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
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.
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
Also the millions of dollars in "remittances" that Cubans in the United
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
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
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:
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
It's a lot easier to leave such messy issues as race in a constant state
messiness. It's easier to deny that you have a problem that way, even when
Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Copyright 2002
Tribune Media Services. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org