The Bad Luck of Being Black in Cuba / Ivan Garcia


Ivan Garcia, 11 September 2015 — It was already duck on an extremely hot day without a hint of a breeze, when a white Mercedes Benz van with the blue top of the national police pulled up alongside Red Plaza in Vibora, a neighborhood half an hour by car from the center of Havana.

Just after midnight, dozens of adults, young people and teens walked toward their homes or huddled on the corners, after the end of one of the frequent reggaeton and salsa music parties sponsored by the local branch of the Ministry of Culture.

The pretext for organizing these parties could be anything. The end of summer, a symbolic date of the Revolution, or a way to collect thousands of pesos selling beer on tap and light snacks to the residents on the edge of the capital, mostly blacks and mixed-race and with few recreational options.

After the timba ends and the drums stop, the good part starts. Brawls with knives, sex in any corner, urinating in the street, drunk and feisty, after the party.

Policing is welcome. What is reprehensible is the method. Their modus operandi is openly racist. A dozen blacks are sitting in the van, some of them handcuffed, waiting to he hauled off to a police station.

“It’s always the same. We blacks are the target. Even though we are carrying our identify cards and don’t have a criminal record, they load us up. At the station they put us in the stinking cells and let us go in the morning. I don’t know what their point is with these raids. It seems like all the criminals in Cuba are black or mixed-race,” Moises says with disgust, himself a high school student who has suffered these quick arrests on occasion.

Although the government press doesn’t publish statistics, Reinerio, a guard in the maximum security prison Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, says that “70 or 80 percent of the common prisoners are blacks or mixed-race.”

According to the regime, the prison population on the island has risen to 57,000 inmates. The Commission on Human Rights, headed by Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, says that there are about 200 prisons in Cuba and about 80,000 inmates.

On three occasions, Daniel has been the guest of the harsh prisons on the island. “On two of those occasions I hadn’t committed any crime. To the authorities, I was a suspect just for being black, unemployed and having a criminal record.”

Carlos, a sociologist, thinks that the racism practiced in diverse Cuban institutions is a concern. “Discrimination because of the color of one’s skin is a longstanding issue. It goes back to 1886 when slavery was abolished. Blacks emerged at a disadvantage. They didn’t own property, had no money, and the majority were illiterate. During the Republic, policies were developed to integrate them. But racial apartheid remained in diverse segments of the society.”

According to Carlos, Fidel Castro though he could solve the problem with decrees and good intentions. “But it hasn’t worked that way. In addition to racism, there exists in the population something that can’t be legislated, institutions like the police, tourism, civil aviation and the media, have segregationist practices.”

The sociologist believes that when it comes time to fill out the paperwork for getting a job going to the University, the question about skin color should be eliminated. “In more racist societies than Cuba, they have removed that data,” he says.

When you look at the tourist resorts on the Island you will observe that the best jobs are usually occupied by whites. “Blacks are relegated to the kitchen, cleaning floors, or being maids. That’s the reality,” says an employee of the Las Dunas Hotel in Cayo Santa Maria in Villa Clara province.

The same thing happens in public office. Although the regime has put make up on the Central Committee and the monotone Cuban parliament with black or brown paint, the important executive positions are held by whites.

“Blacks were important in the African wars that Cuba engaged in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  Always as cannon fodder. For every ten senior white officers there were two blacks. With the generals, the differences were even greater,” says Rene, a former officer in the armed forces.

Luis Alberto, who graduated with highest honors from the foreign language school, relates how on going to a five-star Havana hotel that was hiring tour guides, he experienced racial discrimination.

“The head of personal told me to wait at home for a phone call to start working. They never called me. A friend who worked there told me why: when I left, the guy commented, ’That ugly black guy would scare the tourists’,” said Luis Alberto.

The worst was that everyone present laughed at the boss’s “joke.”