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Human Rights

Redoubling Efforts Against Racism in Cuba

Roberto Zurbano (white shirt) next to Gisela Morales, during a meeting of ARAC activists with journalists. Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPS

HAVANA, Jun 18 2013 (IPS) - Jokes, songs, crude gestures and epithets that degrade people of African descent are still common in Cuba, despite the fact that the constitution prohibits discrimination based on skin colour, and in spite of more recent political measures, activists say.

According to Esther Ruiz, a member of the executive committee of the Regional Articulation of African Descendants from Latin America and the Caribbean (ARAC), these types of expressions of racism occur every day in neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools.

“These and other discriminatory expressions need to be identified and fought,” she told IPS.

Vigilance against these problems is one of the tasks that ARAC has taken on, as part of a network that Cuba joined shortly before the start this year of the International Decade for People of African Descent, proclaimed by the United Nations.

One of ARAC’s goals is to draw up strategies that will contribute to diminishing racism in the country.

“This is a task for today that was not solved yesterday, and postponing it until tomorrow could be too late. Hence the urgency that we all work together towards this goal,” Ruiz said.

Researcher and writer Daysi Rubiera said ARAC emerged during a crucial moment in Cuba. “Civil society is less fragile and people are trying to address their concerns, not just about the present, but also about the future of our country,” she told IPS.

It would be a “great leap forward” to join forces and create racial awareness – the work that has been done for years by groups like Afrocubanas, to which she belongs, and the Cofradía de la Negritud.

Another member of ARAC’s executive committee, Aries Morales, said that inequality and discrimination are universal. She said she believes Cuba is prepared to debate and deal with its contradictions head-on, with an eye toward the future. “That has always been my dream, and I have worked for it for years,” she told IPS.

The Cuban chapter of ARAC was created in September 2012, during a meeting in Havana attended by 30 community leaders and activists from the anti-racism and anti-discrimination movement in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

During that meeting, Zuleica Romay, president of the Cuban Book Institute, said that ARAC was independent of any institution, but would have the support of various government agencies.

“ARAC wants to address many situations that are subjective but become obstacles as objective as a wall,” she said.

This new instrument against racial discrimination is an organisation “under construction,” and has a collective leadership, according to the network’s coordinator, Gisela Morales. “We have invited everybody to participate — intellectuals, neighbourhood activists, homemakers, and groups that are already involved in these problems. It is an inclusive and plural initiative,” she said.

She added that the idea is for people to join in from their workplace.

“If they work in the educational system, then people should try to observe how study plans are carried out; if they are in the press, they should be attentive to how the issue is addressed in the media. Neighbourhood leaders can do very important work in their communities,” she noted.

For the near future, the network’s agenda includes concrete actions, such as channelling a dialogue with institutions when concrete instances of discrimination are reported; holding training workshops; and creating alliances among different initiatives that address the race issue.

This is a social problem that “we must make more visible, because there are people who are ignorant of or refuse to recognise these problems,” Morales said.

Researchers such as Esteban Morales say that more than 60 percent of the Cuban population of 11.2 million is non-white, including blacks and mixed-race persons. That proportion is much higher than what was found by the 2002 census, according to which 10 percent of the island’s inhabitants view themselves as black, and just under 25 percent as “mulatto” or mixed-race.

Morales told IPS in 2010 that skin colour was a variable in social differences, because whites came to the island of their own free will, as colonisers, while “blacks were brought forcibly and made into slaves.” In his opinion, “those are different starting points that cannot be forgotten or ignored, and they carry weight even today.”

A sign of the progress that has been made can be seen in the current Council of State, the highest representative of the Cuban state, where 39 percent of the members are now black or mixed-race.

According to essayist Roberto Zurbano, one of the ARAC Political Committee’s four members, a number of challenges remain for carrying out the actions proposed. The biggest is understanding the process of “updating the socialist model” in which Cuba is immersed, he said.

He said the economic reforms being carried out address a number of problems related to social justice and quality of life.

And, he added, there are reforms that have to do with bringing visibility to questions that have been less widely discussed in Cuban society, and that are emerging as conflicts that are still unresolved, such as racial discrimination, Zurbano said.

“I think it is a big challenge to organise ARAC and make it a space that is capable of the integration that we still don’t have, a space capable of debate that we don’t have or that is insufficient, because all of those courses, academic spaces and publications are not enough. It needs to be addressed at all levels of society,” he commented.

An article by Zurbano on racism in Cuba was published in the New York Times on Mar. 23. He was subsequently removed from his post as editorial director of Casa de las Américas, where he continued to work as a researcher, however. His article triggered a heated debate in Cuba that showed what a touchy subject racism is at both the social and political levels.

On that occasion, ARAC issued a statement backing the “free expression of ideas by all of its activists” and opposing “obstructive or repressive institutional or personal measures or procedures against anyone” expressing their own personal opinion in public debates.

During its national conference in 2012, the ruling Communist Party of Cuba established, as one of its objectives, “confronting discriminatory prejudice and conduct based on skin colour, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, territorial origin, or others that are contrary to the constitution and its laws, do harm to national unity, and limit the exercise of people’s rights.”

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