Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black intellectuals like to think it is. Today, on the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution, The Root launches its series exploring the island's color complex.

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The government's good intentions -- combined with a willful silence on internal conflicts, national pride, a desire to protect a revolution that seemed constantly under siege, and the goodwill, especially from Africans and African Americans, that was inspired by the idea of eliminating racism in Cuba -- made it almost impossible to have an open and honest discussion about what was really going on.

And there was plenty going on, especially during the Special Period, which came after the crushing demise of the Soviet Union in 1989. Suddenly Cuba was at the mercy of a capitalist world economy and trafficking with foreign investors who brought their own prejudices with them. Foreign-run hotels delegated black-skinned workers to behind-the-scenes jobs. Color fetishists in the sex industry re-awakened the stereotype of the oversexed black woman.

But the problems were not just brought from abroad. With a breakdown in Cuba's highly regimented economy, the government gave a wink-and-a-nod okay to a no-rules black market, where day-to-day expression brought back old prejudices unbridled. Racist language and attitudes came screaming out of the closet. One of the worst: Negrada -- which means, literally, a group of black people -- came to signify a screw-up, a fucked-up affair. ¡Que negrada! became as common as hustling foreigners.

Their targets have been less foreign influence than Cuba's racist legacies and the revolution's paternalism. A quick glance at who is actually in power in Cuba -- a look at who the government actually is -- suggests that there is a big gap between Cuba's talk, especially on the world stage, and its walk, especially in its own backyard. Many, if not most, of Cuba's internal dissidents are, in fact, black, including Darsi Ferrer and Guillermo Fariñas, to name but two. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a young political prisoner who died recently during a hunger strike and had been the face of an energized global dissident movement, was also black.

Word has been late to get to the African-American community, which has, in many ways, held on to the dream of a racial utopia, just as my students had so long ago. Last November, Moore, now exiled in Brazil, organized and published a letter critical of Cuba that was signed by prominent African-American intellectuals, including Cornel West.

Cuba's official response was signed by a handful of intellectuals -- about half of whom are white by Cuban society's definition. But it started a much-needed discussion on the island. This week, The Root launches a series taking on the question of race in Cuba today, with writers on both sides weighing in. This isn't meant to be definitive -- only the start of a longer conversation. We invite you to join in.

Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the United States by boat in 1963. Since then she has returned to Cuba innumerable times. She writes about Cuba for The Root and other U.S.-based publications.

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