Seattle Post Intelligencer
Friday, May 31, 2002

Progress for Cuba's black citizens?

                By CLARENCE PAGE

                HAVANA -- To most people in Cuba or outside of it, race is a big non-issue
                on the island. However, if race isn't much of an issue here anymore, color still

                Tanya Quintero, a light-skinned mulatta and prominent independent journalist
                in Havana, said she was not aware of racial discrimination until she had a
                daughter with darker skin than she. Suddenly, some of her friends referred to
                her child with a Spanish phrase that literally translates as "sour or dark
                stomach" but figuratively is slang for "a child who comes out darker than her
                mother," she said. Lighter-skinned children later made fun of her daughter for
                being a "marron," brown.

                With her conscience heightened, Quintero left the official press a few years
                ago and wrote articles like one that she published last year titled "Where Are
                the Blacks?" It called attention to the near-absence of dark-skinned faces on
                official Cuban television. Within days after the article appeared on a Spanish
                Web site, Quintero says, three new dark faces appeared as announcers on
                Cuban TV. "The state security police always monitor our work," Quintero
                says, certain that the new hires were no coincidence.

                If so, we can at least thank the Castro government for being responsive. But
                as the government has flirted with capitalism, legalizing private possession of
                the dollar and signing contracts with big hotels to lure tourists, another echo of
                the old regime has returned: lighter-skinned Cubans displacing those with
                darker skin for highly visible and lucrative jobs in the country's bustling new
                tourism industry.

                Also the millions of dollars in "remittances" that Cubans in the United States
                and elsewhere send their relatives back on the island every year reach few
                "black" Cubans because more than 90 percent of the exiles are "white." As a
                result, the long-standing economic gap between darker and lighter Cubans

                I use quotation marks around "black" and "white" because the terms don't
                mean the same as they do in the United States, with our traditional "one-drop
                rule." Race in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, is somewhat fluid: You are
                pretty much what you say you are, even within the same family.

                Cuba has done what California activist Ward Connerly is calling for in his
                proposed ballot proposition to stop California from asking questions about
                race on state forms. Cuba's government does not keep a racial count, and as a
                result, racial estimates vary. Most Cuban and State Department estimates put
                the island's black and mixed population at more than 60 percent. An eyeball
                examination of the streets of Havana quickly bears that out, along with an even
                greater dominance by white Cubans in the higher echelons of the government
                and business enterprises.

                "We fought the revolution not as Afro-Cubans but as Cubans," said Juan
                Diego Nusa, a tall, dark-skinned journalist for Cuba's official AIN (National
                Information Agency). He was decidedly content with the government's
                equal-opportunity efforts. His sentiments were echoed by other official Cuban
                journalists when they were questioned by the group of black American
                journalists with whom I was traveling.

                They spoke of how awful things were for black Cubans before the Castro
                government took over in 1959. Blatant racial segregation was so fierce that
                Fulgencio Batista, the island's light-skinned mulatto dictator, was nevertheless
                too dark to be admitted to the tony Havana Yacht Club.

                Castro, the son of Spanish immigrants, who had such dark-skinned blacks as
                Juan Almeida and Guillermo Garcia Morales in his revolutionary command,
                outlawed racial discrimination five years before the United States passed the
                Civil Rights Act of 1964. Blacks have benefited greatly from new access to
                schools, health care and other opportunities that were opened to people of all
                colors on an equal basis under the law.

                But at least twice since the mid-1980s, Castro has called for new vigilance
                against the color prejudices that persist in his political party and in Cuban

                And, when my touring colleagues and I broke away from the official tour
                group, it was not hard to find a more diverse set of opinions than the official
                journalists gave. Some blacks are beginning to ask openly what the revolution
                has done for them lately.

                The success of race relations in Cuba seems to be a lot like it is in America: It
                depends on whom you talk to. As Castro flirts with capitalism and begins to
                look 75, new questions need to be raised about what is going to happen to his
                revolution. I have little doubt that the lure of free enterprise will outlast his
                brand of socialism. But, in the meantime, his brand of capitalism is beginning to
                parody the worst sins of capitalism, including prostitution, street hustling and
                discriminatory color codes.

                Like Americans, Cuba's "blacks" are making progress. I shook hands with
                Ruben Remigio, the country's first dark-skinned Supreme Court president. But
                the true nature of progress is hard to measure because the government is
                reluctant to keep numbers or engage in accion afirmativa, affirmative action.

                That's true to form for Castro. What's the fun of being a dictator if you have to
                be accountable?

                It's a lot easier to leave such messy issues as race in a constant state of
                messiness. It's easier to deny that you have a problem that way, even when
                you do.

                Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Copyright 2002
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