In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was allowing Cuban artists to travel relatively easily in and out of the United States, I invited a well-known Cuban visual artist to visit my graduate class at Columbia College in Chicago. I wanted her to show the students her work and talk a little about what it was like to create art — such a personal endeavor — in a society that focused on the collective rather than the individual.
The visit to Columbia, an urban school with a strong arts focus, went well until the question-and-answer session. An African-American student, eyes misty with hope, asked, "Is it true that there's no racism in Cuba?" My friend, a red-haired and white-skinned Cuban, nodded enthusiastically. "No, there's no racism," she affirmed, and there was a collective sigh in the class over the very notion that such a utopia could really exist.
Like my friend, I am also light-skinned — white in Cuban society — but unlike her, I didn't grow up in Havana hearing, and thus believing, in this human-relations miracle. I was born in Cuba but grew up outside Chicago in the 1960s and '70s; I'd lived through the U.S. civil rights movement and worked for Harold Washington's mayoral campaign. I'd struggled with racism all my life — racism directed at me as a Cuban-Latina by white and black Americans, racism by Cubans and other Latinos of all colors directed at anyone darker, and, of course, my own racism. And instinctively, I rejected her assertion that racism had been vanquished on the island — and I said so right there in class.
This didn't go over well. My students preferred her version of events — she was the Cuban from the island and had the edge on credibility by virtue of residence — but perhaps more importantly, they wanted to believe her. The idea of a racism-free space was intoxicating.
My friend was also upset. She felt that her credibility had been publicly assailed and I had failed to understand the real achievements of the Cuban Revolution. I had gone back to Cuba and missed the point; I had been obviously brainwashed by my years in exile in the United States
We remained friends but agreed to disagree on this issue. She went back to Cuba and told her friends her stories about her first visit to America, including the tale of this silly Cuban-American who'd suggested that there was still racial discrimination in the homeland.
To her surprise, her black and mixed-raced friends — including close and longtime friends — used the opportunity to express their own misgivings about the racial situation in Cuba. My friend was flabbergasted.
Why, she asked, if the truth didn't conform to the official story, hadn't anyone ever said anything before?
There's little question that, whatever else the Cuban Revolution has done or not done, it triumphed with a strong and progressive platform on race. At every single official level, it explicitly and forcibly banned racial discrimination. In fact, it may have done so too forcefully. Because Cuba is a top-down society — especially under Fidel Castro — the new anti-racism codes rained down without explanation and, more importantly, without process. People understood that racism was no longer tolerated but not how they participated in racist structures, how they were affected by the legacy of racism and, least of all, how light-skinned Cubans — especially on the island — benefited from those legacies.
Because racism was banned and did not officially exist, where was the venue, the safe space, in which these things could be aired? If there was no racism by virtue of decree, didn't its mere mention in some way imply a revolutionary failure? Moreover, the lack of process meant that there was virtually no vocabulary — particularly no revolutionary vocabulary — with which to talk about racism in Cuba.
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.