Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Raising Awareness about Racial Discrimination

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Sep 7 2009 (IPS) - Intellectuals and artists concerned about continued racial discrimination in Cuba are attempting to revive the Cofradía de la Negritud (CONEG), a “brotherhood” or association of black people aimed at raising awareness of the problem.

The email message announcing the revival of CONEG says no progress can be made against “the growing problem” of racial inequality in Cuba without the implementation of “a social policy that takes into account the historical disadvantages faced by the black population.”

The aim of CONEG is to generate awareness among officials and civil society, and “ensure that effective attention is paid to defending respect for the rights of black people in Cuba.”

The letter that was recently recirculated by email carries its original date, July 1998, when CONEG was first launched by engineer Norberto Mesa Carbonell, as the first “cófrade” or member of the “brotherhood.” The updated version of the letter also carries the signatures of “cófrades” Tomás Fernández and Tato Quiñones – academic researchers whose expertise is the question of racial discrimination.

“There is an explicit desire to revitalise the Cofradía and make it visible, this time on the part of intellectuals and artists, myself included,” Quiñones told IPS. He said the group includes “veterans of the struggle for the elimination of racism in Cuba and younger people who are just now joining in.”

He said that while CONEG does not take part in political activity as such, he is aware of the complexity and implications of the effort that it means to undertake, “which could at times make some of its actions appear to be somewhat political.”

The document underscores “the great deal that the Cuban revolution has done to eliminate racial inequality.”

However, “reality shows that there is still a long way to go, because the underlying issues have not really changed.”

The letter says the accumulation of disadvantages historically faced by blacks in Cuba was aggravated by the severe economic crisis of the 1990s, as seen in social life in general and in the daily lives of Cubans.

Several studies on the question show that the economic recession that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc – Cuba’s main aid and trade partners – widened the gap between those who were already socially disadvantaged and the rest of the population.

The recession “reproduced and accentuated social, and in consequence, racial inequalities, given the links that have historically existed between race and class,” says a study by University of Havana researcher María del Carmen Caño published in 1996 by Temas magazine.

“As I see it, these last 20 years have been devastating for the nation in all spheres of social life,” said Quiñones.

He also said there was “subliminal racism” among most of Cuba’s 11.2 million people.

In his view, racism in Cuba is seen as “embarrassing,” and people do not admit to their racial prejudice.

But at the same time, he said, racial discrimination is getting more and more blatant, in the form of exclusion and segregation.

Quiñones agrees that it will be impossible to fight racial discrimination “unless national awareness about the problem is fomented, by means of a range of actions targeting the racial prejudice held by a large part of the Cuban population.”

The latest census, from 2002, indicates that out of the 11.18 million Cuban nationals living in the country at that time, 7.2 million were classified as white, 1.13 million as black, and 2.78 as mixed-race, based on self-identification.

However, scholars estimate that the Cuban population is actually around 60 to 70 percent black or mixed-race.

After Fidel Castro took power in the 1959 revolution, discrimination on the basis of race, sex or place of origin was prohibited and made punishable by law. Article 41 of the constitution establishes that “the institutions of the state educate everyone, from the earliest years, in the principle of equality.”

“It took us a while to discover…that marginalisation, and along with it racial discrimination, is in fact something that cannot be suppressed by law or by 10 laws, and even in 40 years we have not been able to totally suppress it,” Castro himself admitted in a September 2000 speech in Harlem, New York.

Quiñones said Castro’s remarks were “in and of themselves” a major stride “in the long and probably tortuous road that the Cuban nation must still traverse to finally eliminate this complex problem.”

“It must be understood that in Cuba, the question of racism was considered taboo for decades, because public exposure of it could give rise to ‘fissures’ in the sense of unity that was indispensable for facing the aggression from outside,” said the academic, who specialises in Afro-Cuban culture and religion.

He also said that until the mid-1980s, a theoretical concept – which in the long-term proved “erroneous” – prevailed: that once social classes had disappeared and the people had built a “new society,” the process would automatically do away with racial prejudice and discrimination.

But Quiñones said that in recent years there have been significant changes with respect to efforts to acknowledge the problem. He pointed out that the issue of racism was discussed in 1998 at a congress of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), and a year later at a meeting of UNEAC’s National Board.

More recently, committees have been set up by UNEAC and the National Library to study the question, the issue is present in the work of Cuban hip hop artists, and the government Anthropology Institute carried out a study on the current state of things.

Among other actions, a group of intellectuals and artists have begun to hold screenings of a documentary called “Raza” (Race) by young Cuban filmmaker Eric Corvalán in Havana and Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba, with discussions after the film, which “addresses the problem in a lucid, bold and coherent manner,” according to Quiñones.

“In the face of this phenomenon, we can’t sit back with our arms crossed. Some voices of alert are being heard. Because ‘the problem of blacks,’ it has been said wisely, is actually a ‘problem of the whites’,” said the academic.

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