"Racism is deeply ingrained in Cuban society (...) it is part of our cultural lineage. Discrimination and prejudice are part of our pernicious sentimental culture." This is how Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna, national coordinator of the Citizens Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) describes the scenario for a discussion of this problem on the Island.
But the debate has as obstacles the Government's refusal to recognize discrimination, and the stigmatization of those who try to shine a light on it. While the problem is put off, social inequalities worsen, to the detriment of blacks and mestizos.
DIARIO DE CUBA spoke to Madrazo Luna about these and other issues.
"The fear of the black man has been an instrument amply wielded in Cuba, ever since the time of Spanish rule. It is very strong in this country," says the activist. "The utility of racism has not diminished, in the political or social structures."
"The State has laid claim to the right to manage the conflict through the José Antonio Aponte Commission, of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba (UNEAC), serving the interest of the Communist Party, which stymies organizations like the CIR, but also platforms such as the Racial Unity Alliance, Cofradía de la Negritud, and Afrofemininas,” says Madrazo Luna.
"Racism is an long-standing issue that lingers, subject to a law of silence. There is a whole logistics of racism that continues to pervade our customs," he notes.
Who is racist in Cuba?
A significant number of us Cubans embrace racism. It is a seed well sown by our Hispanic heritage. We have also been influenced by the culture of the southern United States.
There is a conscious predilection for discrimination in a considerable part of Cuban society, and that is possible because there are no public policies to impede it. Racism is part of the moral failure of the Cuban Revolution.
Identifying yourself as an Afro-descendant irritates those in power. It is as if we had to ask for permission to be black.
Many times we depict ourselves, based on the official narrative, as internationalists, altruists, people of solidarity, etc., but we are profoundly racist.
I remember the great avalanche of African students in Cuba, and how Cubans, black or white, complained that they smelled bad. A German, an American or a Scandinavian can give off a strong smell, but we don't complain the same way. If he is African or Caribbean, we want to lynch him.
Now more interracial couples are seen, after the 90s, but in the Cuba of the 70s it was difficult, viewed as something sinful. People said that "birds of a feather should flock together."
It was Slavic women who married black or mulatto Cubans, who taught Cuban society that blacks are also beautiful. Then it would be the Norwegians, Germans and Swedes who would also spread the idea of the beauty of blacks on the island. Of course, we are still stereotyped as sexual libertines. And we are reduced to "technology" for physical labor or servitude.
How can we explain racism in a country where blacks are the majority?
From colonial times down to the present, the ideology of whitening has been formidable, although we are a laboratory of mestizaje, or racial mixing.
Many Afro-descendants are ashamed of being black, their pride repressed. Mulattos experience the trauma of whiteness.
Cuba, because of its intense miscegenation, unlike other parts of the Americas, has all the ingredients, from a social point of view, to blur the borders of racism. It is a country in which many whites were suckled by black women, and a country where many apparently white people clearly have black blood.
To this we must add that, more than Latin American, our sense of belonging and intimacy is Caribbean. However, both in the western and central parts of the country we view the Caribbean from a distance. This distance has been intentionally constructed, because we have equated the Caribbean universe with a black one.
We can say that Santería has been the only thing that has broken down the border. Today it is absurd to say that Santería is a black phenomenon.
What are the scenarios of racism in Cuban society?
The grammar of pigmentation is an issue that exposes many families. Many Cubans are afraid of diversity wherever we are, in any province of this country, and in Miami or Madrid.
Racism is a topic that is uncomfortable for many, and for which many of us are not prepared, even in the private sphere.
Cuba today is characterized by a neoracism against which the State takes no measures. The State has maintained a conservative position on this issue. The José Antonio Aponte Commission of the UNEAC follows the agenda of the Party, not of civil society in its diversity; it is a group of subordinate officials in which blacks and whites play the role of executioners, confronting negros gusanos (“traitorous” blacks) or the afroderecha (Afroright), labels used from the revolutionary coloniality of power.
The State has tried to capitalize on the debate through this one proposal, seeking to neutralize the efforts of civil society's other initiatives. It refuses to update its vision of racial issues.
At the Ministry of Education there is no policy in place in this regard, teachers are not prepared to discuss these issues in the classroom, and black children and adolescents suffer intense bullying.
The decolonizing thought of Caribbean and African philosophers and intellectuals, such as Achille Mbembe, from Cameroon, is not studied either. This indicates a lack of political will.
Racism in Cuba is a real wound. The Revolution decreed equality, but as traditional victims we have not had access to emergent opportunities.
There is a black population that made and makes the Revolution theirs, but there is another that is extremely frustrated, because it continues to languish in the same impoverished neighborhoods. Inequality and poverty have colors, as does the penitentiary system, and to this we can add that people of African descent are underrepresented in the main professional areas and their opportunities.
Capitalism has returned to Cuba, although we do not want to recognize it, and employers, both private and state, erect barriers against blacks and mestizos. Suffering most from these new forms of exclusion is the black woman, as “gentlemen” prefer blondes.
Cuba is a very narcissistic society. Many do not want to see that Cuba is also black. The same thing is true in Miami.
One of the social events caused the most trauma in our society was the Mariel Boatlift, in 1980. A good number of black professionals emigrated to the United States. Cuban society expelled them from the "socialist paradise," but Miami did not welcome them.
There is a fictitious Cuba in audiovisual media, in which Cubans are portrayed as if we were Swedish.
Now we experience another phenomenon: the devaluation of blacks. We can take its pulse through reggaeton, which in Cuba is thriving. There are reguetoneros like Chocolate who, with the negative lyrics of his songs, promote racist stereotypes, and this is in very high demand.
Are there data or statistics that prove that there is racism in Cuba?
Yes, there is research on the subject; some are shelved, as if they were state secrets. For example, those that have to do with the underrepresentation of blacks and mestizos in the main areas of the emerging economy, both private and state.
Publications like Temas, Catauro, La Gaceta de Cuba, and digital forums like Negra cubana and Cuba posible have gauged this reality. There are studies in various disciplines, such as Sociology, Anthropology, recent studies on poverty and inequality. There are two studies that we have carried out at the CIR. One has to do with discrimination in the labor market, and another with the human rights situation for people of African descent, both including recommendations to the State and civil society.
Currently, Cuba is going through a transitional period of social stratification, and the non-white population faces it with many disadvantages. The business world is a difficult domain for blacks, who in many cases survive through the underground economy.
New social classes are emerging. We are witnessing a Cuba of great inequality. In the black community there is much dissatisfaction, insecurity, and failure. Several generations have seen their individual and collective goals postponed.
A significant number of blacks and mestizos feel trapped in poverty. We are still hostages of inequality. Meanwhile, we continue to be represented as the rabble, the lower class, the indecent, dirty, ignorant, Cuba's contemporary narrative particularly portrays us in this way. It suffices to read the novels of writers like Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, David Mitrani, Lorenzo Lunar, Daniel Chavarría, Guillermo Vidal, among others, in which the construction of the black subject leaves much to be desired.
Other writers, like Miguel Barnet and Leonardo Padura, are accomplices because they blatantly ignore the racism of Cuban society, and that is dangerous.
What is happening with the International Decade of Afro-Descendants?
In Cuba this event is going largely unnoticed. Nothing is happening. The State looks warily at the Afro-descendant community, and there is no defined agenda of public policies for it like there is in many parts of Latin America.
Now one of the great ploys of the State to muffle public debate is to classify it as an instrument of internal political subversion. In intellectual and academic circles it is proclaimed that the face of the counterrevolution's leadership in Cuba today is black.
This is dangerous because it is difficult for us to forge local alliances through activism based on skin color. The intervention of the State has not allowed for the construction of a common agenda among the diverse actors struggling for a change beyond the colors of ideology. Our activism work is criminalized.
What are the actions in which anti-racist activists are currently involved?
As a platform for civil society, we are backing several initiatives. One of the most important is the Di.Verso project, with a commitment from cultural circles.
The commitment that our artists have as actors for change - hip hop figures, those in the plastic arts - is defined by their intervention in the community space.
We are interested in acting in neighborhoods, in La Jata, La Isla del Polvo, El Palenque, Tiembla Tierra, places where blacks are screwed, and many whites are too. We assign great importance to the empowerment of black women, and this is achieved through the development of Incubators, small businesses through which they can change their quality of life.
The black lives in those places matter to us, and we are committed to infusing them with dignity.
What other concerns and realities has the CIR detected?
We are very concerned about poverty, and two of the most affected segments of the population are blacks and mestizos.
Marthadela Tamayo, our partner, did very good research work into the feminization of poverty at a settlement in the municipality of San Miguel del Padrón municipality, in southeastern Havana.
That research showed that black women face very difficult situations. Precariousness marks their daily lives, and racism is a straitjacket that strangles them. In addition, there is the violence index associated with poverty.
If Havanan capitalism does not offer many opportunities to black men and women, a similar reality can be found in the tourist areas of Matanzas, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and the well-off city of Holguín.
At Di.Verso we are interested in working on a grassroots basis with the people who suffer inequality, discrimination, homophobia and gender violence every day.
There are other realities that plague us. It is not only the indifference of the State, and the racism that survives and is propagated in the socialist institutions, where many card-carrying Party members see it as normal. We are also concerned about indifference and racism in the field of civil society, particularly among some leaders who claim to be defenders of human rights. We must face Cuba's miserable racism honestly.
There are many questions about the future, and one has to do with the place that the Afro-descendant subject will occupy.
It is of no use to us if the National Assembly of Popular Power has a large number of blacks and mestizos, if they do not have any real power, and cannot put these issues on the table.
How does the State behave towards platforms such as the CIR?
The relationship with those in power remains hostile. We continue to be a military objective. It is difficult to have a connection with the Afro-diaspora that visits the country, as, unfortunately, there are those who, in the intelligentsia and in academia, see to it that our work is silenced.
I am referring to a legion of mistreated loyalists that agrees to play this game. Crossing the barbed wire is a task that is difficult for us, but we assume risks with great dignity.