Did the Revolution End Racial Discrimination in Cuba?
Did the Revolution End Racial Discrimination in Cuba?
April 15, 2016
By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — The United Nations designated March 21 as the
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This
year, Cuba’s official media, tasked with covering (and criticizing) US
President Barack Obama’s address in Cuba, made absolutely no mention of
Civil society organizations, such as the Citizens Committee for Racial
Integration (CIR) and the Black Brotherhood (Cofradía de la Negritud),
did celebrate the occasion. I attended the activities organized by both
Norberto Mesa Carbonell, the founding member of the latter, invited me
to the event for the second consecutive year. In 2015, the function was
held at the Cuban Chapter of UNESCO. This time around, the condition for
holding the gathering at this venue was that dissidents and independent
journalists were to be excluded. Norberto replied that his organization
condemns all forms of discrimination. The activity was held at the
Veterinary Scientific Council, located on Paseo Street, Vedado.
As in 2015, the function was an opportunity to condemn and analyze
inequality and racial discrimination in Cuba. Norberto Mesa spoke of how
he lost his job as a porter at the Hemingway Marina in 2009. “They had
to cut back on personnel. There were three black and two white
employees. The manager, who was also white, fired the three blacks.”
From Engineer to Porter
I wasn’t able to include Norberto’s story in Quienes se preocupan por la
discriminacion racial en Cuba (“Those Concerned with Racial
Discrimination in Cuba”), an article dealing with the activity published
in Diario de Cuba, because of space restrictions. A month later,
Norberto granted me an interview on a Sunday, the only day he gets off
his current job (at a parking lot) a bit early. All other days, he works
from 8 to 8.
When we begin our conversation, I find out that this man, who fought to
keep his job as a porter in 2009, is an agronomist and expert in genetic
procedures for the livestock sector, and that he was once Assistant
Professor at the Havana Higher Institute of Agronomy. My first question
is how this engineer ended up a porter.
Norberto Mesa: I was the head of the Genetics Department at the Niña
Bonita Company and I was in Ethiopia from 1987 to 1989. Our government
had donated a lot of cattle to the Ethiopian government. I was sent
there as a genetics expert to help get the most out of the cattle.
When I got back, Niña Bonita had merged with Los Naranjos, another
company, and I started work there. There were some inconsistencies in
the data there. The chief of production was doctoring the results to
impress foreign visitors. They were falsifying data to improve
indicators. Cattle mortality rates were behind concealed, saying the
calves that had died had been slaughtered. I resigned, submitting a
letter that said I was ashamed to work there.
Norberto didn’t look for engineering work. The Special Period had begun
and genetic work in the livestock sector had “been razed to the ground.”
A friend found him a cashier-receptionist training course. After some
time and overcoming a number of initial hurdles, he began working as a
hotel receptionist. Before leaving Niña Bonito, he made a commitment.
Norberto: I promised that, if Niña Bonita ever became a company again, I
would go back. It happened, and they immediately called me. I also lived
in an apartment owned by the company. A friend of mine thought I was
crazy to leave the hotel, but livestock is what I like.
Niña Bonita became a leader in the sector and my work was also
acknowledged. But the deputy chief of production was from Los Naranjos.
They counted the cattle and some cows were missing. He tried to convince
the manager that the cows had been slaughtered, because telling the
truth involved a long explanation. I was against this and, even though
he was my superior, we did what I said we should: tell the truth.
Afterwards, I started having problems with him and decided to leave.
The commission was in charge of deciding who would be representative
Norberto couldn’t return to his job as hotel receptionist. He started
working as a watchman. He had a friend who was the manager of a chain of
stores at the Hemingway Marina and he went to him for help.
Norberto: When this whole business of the People’s Power councils began,
he was advanced as candidate, but only because they needed another
candidate, so that there were at least two. I presented myself as
candidate, knowing he would be elected in the end and that I had to vote
for him as well.
Norberto: That’s how it worked. The blessed commission decided who would
be representative. He went on to become First Secretary of the Communist
Party in Bauta. I had completed my cashier-receptionist training course
and went to see if he could get me a job at a store. He said to me: “I’m
going to get you a job at a warehouse, but I can’t have you in direct
contact with the public.”
Norberto: Why do you think? Because they didn’t want black employees
interacting with the public at the Marina.
HT: Did he say that to you?
Norberto: He didn’t have to say it. At any rate, the warehouses were
shut down. Another acquaintance of mine got me a job as a watchman in
1997. Two years later, they fired two porters because of a problem they
had and their positions opened up. I had level-two English and level-one
French, I was working at the Marina and I got the job. There, I got to
level-three English and level-two French.
Three Blacks and Two Whites
Norberto: In 2008, I was voted best reception employee. Then came the
cut backs. There were five porters: three blacks and two whites who were
Party members. They didn’t speak English. One of them barely spoke
Spanish. They got rid of the three blacks.
I registered a complaint at the Department for Labor Justice, because we
were more highly qualified than they were. They didn’t meet the
established term to reply to our complaint. The entity acknowledged we
were more highly qualified, but ruled in favor of management.
I went before the Municipal Court, which also didn’t meet the response
term. They made up evidence there. They said those two workers had an
excellent employment record. That was a lie: the three of us had gotten
a B, because an Excellent had to be justified thoroughly.
HT: They didn’t take the fact you’d been voted best employee into
Norberto: No. The court refused to hear my defense attorney. They
included nothing of what I said in the ruling. You’re inexperienced and
they make you sign a document. Then you find out nothing of what you
said was included in it.
I decided to initiate proceedings
Norberto: I went to the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC) and the
affiliated National Tourism Trade Union. They all acknowledged the
irregularities but no one did anything. The fellow at the Trade Union
Bureau, perhaps feeling a bit guilty, wrote a letter saying that only
seniority had been taken into consideration and performance at work had
HT: Isn’t seniority enough?
Norberto: Only if one’s work record is good. Neither one of them spoke a
foreign language. I submitted that letter to the Supreme Court. They
also ruled against me. The ruling had the name of a different person.
They hadn’t completed my employee evaluation at the hotel either, even
though I’d submitted all the documents in time.
I decided to get a legal process going. At a public law firm, they
suggested I approach the Attorney General’s Office. I explained to them
I wanted to press charges for violation of the right to equality in the
workplace. The acting attorney didn’t know Article 295 of the Penal
Code, dealing with this type of violation. She asked a clerk to look
over the Code. When they saw the article, they apologized. They had
never received this type of complaint before. They sent me to the
police. Neither the receptionist, nor the officer on duty nor the chief
knew of the article. When the chief of police confirmed the article
actually existed, they had them take my statement.
In 2011, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,
in connection with racial discrimination in administrative organs and
legal proceedings, reminded the Cuban State that the absence of cases
related to this issue may be owed to the fact victims lack information
regarding existing legal mechanisms, and suggested the State should
ensure national legislation include appropriate provisions to
effectively protect these, as well as efficacious resources to prevent
the violation of the Convention for the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination, duly informing the general public of their rights and
the legal resources at their disposal in this connection.
During the 2013 Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council,
the Cuban State received the recommendation of continuing to strengthen
its legal and institutional framework to combat discrimination and
Norberto: Days later, my old friends from the Marina called me to tell
me the police had gone there, “asked questions, said you had pressed
charges. They got rid of Cristo, the manager.”
A month later, they summoned me and told me there had been no crime and,
as such, the case was being dismissed.
HT: Then why did they fire the manager?
Norberto: There’s allegedly no racial discrimination here. They won’t
open up a case for that. I was the first to press such charges and the
prosecutor never spoke with me, but decided to dismiss the case nonetheless.
HT: Perhaps the manager’s decision had to do with the fact they were
Party members and you weren’t.
Norberto: Perhaps. But, after the second process, one of us three got
his job back. Of the two who had kept his job, they got rid of the one
who was less qualified. As for me, they didn’t give me my job back or
With the government’s approval
HT: During the function for the International Day for the Elimination of
Racial Discrimination, Esteban Morales affirmed they have always relied
on the government’s approval – both from Fidel and Raul Castro – to
combat racism. But your case, the fact authorities were not aware of
Article 295, and the fact you couldn’t register the Brotherhood in the
Associations Registry, demonstrate the opposite.
Norberto: During his interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro said
that fighting against racial discrimination is one of the sacred duties
of revolutionaries. Today, the Party’s attitude is reactionary. Instead
of being at the forefront of this struggle, they hold it back.
The Ideology Secretary of the Young Communists League University
Committee at the Central University of Las Villas invited us to hold a
debate about the documentary Race, with students and young people there.
They blamed the Party for the fact the fight against racism isn’t making
headway. The next day, we had a debate with professors and university
students about the Brotherhood’s letter of introduction. I reminded
people of what Che Guevara used to say: that the university had to be
open to blacks, mulattos and poor people. Now, we don’t see that many
black or people at university. A white girl said that, there and then,
among so many professors and students, there were barely any blacks.
When we left, the Ideology Secretary was pulled from the UJC. The
professor at the Social Sciences Faculty was expelled from the Party.
In 1959, Fidel Castro shook the country when he rallied against racism
and called on black Cubans to be the most devoted revolutionaries, to
work so as to be beyond reproach. He told Ramonet he was dissatisfied
with the situation of Cuba’s black population. We believed his words, we
considered him a soldier in the fight against racism. But, in his last
article, following Obama’s visit, he says the revolution swept racial
discrimination off the map. That’s not true. The revolution thought it
had swept it off the map. It’s hard to acknowledge it still exists.
HT: What do you expect on the subject from the upcoming Party Congress?
Norberto: I’m not optimistic. I don’t think they’ll even debate the issue.
Source: Did the Revolution End Racial Discrimination in Cuba? – Havana
Times.org – www.havanatimes.org/?p=118163