Everyone laughed because four or five black men there had experienced the same thing, and were also told, “we are looking for someone with physical characteristics like yours.” The black man who told the story went on to add that if the cops are going to lie, they should at least be original!

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