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For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun

For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn't Begun

By ROBERTO ZURBANO

Published: March 23, 2013

CHANGE is the latest news to come out of Cuba, though for Afro-Cubans

like myself, this is more dream than reality. Over the last decade,

scores of ridiculous prohibitions for Cubans living on the island have

been eliminated, among them sleeping at a hotel, buying a cellphone,

selling a house or car and traveling abroad. These gestures have been

celebrated as signs of openness and reform, though they are really

nothing more than efforts to make life more normal. And the reality is

that in Cuba, your experience of these changes depends on your skin color.

The private sector in Cuba now enjoys a certain degree of economic

liberation, but blacks are not well positioned to take advantage of it.

We inherited more than three centuries of slavery during the Spanish

colonial era. Racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent

in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to

overcome it.

In the early 1990s, after the cold war ended, Fidel Castro embarked on

economic reforms that his brother and successor, Raúl, continues to

pursue. Cuba had lost its greatest benefactor, the Soviet Union, and

plunged into a deep recession that came to be known as the "Special

Period." There were frequent blackouts. Public transportation hardly

functioned. Food was scarce. To stem unrest, the government ordered the

economy split into two sectors: one for private businesses and

foreign-oriented enterprises, which were essentially permitted to trade

in United States dollars, and the other, the continuation of the old

socialist order, built on government jobs that pay an average of $20 a

month.

It's true that Cubans still have a strong safety net: most do not pay

rent, and education and health care are free. But the economic

divergence created two contrasting realities that persist today. The

first is that of white Cubans, who have leveraged their resources to

enter the new market-driven economy and reap the benefits of a

supposedly more open socialism. The other reality is that of the black

plurality, which witnessed the demise of the socialist utopia from the

island's least comfortable quarters.

Most remittances from abroad — mainly the Miami area, the nerve center

of the mostly white exile community — go to white Cubans. They tend to

live in more upscale houses, which can easily be converted into

restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts — the most common kind of private

business in Cuba. Black Cubans have less property and money, and also

have to contend with pervasive racism. Not long ago it was common for

hotel managers, for example, to hire only white staff members, so as not

to offend the supposed sensibilities of their European clientele.

That type of blatant racism has become less socially acceptable, but

blacks are still woefully underrepresented in tourism — probably the

economy's most lucrative sector — and are far less likely than whites to

own their own businesses. Raúl Castro has recognized the persistence of

racism and has been successful in some areas (there are more black

teachers and representatives in the National Assembly), but much remains

to be done to address the structural inequality and racial prejudice

that continue to exclude Afro-Cubans from the benefits of liberalization.

Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it

isn't talked about. The government hasn't allowed racial prejudice to be

debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending

instead as though it didn't exist. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a

paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government

decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the

extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act.

This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive

and well.

If the 1960s, the first decade after the revolution, signified

opportunity for all, the decades that followed demonstrated that not

everyone was able to have access to and benefit from those

opportunities. It's true that the 1980s produced a generation of black

professionals, like doctors and teachers, but these gains were

diminished in the 1990s as blacks were excluded from lucrative sectors

like hospitality. Now in the 21st century, it has become all too

apparent that the black population is underrepresented at universities

and in spheres of economic and political power, and overrepresented in

the underground economy, in the criminal sphere and in marginal

neighborhoods.

Raúl Castro has announced that he will step down from the presidency in

2018. It is my hope that by then, the antiracist movement in Cuba will

have grown, both legally and logistically, so that it might bring about

solutions that have for so long been promised, and awaited, by black Cubans.

An important first step would be to finally get an accurate official

count of Afro-Cubans. The black population in Cuba is far larger than

the spurious numbers of the most recent censuses. The number of blacks

on the street undermines, in the most obvious way, the numerical fraud

that puts us at less than one-fifth of the population. Many people

forget that in Cuba, a drop of white blood can — if only on paper — make

a mestizo, or white person, out of someone who in social reality falls

into neither of those categories. Here, the nuances governing skin color

are a tragicomedy that hides longstanding racial conflicts.

The end of the Castros' rule will mean an end to an era in Cuban

politics. It is unrealistic to hope for a black president, given the

insufficient racial consciousness on the island. But by the time Raúl

Castro leaves office, Cuba will be a very different place. We can only

hope that women, blacks and young people will be able to help guide the

nation toward greater equality of opportunity and the achievement of

full citizenship for Cubans of all colors.

Roberto Zurbano is the editor and publisher of the Casa de las Américas

publishing house. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the

Spanish.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sunday/for-blacks-in-cuba-the-revolution-hasnt-begun.html?_r=0

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