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Q&A: "Being Poor and White Is Not the Same as Being Poor and Black" in Cuba

Patricia Grogg interviews University of Havana researcher ESTEBAN MORALES

HAVANA, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - The elimination of racism remains unfinished business in Cuba today. "We have to admit that the problem exists, determine its impact on the social model that we defend, and tackle it in depth," says Esteban Morales, an Afro-Cuban economist, political scientist and author of numerous articles and essays on the subject.

Esteban Morales Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPS

Esteban Morales Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPS

As a researcher at the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), Morales could also be considered an expert on U.S. affairs.

While he openly admits to the persistence of racism in Cuba, he takes issue with a statement recently issued by a group of 60 African-American artists and intellectuals accusing the Cuban government of Raúl Castro of persecuting and harassing black citizens based on the colour of their skin.

As far as Morales is concerned, accusations like these reflect a lack of awareness of the reality on the ground in Cuba, and "are trumped up as part of the same campaigns that U.S. governments have always waged against the Cuban revolution.

"We talk about racism and say that we need to perfect guarantees of civil and democratic rights, but not only for blacks in Cuba – for society as whole. This is a struggle in which our allies include the country’s highest political leadership," he says in this interview with IPS.

Q: Why has the Cuban revolution’s social model not succeeded in eliminating the disadvantages faced by the black population?

A: Despite the radical nature of the process that got underway in 1959, the country’s social policies failed to take skin colour into account. In terms of social policy, after the triumph of the revolution, all poor people were treated equally, without differentiating between whites and blacks. But this was something that needed to be done, because the colour of one’s skin in Cuba is a significant variable in social differences.

White people came to Cuba by their own free will, as colonisers, with goals that they very often achieved. Black people were brought here by force and turned into slaves. These are very different starting points that cannot be forgotten or ignored, and that continue to have an impact today.

Despite the fact that everyone’s living standards improved and black Cubans achieved a more favourable position over the last half century, the profound differences did not disappear entirely. During the special period [the economic crisis of the 1990s, following the collapse of the East European socialist bloc], we realised that those who were hit hardest by the crisis were in fact black Cubans, who had fewer possibilities of forging a livelihood.

Even in Cuba today, being poor and white is not the same as being poor and black.

Q: And yet the Cuban government declared in 1962 that the problem of racism had been overcome.

A: That was a mistake, caused by idealism and wilfulness, and the pressures of political circumstances in those years. From that time on, there was a long period of silence on the subject, since talking about racial differences was seen as playing into the hands of the enemy. Anyone who insisted on bringing up the subject was considered racist and divisive.

The issue of racism re-emerged during the special period, and with the kind of virulence you would expect from a problem that was supposed to have been solved, but actually wasn’t.

Q: On more than one occasion you have said that in this country, people are educated "to be white." Do you think it would be fair to view this kind of contradiction as a form of "institutionalised" racism?

A: It is a certain kind of institutionalised racism, but not as a result of specific directives, or a conscious decision. It is more a result of flaws and errors in the educational process, in the teaching of history, in the racial representations in our books. It is a result of failing to address in the schools, in depth, the consequences of slavery, which are still felt today.

The problem is not with the institution of education, but rather with aspects and problems of social life, with dysfunctionalities and imperfections in our society. In Cuba there is still a lack of racial awareness. For whites, it isn’t important , because they have always been in power. But blacks need racial awareness in order to fight against racism and fight for their place in society.

Racial discrimination is a phenomenon that persists in people’s minds, in the family, in personal relationships, sometimes in institutionalised groups, and this is something that cannot be easily resolved.

Q: How would you propose to solve these shortcomings in the field of education?

A: The only way to remedy this is through strict vigilance to guarantee equal opportunities for all in employment, and especially in the new economy – in other words, in tourism and joint ventures with foreign capital – as well as in education, along with major cultural work.

Education should really not be biased towards any colour, but what is happening in practice is that our schoolchildren are being educated, for the most part, to think that it is better to be white and that it is a disadvantage to be black.

We have to deal with the problems of a Western bias in our education, and expand the teaching of history to include Africa, Asia and the Middle East, while addressing racial representation in our books. We have to take the discussion of racial discrimination into the schools, so that when kids go out into the streets and hear a racist remark, they will have a basis for challenging it.

Q: What do you propose in social terms?

A: "We are all equal" was also a demagogic slogan of republicanism. Equality is the goal, the aspiration, while inequality and difference are what we stumble over every day.

We have to start by recognising the inequalities that exist in our society, despite all of the efforts that have been made to eliminate them, leading almost to the brink of egalitarianism. They are a legacy, but at the same time, they are a phenomenon that can be reproduced as a result of the dysfunctionalities of our social model, which needs to be perfected.

It is only by understanding these differences in depth and working on them that we can achieve genuine equality.

Q: Do you think a specific policy for the black population is needed?

A: In Cuba there is a certain kind of affirmative action policy, although we don’t call it that. After researching in depth the situation of families, the problems affecting children, the disabled, different social groups, we were led in practice to adopt affirmative action measures, because this is how we were able to reach the people who have historically been the least privileged and the most vulnerable.

There are phenomena that need to be remedied and this can only be done by addressing them separately, such as housing, employment, health. In all of these efforts, it is essential to take skin colour into account. The more research that is done, the more obvious it becomes that blacks are at the bottom, people of mixed-race backgrounds are generally in the middle, and whites are at the top.

Q: Why isn’t there more in-depth discussion, including coverage in the Cuban media, about this widely recognised issue?

A: There is growing debate at the intellectual and community levels, and in cultural centres, but it also needs to reach government bodies, and the country’s political, social and grassroots organisations. This is what we are calling for, because more than 60 percent of Cuba's population of 11.2 million people is not white [but instead either black or of mixed race] according to our studies.

Q: Do you think it should form part of the political agenda as well?

A: Of course. The fact that President Raúl Castro referred to the issue in his Dec. 20 address to parliament seems to imply that it could be on the agenda of the upcoming 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. And if it isn’t, I think it should be.

In addition, there are two commissions studying different facets of the problem: one at the National Library and another at the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC). There should also be a commission to address this issue in parliament [National Assembly].

If the National Assembly specifically addresses the questions of religion, women or youth, then why not the issue of race? I believe it is of equal importance, but it has been dealt with less than any other.

Q: Is there a danger that this discussion could be cut short out of fear that it could create internal divisions or be manipulated to be used against the revolution?

A: On the contrary, what is actually being used in the campaigns of our enemies is the fact that it has taken us so long to address the issue, and failing to discuss it is what could actually divide us.

What hurts us politically, from the point of view of our image abroad and inside the country, is the fact that our official discourse is out of sync with reality, because up until very recently we claimed that there were no racially related problems in Cuba.

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