Race in Cuba: The Politics of Power and Hypocrisy

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from a utopia. Last year a group of black Americans, including Cornel West, wrote an open letter to Cuba decrying racism there. As part of The Root's series exploring the island's color complex, one of Cuba's esteemed social scientists writes about the aftermath of that letter.

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Photo by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The letter signed by 60 African Americans about the state of racism in Cuba, which ended decades of silence on Cuba's racial policies, was the first shot. Naturally, certain sectors of the foreign press, representing interests that had always been racist, tried to take advantage of the situation. A good number of intellectuals on the island responded immediately, denying the accusations and the results of studies on the subject that they themselves had published -- a response provoked by the fears of criticism from abroad.

The most important internal response came a month after the letter (from African Americans), on Thursday, Dec. 21, when Cuba TV broadcast A Cuban Battle Against Racism (the title plays off A Cuban Battle Against Demons, a seminal book on national identity by Fernando Ortíz, the island's first significant post-colonial critic) on "Mesa Redonda," one of the most coveted prime-time slots. Various specialists appeared on the show, and it was finally publicly recognized that prejudice, racism and racial discrimination persist in Cuba.

This contradicted statements that had hastily been made to deny the situation. And yet this happened on TV -- the mass medium par excellence in our country, and where the most pointed evidence of this very racism continues, especially in the lack of black actors in featured programming that frequently uses them only in police procedurals to play delinquents who practice Afro-Cuban religions.

What erroneous policies have allowed such an important issue to Cuban society to go without resolution in these 50 years of revolution? The triumphalism that decided the problem was solved in 1962; the imposition of a single Cuban subject that did not take differences into account; and the fear that a public discussion on the matter would produce schisms before enemy threats from abroad. These were the pretexts used to keep the dialogue and/or discussions about these and other important matters to society as a whole from ever taking place.

Other things -- such as the near total absence of textbooks at all levels of learning about the history and culture of Africa and of blacks in Cuba, continued emphasis of European aesthetic values, the degrading representation of black and mulatto women in touristic propaganda and police harassment -- continue to batter the self-esteem of the country's population of color.

A growing number of scholars have engaged with these questions for years, going against the tide of partisan opinions trying to put off discussion and analysis of the issue. The hip-hop movement has opened a space in which to confront matters of interest to youth, particularly black and mulatto youth. The inclusion of women in a decidedly masculine endeavor such as rap is particularly notable. Young people of color struggle against racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression. They're interested in family, the vindication of beauty, the relationship between the sexes, violence, prostitution, drugs, the double morality/hypocrisy, corruption, racism, police harassment, conformity and the defense of diversity, including homosexuality/lesbianism.

There's still much to do. Although the answer lies in education and a strong involvement in cultural work, it's still a long ways off. The hegemonic sectors of our society that have historically benefited from this inequality will not give up their privilege after a mere bout of conscience. It will be necessary to seek the help of the courts. If we don't keep in mind that racism is linked to the exercise of power, it will continue to play out as a consequence of its obvious economic, social and cultural benefits to the hegemonic sectors. 

Inés María Martiatu Terry is a Cuban writer and cultural critic whose many books include Over the Waves and Other Stories, published in the United States. She has received various awards, including the Ministry of Culture's distinction for national culture.

Translation by Achy Obejas. Read her piece on race in Cuba in the first installment of this series. Read the second installment of this series by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura.

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