Cuban economic reforms spur talk of race
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES NGAMEZTORRES@ELNUEVOHERALD.COM
12/20/2014 8:39 AM 12/20/2014 4:43 PM
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
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
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
Source: Cuban economic reforms spur talk of race | The Miami Herald –