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2000-04-28

Race and Revolution: Cuba and Blackness

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Today we head to Cuba once again for part two of "Race and Revolution," a collection of interviews conducted in Cuba by Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrión. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday we heard from young Afro-Cuban men talking about racial profiling, being targeted by the police on the streets. We heard from an Afro-Cuban woman who runs a clandestine restaurant from her home, and who said black Cubans have a more difficult time than non-black Cubans getting licenses to run their businesses, and accessing the most coveted jobs in the Cuban economy. We also heard about how hard it is to express these issues publicly and organize around issues of racial equality.

With the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Cubans were promised social equality. And in exploring Cuban society, one of the first things that Cubans proudly point to is their universal access to health care and education, something that was particularly out of reach for Afro-Cubans before the revolution.

In Cuba’s fast-changing economy and the legalization of the dollar, some are wondering whether these changes are increasing social inequality and widening the gap between black and white. And while the revolution has begun to address race as a problem, Cuba, like many governments in Latin America, adheres to a principal known as "racial democracy"–the belief that a racially mixed population cannot be racist, and that inequality should only be addressed using a class-based analysis.

Tape:

  • Race And Revolution, a series of interviews on race with people in Cuba, conducted by Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrión.

Guest:

  • Kwame Dixon, scholar and human rights activist who specializes on race in the Americas.

Related link:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a reminder, today is the thirteenth anniversary of the killing of Ben Linder, the North American who went to Nicaragua and was killed by the Contras, along with so many thousands of other Nicaraguans.

Also, from Miami, yes, the Elian story continues. The Miami Mayor Joe Carollo fired the City Manager yesterday, just days after he demanded that the man dismiss the police chief for failing to warn the Mayor about the raid to seize Elian Gonzalez. Juan, you’ve been following this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, well, I was down in Miami this weekend covering the Elian Gonzalez story, and, yes, the big ruckus there was that the Mayor was upset that the police commissioner did not let him know that the raid was coming and that the police commissioner allowed his assistant chief to ride in the van with the federal agents to clear the way. Of course, the Mayor had already said that he was not going to have his law enforcement people help the federal government, so I don’t know why he expected the chief to let him know what the plans were. But since Corollo could not fire the chief directly, because it’s a weak-mayor form of government in Miami — the City Manager runs the city — he fired the only person he could fire, which was the City Manager, who obviously now has taken the fall.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, with the Elian Gonzalez story in the headlines every day, the image of Cuba on our TV screens is the face of a six-year-old boy, who is white — Elian and his family, the Miami Cuban exile community, and President Fidel Castro, himself. But many don’t realize that, in fact, Cuba is a black country, as much perhaps as 80%.

And Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrión recently returned from Cuba and recorded a series of conversations with Afro-Cubans on race and racism. Maria.

MARIA CARRIÓN: Well, hello, Juan. Hello, Amy. It’s great to be with you. And, well, yesterday we heard part one of these conversations on race and revolution. We heard from young Afro-Cuban men talking about racial profiling, being targeted by the police on the streets. We heard from an Afro-Cuban woman who runs a clandestine restaurant from her home and who said black Cubans have a more difficult time than non-black Cubans getting licenses to run their businesses and accessing the most coveted jobs in the tourist economy. We also heard about how hard it is to express these issues publicly and organize around issues of racial equality.

With the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, Cubans were promised social equality. And in exploring Cuban society, one of the first things that one finds is Cubans proudly pointing to their access — or the universal access to healthcare and education, something that was particularly off-limits, out of reach, to Afro-Cubans before the Revolution.

Today, we’re going to hear another set of voices. While the Revolution has begun to address the race problem, Cuba, like many governments in Latin America, adheres to a principle known as racial democracy, the belief that a racially mixed population cannot be racist and that inequality should only be addressed using a class-based analysis. We will hear voices who agree and disagree with that perspective today.

We begin with Maria Iznaga. Those who heard yesterday’s program may remember her father, Tomas Iznaga, a man who is almost a hundred years old and is the son of slaves. Father and daughter still live on the grounds of the same sugar plantation in Trinidad, which bears their name, Iznaga, the name also of the Spanish slaveholders that owned the plantation in the nineteenth century. This is what Maria had to say about race in Cuba, and I will translate over her.

MARIA IZNAGA: [translated] Everyone here lives the same. Afro-Cubans, Cubans, there are no differences here.

MARIA CARRIÓN: The countries of this region, they say that there still is racial discrimination. What about here in Cuba?

MARIA IZNAGA: [translated] Never, ever. I have lived through the government of Fidel Castro, and never have people said, "You go here because you’re black, and you go here because you’re white." Here, everyone travels down the same road, and if you have something, then as a black person, I have the right to have the same thing. There is no discrimination here. That’s why we live happy.

MARIA CARRIÓN: Yesterday, we also heard from Emilia, an Afro-Cuban woman who owns a clandestine restaurant in a predominantly black neighborhood of Havana. She spoke about her frustration that black paladares, as they are known, these private-run restaurants, were not being licensed as quickly as those belonging to non-black Cubans. And as we sat in her living room after dinner, I asked her whether the Revolution forgot about black Cubans.

EMILIA: [translated] In reality, it’s not the Revolution that forgot about blacks, it’s those within the Revolution who forgot about us. Because blacks and whites participated in the Revolution, [she says,] the Revolution has nothing to do with this. It is the spheres, the hierarchy created within the Revolution that created the divisions between blacks and whites, because you can see that they’ll talk to you and so on, but there’s a line that we’re not allowed to cross.

MARIA CARRIÓN: Richard Jean-Claude is the son of famous Haitian singer Martha Jean-Claude. Martha Jean-Claude left Haiti in the 1950s for Cuba, and Richard grew up in Havana, where he runs a foundation in his mother’s name and has been promoting Haitian-Cuban relations. I also posed him the question about racial inequality, and here he is translated by my little brother Guillermo.

RICHARD JEAN-CLAUDE: [translated] In Cuba, since 1959, there exists a constitution. In Cuba, the integrity of man and woman is respected. Racism doesn’t exist now. This goes for religion, cultural traditions and in the general population. A Haitian is treated like a Cuban. There’s really no such thing as white, black, Chinese, Asian; we’re all one people.

Well, for example, I am black, descendant of Haitians, of African and Spanish. Myself, as well as my sisters, were raised in Cuba. I was able to get three university degrees. My children and my sisters have studied medicine for free. I never paid. My mother never paid one penny to study in universities. But Cuba is a country of mixed races. But in Cuba, if you scratch the skin of a white person, you will see a black person underneath.

MARIA CARRIÓN: Next, we hear from Nehanda Abiodun. She’s a member of the Black Liberation Army, who got asylum in Cuba after fleeing the United States, where she faces thirty-two counts stemming from the robbery of a Brinks truck in the 1980s. She has lived in Cuba for ten years.

MARIA CARRIÓN: You came to Cuba getting away from US racism, or racism in the United States, and Cuba has embraced you, or hosted you. Do you feel that there is racism in Cuba?

NEHANDA ABIODUN: Yes, I do. It’s different, as I understand it back in the United States, but yes, there still are elements of racism here. But it’s different here. Institutionally, there is no racism here. I think what we have here is the remains of racist minds, people who externally understand that certain changes have been made in terms of racial equality, but internally have not ridded themselves of their racism. And because institutions are only made up of people, you find that that carries over into the institutions. But, as a government policy or a government practice, no, Cuba is not a racist country. It is — I mean, you cannot send people to South Africa to fight against apartheid if you’re a racist country.

I think that the police, to a large extent, are very insensitive to black people. I think that in the media, there’s still, when you turn on the television, you know, unfortunately, for the most part, you know, those that are the maids and the lower echelons of the movie and/or soap opera are black people. The criminals are still Afro-Cubans. That’s unfortunate, but I think that there’s open dialogue around that. And I think that Fidel spoke about it, Raul spoke about it, so it’s out in the open. There is racism here, but it manifests itself totally different. It’s not a society that’s rooted in racism, as the United States is.

MARIA CARRIÓN: You say Fidel and Raul spoke about it. Raul being Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. What did they say about it?

NEHANDA ABIODUN: Basically, their position was that the society as whole does not — I mean, in terms of the higher echelon positions in the workplace and as well as other sectors of society, that those in authority did not reflect the population. People of color were at the bottom level of the work and government positions and that there had to be something done about that.

MARIA CARRIÓN: Do you feel that perhaps the Revolution up ’til now had not addressed the issue of racism?

NEHANDA ABIODUN: I think they could not afford to do it, because of — and, I mean, I am ambivalent about this, as well, because I feel that — you have to understand, I look at this as someone who was raised, reared in New York City that has fought racism from the United States perspective. I mean, I came here with a certain amount of arrogance, thinking that, you know, I couldn’t understand why they were not struggling like we were struggling back home. From my narrow perspective, they did not address it, because they were under attack from the US government from day one of the triumph of the Revolution. I think that they willingly will admit that perhaps they should have attacked the question of racism and racial equality, as they did the women’s question. But their feeling was, I believe, that by working together, going to school together, by growing up together, the whole question of racism would eradicate itself and erase itself just through a process of time.

MARIA CARRIÓN: When I asked white Cubans about racism, many reacted with surprise. I discussed race with Teresa, a white economist, as we sat in the living room of her apartment in the predominantly white neighborhood of Vedado in Havana.

TERESA: [translated] Racism? Well, in the same way that you might see it, no, it doesn’t exist here. My best friend is not white like me. And I share with everyone, regardless of the color of their skin or their social class. I don’t think that there’s a problem here. Imagine, here we were being colonized by the Spaniards, and they brought black Africans. Imagine the mixing that occurred as a result. And we Cubans are a product of that mixing, and people have relationships with one another without thinking about that. At least, that’s what I think.

MARIA CARRIÓN: And finally, we head to Old Havana and speak with Jose. He spoke yesterday. He is part of a young Afro-Cuban group that is trying to organize in Havana and yesterday described the ordeals of being racially profiled by the police. He speaks from this tiny apartment in Old Havana.

JOSE: [translated] My personal belief is that no system in the world has done justice to the human race, and no matter how hard politicians justify each system, we, the blacks and the poor, are always at the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Maria, I want to thank you for this report on race and revolution. That last translator, your husband Kwame Dixon, who is a scholar and human rights activist. Kwame, in the context of the studying you’ve been doing of Afro-Latinos throughout Latin America, where does Cuba fit in?

KWAME DIXON: Well, we would have to put Cuba in — in terms of its attempt to deal with racism, I think that the Cuban government has made serious efforts to eradicate racism. They’ve put in tremendous amounts of money in education, health, etc. I think we know about that. I think the question is for other governments in the region. I think Afro-Cubans are in many ways — I can’t say better off, because that’s not the proper way to put it, but we can say that the Cuban government has taken race seriously, whereas the Colombians or governments in Ecuador or Peru or Brazil, Afro-Latinos are really mistreated and badly viewed in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for both being with us today. Maria, what a fantastic job you have done in your reports from Cuba.

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