Racism lingers in Cuba
Racism lingers in Cuba
HAVANA – Leonides Terrero Silot wanted to take me to the Lincoln Hotel.
This slender black man with the silver-gray hair and a bushy mustache
insisted it's a place that all blacks from the United States should see.
The 134-room hotel in the Galiano section of Central Havana, Terrero
said, was one of the few places black visitors could stay in this city
before Fidel Castro came to power.
But his pride in showing me the aging hotel, built in 1926, turned to
anger when a white security guard confronted us in the lobby as we tried
to take an elevator to the rooftop restaurant. The guard said he had to
check whether the restaurant was open before he could let us proceed.
"That bastard is just stopping us because we're black," Terrero said softly.
Race still matters in Cuba. As much as Fidel Castro tried to purge this
country of its racist past when he proclaimed the equality of all Cubans
in 1959, racism lingers beneath the facade of Cuba's communist solidarity.
"Fidel has tried to do his best, but he can't change what's in a man's
heart," Terrero said of the subtle racism that has replaced the overt
bigotry outlawed by Castro.
The official position of the Cuban government is that it doesn't
tolerate racial discrimination – and there are signs it's making a
sincere effort to wipe out racial inequalities. But in Havana, you don't
have to go out of your way to find evidence of racial imbalance in this
country of 11.4 million people. Two-thirds of those people are of
African descent, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook.
It's hard to find a black doorman at one of Havana's fashionable hotels,
where tips from tourists make the job one of the highest paying in Cuba.
At trendy restaurants like El Aljibe, where waiters can earn more tip
money in a night than most Cubans earn in a month, black waiters are
hard to find.
There are few blacks on newscasts or talk shows on the government-run
television network. And in all of the meetings I've had with Cuban
government officials over the years, I've encountered few blacks in
During a dinner meeting I attended with him in 1999, Castro acknowledged
that one of the serious shortcomings of his revolution was the belief
that Cuba's racist past could be wiped out by simple proclamation.
He said then that he realized his government had to back up its words
with action. But that effort hasn't produced enough results, making Cuba
and its supporters in the United States a target for criticism.
Back in 2003, Cuban exiles in Miami blasted the NAACP for failing to
criticize Cuba's treatment of blacks. Given the widespread mistreatment
of black Cubans before Castro came to power – when many of Castro's most
virulent opponents in the exile community benefited from the racist
government he replaced – those complaints are disingenuous.
But the message is still valid.
Most of the people who have fled Cuba since Castro came to power are
white. Few blacks have joined this flight because life for them today
represents a major improvement over what it was like before Castro.
But progress is relative. Castro is the only leader many young black
Cubans have known. And while they widely support him, it's unlikely
they'll feel the same unquestioning attachment to his successor.
Making a special effort to eliminate Cuba's continuing vestiges of
racism "is a matter of policy," Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's
National Assembly, told me. Alarcon, one of Castro's potential
successors, said the government will step up its efforts to wipe out
Cuba's racial imbalances.
If it succeeds, that would be the greatest triumph of Fidel Castro's
Write Wickham at DeWayneWickham@aol.com.Fidel Castro, hotel, president, restaurant, Ricardo Alarcon