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What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about race

What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about race
Kate LinthicumContact Reporter

In recent years, Afro-Cuban intellectuals have started gathering in a
cramped Havana apartment to discuss a topic long considered off-limits
in Cuba: race.

Fidel Castro’s communist revolution 60 years ago promised to wipe out
racial divisions and level the playing field for all Cubans, regardless
of color or wealth. Yet racism persists in Cuba, and many say recent
economic changes here have overwhelmingly favored the light-skinned elite.

The historic visit this week of an American president who happens to be
black is of special significance to Afro-Cubans, who, like many
minorities around the world, view President Obama as a symbol of what is
possible. It’s of particular importance for the small but growing
movement of black activists on the island, who have struggled for years
under government pressure, and who hope that warming U.S.-Cuba relations
will push Cubans toward greater race consciousness.

“Maybe without an enemy, everyone here can begin to look more closely at
things inside our own country,” said activist Manuel Cuesta Morua, who
said he is one of several Cuban dissidents, most of whom are not black,
invited to meet with Obama on Tuesday. “We hope it will help people see
the racism here with more clarity, and see that there is diversity, and
diverse ways of thinking.”

African influences dating back to the days of slavery permeate nearly
all aspects of Cuban culture, from the fried plantains served at dinner
to the rhythm of the salsa music played on the street. Yet many black
Cubans complain of persistent discrimination.

Afro-Cubans are poorly represented in the top echelons of the military
and Cuba’s Communist Party, and they are often passed over for jobs in
the nation’s growing tourism sector. Unlike Christians, practitioners of
Yoruba, Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions are barred from
establishing their own houses of worship.

Even though a majority of Cubans are mixed race to some degree, jokes
about those who are darkest are common. A common phrase – “every sheep
with its kind” – is used to discourage interracial coupling.

Dominik Dominco Almonaci, 28, who on a recent afternoon was dancing to a
live salsa band in a plaza in Old Havana, said he has been accosted by
police for walking with a lighter-skinned woman in his hometown of
Santiago. The reason? “My dreadlocks,” he said.

Almonaci, who said he doesn’t like U.S. capitalism, said Afro-Cubans can
learn from Obama and U.S. civil rights activists to press for more equality.

“The kids of color in the U.S. are more united,” said Almonaci,
referring to African American activists who have banded together to
protest police violence.

Experts and activists say a series of recent economic changes in Cuba
has created a widening income inequality gap, with Afro-Cubans largely
on the losing end.

The Cuban government now allows some people to open businesses in their
homes and rent out cars as taxis. But, said Ted Henken, a professor of
black and Latino studies at Baruch College, “the people who have been
most successful at self-employment are the people who have
well-appointed homes in central locations or a car.” That doesn’t tend
to be Afro-Cubans, many of whom live on the periphery of cities such as
Havana.

“Racial inequality has been further exacerbated by the large number of
remittances that flow to Cubans from relatives in the U.S.,” he said.
Early waves of migration to American cities such as Miami were dominated
by wealthier – and whiter – Cubans who were fleeing the Castro
government’s plans to redistribute wealth.

Henken said he believes the Cuban government should do more to protect
vulnerable groups, such as Afro-Cubans or the elderly, but noted that
that would first require the recognition of difference.

“The government doesn’t think that way,” Henken said. “The government
has one-size-fits-all solutions.”

Juan Madrazo Luna, whose apartment has become the gathering point for
many Afro-Cuban activists, said that the movement has many sympathizers
but that it is difficult to get people to speak out because they fear
police harassment or losing their job.

Luna, who was once a manager at a government personnel office, said he
was fired several years ago after employees he supervised said “they
were uncomfortable having a boss who was black.”

He didn’t learn about the civil rights movement in the U.S. until he was
28. In Cuban textbooks, he said, the U.S. is presented as a country
beset with racism, but the stories of people such as Martin Luther King
Jr. and Malcolm X are left out.

In recent years, Luna has started hosting small workshops in his
apartment, in which he teaches younger Afro-Cubans about those figures
and other luminaries of civil rights movements in Brazil and other places.

On the wall of his living room, he has hung a Cuban flag and a couple
dozen framed portraits of Afro-Cuban intellectuals, sports heroes and
revolutionary leaders. Many of them too were left out of history books,
he said. “We are invisible in our own revolutionary history.”

Twitter: @katelinthicum

Source: What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about
race – LA Times –
www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-afro-cubans-20160321-story.html

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