Blacks and Mixed-Race Still Marginalized in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo.

Every summer since 2009, in line with the economic openings of General Castro, Gerald, the owner of a photography business, has rented a room in a hotel in Varadero for 5 nights.

Gerald, a white man married to a mixed-race woman, authoritatively calls attention to the small number of black or mixed-race Cuban tourists. “There are very few. I stay in four and five-star hotels and the blacks that I’ve seen are either employees, or partners of foreigners.”

“Last year I went to the hotel Memorie, which has a thousand rooms, and they had only 8 black or mixed-race guests, and half of them were the spouses or companions of foreigners,” said Orestes, a tall, well-dressed black man who manages a hard-currency cafeteria in Havana, and knows first-hand the disguised racism of the privileged economic sectors.

“For every black or mixed-race person who manages an important place there are 50 whites. In hotels or strategic positions in the economy, the managers are white. There the blacks are helpers, kitchen assistants, chamber maids, pool cleaners, or grass cutters. In the meetings of managers from over 400 Havana hard-currency cafes, nightclubs, and restaurants you see only about twenty in attendance who are darker skinned or black,” said Orestes.

Twice a week, Yamila and Melisa, a pair of lesbian prostitutes, come to a restaurant called Las Piedras, in Vedado, hunting for foreign tourists or Cubans with extra cash. “I can assure you that 70% of young prostitutes are mixed-race or black,” says Jamila.

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that racism in Cuba may not be the problem it is in the U.S. or Europe. “But there are strong prejudices and the social pyramid is designed so that very few blacks can succeed. Differences have remained since 1886 when slavery was abolished. Blacks are less fortunate. They live in the worst houses, receive fewer dollars or euros in remittances, and can’t vacation in first-rate tourist facilities. They remain marginalized. And that results in a large number of prostitutes and criminals in the prisons.”

Eleven years ago, in a speech to police officers and the Interior Ministry, Fidel Castro revealed that 80% of the prisoners in Cuba are blacks and mixed-race.

Joel, a black man who has spent 12 of his 34 years behind bars, believes that that reality has not changed. “In all prisons in Cuba—there are more than 200 prisons on the island according to human rights activists—the number of blacks far exceeds that of whites. Even the offenses are different. While most whites are in prison for killing cows, scams, financial crime or corruption, blacks tend to commit more violent crimes, such as fighting with knives, arson, theft, pickpocketing, assault, home invasion robbery, rape, and murder” says Joel, for whom prison is a second home.

A police investigator acknowledges that the usual pattern used by the police during operations is based on racial factors. “Young black men are more likely to be arrested. This modus operandi has not changed,” he says.

In 2013, Roberto Zurbano, the former director of the Publishing House of the Americas, was dismissed for acknowledging, in an interview with the New York Times, the significant differences between whites and blacks in Cuba.

According to the Census of Population and Housing completed in 2012, in one decade, based on the previous census of 2002, the mixed-race population in Cuba grew from 24.9 percent to 26.6 percent. The white population decreased from 65 percent to 64.1 percent, and blacks decreased from 10.1 percent to 9.3 percent.

The worst news for black and mixed-race Cubans is that there are no independent legal institutions that protect them in the face of government neglect.

Among the dissidents there is an anti-racist organization, CIR (Citizens for Racial Integration Committee) led by Juan Antonio Madrazo, which from an intellectual perspective studies and tries to give solutions to the current racial divides.

But the regime does not recognize them. Quite the contrary. It has accused black historian Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a CIR adviser, of promoting disorders “affecting international peace and security.” His freedom of movement is restricted by the state. He cannot travel abroad, and every Tuesday he has to report in at a police station.

Blacks and mixed-race members of the peaceful opposition often receive degrading treatment and racist abuse from counterintelligence officers.

Right now, Sonia Garro Alfonso and Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, a dissident black couple, sleep in damp dungeons. They have spent two years waiting for trial.

Iván García

Translated by Tomás A.

3 April 2014