by Ron Howell
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba-This is the capital of Cuba's black belt, the place
where slaves rose up against Spain in the 1800s
and where Fidel Castro's band of revolutionaries in 1959 declared a society that would forever end racism on the island.
By the accounts of many observers, Castro went a long way toward achieving
his goal of a raceless society. He
outlawed discrimination. He built schools and hospitals by the score in poor communities where people of color lived.
It is curious, then, to enter the Melia Santiago, eastern Cuba's first
five-star hotel, and find that none of the employees in
the lobby are black.
"One has to notice when one goes into the hotels that out of all the people
working in the front and in management,
maybe one, maybe two, maybe none will be black," said Carlos Thomas Brown, 58, a local musician who is black.
Cubans are ordinarily reluctant to complain about race bias, or even admit
that it exists. But increasingly some are
expressing their frustration.
"Everywhere else in Cuba a black person can rise to assistant manager or
manager of a [state] enterprise," Thomas
Brown continued, "but in tourism, no.
The people who are running the tourism businesses are white, and they prefer
to have their own people working there."
Four decades after Castro's revolution proclaimed the death of racism, scholars and even some government officials say
Cuba's new opening to foreign tourism and the U.S. dollar is reviving old racial attitudes and disparities.
"The evidence is overwhelming that there has been a rebirth of some kinds
of racism, in attitudes and ...even
discriminatory behaviors," said Alejandro de la Fuente, a white Cuban-American and University of Pittsburgh history
professor who recently published a book on race in Cuba. He warned that the problem could worsen if officials-and the
public-do not overcome an ingrained denial that racism can exist in present-day socialist Cuba.
Before the recent tourism boom, many Americans, including race-sensitive
blacks, returned from visits to Cuba declaring
there was no real color problem.
In Santa Clara, a day's drive west of Santiago, local folk speak of how
racism permeated life in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
In those days, the beautiful downtown Vidal Park was segregated.
"At night there was music and boys would walk together in one direction
and the girls in a circle in the other direction,
but blacks and [mixed-race] mulattos had to stay in separate circles, and they were not allowed to walk with the whites
or there would be trouble," said Rolando Guerra Dominguez, 68.
Guerra Dominguez, a retired cabaret worker, has mulatto ancestors but considers
himself white and walked with the
Fraternal societies in town were divided on racial lines. Jose de la Caridad
Navarrete Suri, 76, was a member of Bella
Union. "That was the society for the darkest complexioned people," he said. "We had our club and we would get together
and throw parties and dance." Mulattos would join the Maceo club.
Whites were members of the Casino Español.
When Castro's government took power, it outlawed the clubs and other trappings
of racial distinction. "They repaved the
park and got rid of the outside circle where the blacks used to walk because, with the triumph of the revolution, we had
a new philosophy," Guerra Dominguez said.
And with social policies that stressed schooling and health for the broad
population, notably the poor, the communist
government virtually eliminated the gaps in education and life expectancy between wealthier whites and poor blacks.
A newly educated black class of civil servants arose, attaining coveted
positions in state-run establishments. Whites
emigrated in large numbers to the United States.
But like almost everything else in Cuba, the country's effort to erase
racism was affected by the collapse in 1991 of the
Soviet Union. It had provided several billion dollars a year in aid, funding the social programs that had narrowed Cuba's
As Cuba fell into an economic depression, its citizens going hungry and
tens of thousands fleeing in boats to the United
States, the government sought to revive its economy by opening the country to foreign tourism and allowing Cubans to
possess U.S. dollars. It was those two changes, specialists say, that largely ushered in renewed racial bias.
"Whites are predominating in the sectors that service tourists," said Pedro
Rodriguez, an investigator with the state-run
Center for Anthropological Studies, which has been examining racial issues. "We have interviewed many blacks, and
more and more of them are saying it's easier for them to get a job in the interior of an establishment, as a cook or
cleaning up, than to get one where you work closely with the tourists." Because all Cubans get their salaries in pesos, the
most desirable hotel jobs are top administrative ones, which can offer informal bonuses, or in the lobby, where tourists
present tips in dollars.
The most serious allegations of race bias are against foreign-owned, rather
than state-owned, hotels, Rodriguez said. The
Melia Santiago is owned by the Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia.
Rodriguez says many hotel administrators appear to be using an old "Hollywood"
standard of beauty in selecting
employees who deal with tourists.
"They believe that beauty is blond hair and white skin. This is part of
the social psychology that many say is returning,"
University of Pittsburgh professor de la Fuente agreed. He said that as
he researched his book, hotel administrators told
him they preferred whites or light-skinned mulattos because those groups had buena aparencia, or good looks, which
impressed tourists. This year 2 million tourists are expected to visit Cuba, mostly from Canada and Europe.
With U.S. dollars now legal, the economy ministry estimates that Cuban
emigres send a billion dollars a year into
Cuba-enough to start countless small businesses-and recent surveys show about 85 percent of Cuban-Americans are
"If you have a person who sends you dollars regularly, you effectively
can be earning 10 times the average monthly
salary" of about 200 pesos, or less than $10, Rodriguez said. "It is the white population that has been emigrating and the
white population here that has been receiving the money." Race and tourism also intersect uncomfortably on the streets
of Havana these days, where police often question dark-complexioned young Cubans on the assumption that they are
hustlers looking to make a dollar from tourists.
"It is not right to do that to me, because I was just standing here. I
wasn't doing anything," said Norge Castillo, 17, a
black youth with African-looking features. A police officer had just stopped him on a corner in the tourist-laden area near
the Havana Libre hotel.
Castillo said he works on a farm near Havana and had come to town on a
day off. The police often stop him "because of
the color of my skin," he said.
Checking Castillo's identity, the officer determined that the youth had
no police record. Why had he stopped Castillo?
"There are people out here who ask tourists to be their guides and to take them places for money, and that is not legal,"
the officer explained.
The Lonely Planet tourist guide to Cuba warns black visitors that they could face the same treatment.
Helena Echegoyen, 33, a black Californian of Cuban descent who runs a movie
production company, said that, in recent
visits to Cuba, she has been stopped by authorities.
"When I stay out dancing and come back to the hotel with my friends, they
basically stop me at the hotel and ask for my
ID because a lot of the time they think I'm a hooker," she said.
For Fidel Castro and others who have made racial equality an abiding quest,
the most painful reality may be the persistent
poverty of Cuba's heavily black eastern provinces. In Cuba, the word oriental, meaning a person from those provinces, is
virtually synonymous with "black." In Havana, people sometimes refer to easterners as palestinos, or poor people without
a fixed home.
Last year official newspapers reported that unemployment in Santiago and
Guantanamo, the easternmost and blackest
provinces, was two to three times the national average, which the government says is 5.5 percent.
Nationwide, a third of Cubans identified themselves as black or mulatto
in the latest census, in 1981. In Santiago
province, 70 percent did so.
While official statistics suggest Santiago has salaries and infant mortality
rates comparable to the country as a whole,
interviews tell a different story. "I have been to other provinces, and I can tell you that here in Santiago we have an
enormous number of children who are malnourished," said Dr. Teresa de la Cruz, a pediatrician assigned by the
government to the poor, largely black, neighborhood of Chicharrones.
She said workers living in marginal neighborhoods in Santiago earn barely
more than 100 pesos a month, less than $5.
Those people in Chicharrones who work in hotels tend to be cooks and other back-area workers, people in the
De la Cruz lamented that the average worker in Chicharrones cannot afford
to shop at so-called "dollar stores" that have
been cropping up in Santiago. At those shops people can buy appliances or basic foods such as chicken, cooking oil and
canned goods that are scarce in local markets.
A new dollar store, called The End of the Year market, opened on the road
into Chicharrones at the end of last year. De
la Cruz and her husband, also a pediatrician, earn about 1,000 pesos-just less than $50-a month and can sometimes shop
at The End of the Year.
"But I can't imagine how these people are earning 100 pesos and trying to feed their children," she said.
One evening, a neighbor of the doctors, Jose Jimenez Freire, 38, brought
his listless 2-year-old son, Jose Miguel, to their
house. The boy had a fever and diarrhea.
De la Cruz's husband, Dr. Miguel Angel Cala, examined the boy and told
his father to take him to the Colonia hospital for
children, just outside Chicharrones. There "they told me they wouldn't do the blood examination because they didn't have
any running water," Jimenez Freire said. When Jimenez Freire took the boy back the next day, there was still no water
and no blood test.
Jimenez Freire earns 118 pesos a month cutting weeds on the roads near
the airport, but he must pay about 30 pesos for
his house. His wife makes 218 pesos but spends three of every four weeks in the province of Ciego de Avila, a couple of
hundred miles away, where she prepares meals for construction workers building tourist facilities.
The refrigerator in the small home does not work, and the family can't
afford to have it fixed. Jimenez Freire said he had
no medicine, not even aspirin, for his sick boy, and shopping for meat at The End of the Year dollar store was out of the
question. The family diet is occasional pork with their rice and beans and some vegetables.
While some black Cubans in this poor region have begun to voice the idea
that disparities in Cuba are linked somehow to
skin color, many Cubans repeat the long-standing mantra of the government.
"Racism no longer exists in Cuba," said Guerra Dominguez, the retired cabaret
worker in Santa Clara. "Fidel did away
with all that." De la Fuente of the University of Pittsburgh said that if anything will impede efforts to combat
discrimination-especially the job discrimination in the tourism industry-it will be this habit of denial.
"Cubans have been socialized in the idea that racism doesn't exist any
longer," he said. "Saying it does exist means
adopting a critical attitude toward the government. It means saying the government has been lying to you, which is a
dangerous thing to do." But the issue has crept into public discussion, even by Castro. In September, the Cuban leader
ended a four-hour talk at Manhattan's Riverside Church by conceding that racism exists and must be confronted.
"We believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality
before the law and complete intolerance for
any demonstration of...racial discrimination...[that] these phenomena would vanish from our society," Castro said.
"It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination
with it are not something that one gets
rid of with a law or even with 10 laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely, even in 40 years."