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CUBA: Racism – “Taboo, Complicated and Thorny” Issue

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jan 7 2009 (IPS) - The persistence of racism in Cuba is disturbing to some of the island’s thinkers, who are calling for a debate on the problem in this country, where equal rights have not guaranteed equal opportunities for all social groups.

The first documentary on racial discrimination in this Caribbean island nation was filmed here in 2008, incorporating opinions from well-known artists and intellectuals that go to the heart of the controversy. “Raza” (Race), by young filmmaker Eric Corvalán, could serve as a starting-point to launch the long-delayed debate.

“So far, racism has only been talked about in academia, among intellectuals. I think there should be an open, public discussion, even in parliament,” the 36-year-old Corvalán told IPS.

“In 50 years (since the revolution), women’s issues and homosexuality have been debated: why hasn’t racism?” asked the filmmaker. “It’s a revolutionary topic that concerns everyone, because there are black women, black homosexuals and black men.”

“I think silence is worse. The longer nothing is said, the more the racism fermenting underground is rotting the entire nation,” singer/songwriter Gerardo Alfonso says in the documentary.

According to Roberto Zurbano, head of the Casa de las Américas publishing house, to carry on “hiding” the issue would lead black people to think that “they belong to another country, and that there are two Cuba’s as there were in the 19th century, a black Cuba and a white one.” Another possible implication is that “the issue could become a political football, outside and inside the country.”

In the debate on race in Cuba, the media have drawn some of the heaviest criticism for allegedly fomenting stereotypes that identify black people and people of mixed ancestry with crime, or with very specific activities like sports and music, while establishing the idea of white “normality.”

“The media must help to create a balanced portrait of black people, which is lacking, so a racist stereotype is constructed by society,” Corvalán said. “Why can’t we make films starring blacks, whether as lawyers, doctors or engineers?”

According to Irene Ester, who holds a degree in audiovisual communications, television will never contribute to demythologising race as long as it only emphasises the high proportion of black people in prison, working as prostitutes, or unemployed, instead of the “heroism” and special characteristics of black families.

There is also an absence of models in the education system, especially in the teaching of national history. The first Africans arrived in Cuba in the early 16th century, brought in as slaves by the Spanish colonialists. Slavery was abolished in 1886.

“In primary education, skin colour is not mentioned,” academic Esteban Morales says in the film. “If we are still living in a society where white people have the power, and we don’t mention colour in education, we are in practice educating children to be white.

“Cuban history as we teach it is a disgrace, because it is predominantly white history, and explaining the role of black people and mulattos in building this society and its culture is not given its due importance,” says Morales, of the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU).

Blacks and people of mixed-race heritage officially make up 34.9 percent of Cuba’s total population of 11.2 million, according to the latest census, carried out in 2002.

However, most Cuban academics estimate that between 60 and 70 percent of the population is black or “mulatto”.

Article 42 of the Cuban constitution states that “discrimination because of race, skin colour, sex, national origin, religious beliefs and any other form of discrimination harmful to human dignity is forbidden and punishable by law.” In May 1961, the government eliminated racial segregation by nationalising all clubs and associations.

But equality before the law has not succeeded in closing the socioeconomic gaps between different racial groups.

The Cuban cultural journal Temas published studies by the governmental Anthropology Centre in 2006 that showed that on average, the black population has worse housing, receives less money in remittances from abroad and has less access to jobs in emerging economic sectors like tourism, in which blacks represent barely five percent of managers and professionals, than the white population.

“Equal rights does not mean social equality,” Morales says. “We do not have the same social standing, nor the same opportunities. This is what has generally happened to non-white and black people in Cuba.”

“If, 50 years after the revolution, there are still visible signs of racism in society, it means that equality of rights hasn’t been sufficient,” says Alfonso.

The issue of racism remains “taboo, a complicated and thorny” question, as Corvalán was told by some institutions where he showed his documentary, made with support from the non-governmental Martin Luther King Memorial Centre (CMMLK), the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and Delfín, an independent producer.

“We made a revolution in this country, which is what sets us apart from other nations,” Zurbano said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity that revolutionaries of any colour cannot let slip away, in the sense that we can create a strategy, and it can evolve.”

After the documentary’s première at the recent Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Corvalán was thanked by black and mixed-race people, some of whom were surprised to see that a white person was interested in racism.

“I don’t think of myself as white or black or mixed-race, I’m just Cuban,” said Corvalán, who has French and Chilean ancestry.

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