A race left behind by a Revolution

Part of Castro’s stated plan was to end inequality. That part of the equation got lost somewhere.

Published August 19, 2006

HAVANA — In the town of Guanabacoa, east of the capital, where concrete block and wood houses line pock-marked streets, a middle-aged woman feels betrayed.

She is black, with no relatives in Miami or elsewhere in the United States sending her money, unlike some of her light-skinned neighbors. Her family embraced the “Revolution,” became doctors on a free education, joined the military.

But now she wakes early every morning to share streets with horse-drawn carts and men on bicycles. She walks from market to market in search of bread, fruit and cheese. She pinches pesos earned by washing laundry — all while watching her light-skinned neighbors buy big-screen televisions and new blue jeans.

“We were Communistas. Communistas,’’ she says bitterly. “And now where are we? On the bottom.’’

In these days following the announced illness of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the island’s citizens have calmly continued their lives, awaiting news of his condition.

But some Afro-Cuban residents and experts on Cuba note a fault line beneath the surface, one of a growing class divide that parallels racial lines — threatening to undo successes trumpeted by the Revolution.

Whatever befalls Castro in the coming months, a major question before his expected successor, brother Raul Castro, and even Raul’s successor, is how to tame such tensions. Raul Castro is believed by U.S. scholars to favor an economic model that mirrors China’s state-run capitalism, one that experts say could spur growth, but widen class divisions.

Alejandro de la Fuente, 43, was studying the history of slavery in Cuba before he immigrated to the United States in 1992. An associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Pittsburgh, he wrote A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth Century Cuba in 2001.

“Unless the Cuban state has an explicit commitment to fight against growing inequalities, they will increase,’’ he said.


Within months of taking control of Cuba in 1959, Castro enlisted the entire nation to help destroy racism.
He implored journalists and artists to dissect the prejudices of a former slave-holding society.

But Castro declared the battle over almost as soon as it began. In 1962, needing unison against his powerful neighbor to the north, he ruled that discrimination and class were things of the past. The Revolution, he said, had elevated black Cubans through universal education, health care and jobs.

The government dismantled whites-only social clubs and virtually eradicated illiteracy with rural education campaigns and free schooling. Health care for the poor improved dramatically.

But then came the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, Cuba’s chief sponsors. Absent its trading partners’ subsidies and squeezed by the U.S. embargo, Cuba’s economy went into a nose dive.

Fuel shortages were rampant. Blackouts rippled through the island. Cuba imported about a million bicycles from China and relied on oxen-driven plows for agriculture. Food and personal items like shampoo were hard to come by.

Castro implemented market-oriented reforms during the crisis, officially called the Special Period in Time of Peace.

He opened the island to tourism and authorized use of U.S. dollars, the acceptance of money from abroad, private farmer’s markets, home-stays for tourists and family-run restaurants. He warned of the inequities the reforms would create, but said they were a necessary evil.

Tourists came, converting world currencies to U.S. dollars and leaving tips at hotels and cafes. Special stores sprang up that accepted only dollars, shelves stocked, while the stores that took pesos lay empty.

The economy limped toward growth, but in many cases, dark-skinned Cubans were left behind, shut out of tourism jobs, de la Fuente said.

Remnants of domestic racism had blended with imported racism: Foreign companies in joint-venture tourism enterprises favored lighter-skinned Cubans in hiring.

Employees in the state sector, paid in pesos, saw their buying power plummet, while those who earned dollars in the private market saw it rise, according to economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of Cuba’s Aborted Reform.

Trained scientists and doctors found themselves making less than taxi drivers and maids with access to tourists.

The Revolution, even by the 1990s, had not caught up to chronic housing shortages. Many darker-skinned Cubans still lived in cramped buildings unsuitable for renting rooms to tourists or for private paladares, home-based restaurants.

Licensed home-stays were more common in the aging mansions of Vedado and in the western suburb of Miramar, a place of broad boulevards, meticulous landscaping and foreign embassies.

In the more Afro-Cuban tenement neighborhoods of Central Havana, home-stays were harder to find.

Afro-Cubans, blocked from the legitimate tourist economy, tried to get dollars any way they could, including hustling tourists to buy bogus cigars. Around town, middle-aged foreign men could be seen with young, dark-skinned “girlfriends,’’ known as jineteras, or prostitutes.

The darker-skinned Cubans were less likely to have U.S. relatives sending money.

Even now, black and biracial Cubans are disproportionately represented among Cuban immigrants in the United States. About 85 percent of Cuban immigrants in the United States are identified as white on census forms.

Estimates of Cuba’s white population vary. U.S. officials put it at 37 percent. Cuban officials say it’s 65 percent.

Over the past 10 years, Fidel Castro has reversed some of the market reforms, even as the economy started to rebound. The reasons were mixed, said Mesa-Lago: Castro wanted to re-establish state control over the economy. Trade with Venezuela had grown. But also, he was eager to restore income equality.

His reversals could not undo the racial divides that had formed.

“The evidence we have so far is not very encouraging,” de la Fuente said. “Racial differences have grown since the 1990s, particularly in access to employment.’’

Raul Castro, like his brother, decried the disparities brought on by Special Period reforms.

But he appears to be more open to capitalist reforms, which could exacerbate class differences.

It doesn’t have to be that way, de la Fuente said.

Used wisely, the influx of new money could help the second Castro pay for social programs, which could blunt racial disparities and silence criticism, de la Fuente said.

“All the evidence we have points to the growing sensitivity to this issue,’’ he said, “and that these people are not going to shut up.’’


Some older Cubans who consider themselves Afro-Cuban remember life before Castro, and count their gains.

“Look at my skin,’’ said Guillermo Garcia, 58, an engineer who is bi­racial. “Do you know what it would have cost in this country before the Revolution to become an engineer?’’

Still, economic realities leave him working as a parking attendant at the Copacabana hotel to pay for medicine for his asthmatic son.

Younger people are more restless for economic change. At a huge rally put on by the Union of Young Communists on the eve of Castro’s birthday, thousands of students crowded the plaza in front of the U.S. Interests Section office, the closest thing to an American embassy in Havana.

As they cheered for Fidel and the line-up of some of Cuba’s best musicians on stage, a cluster of dark-skinned young men stood off to the side. They noted that the majority of the students were not even from the island. They were Peruvians, Venezuelans, Bolivians, all students bused over from the Latin American School of Medicine west of Havana.

Young Cubans lining the famous seawall Malecon came for the free concerts, the men said. The normal cover charge to see the bands at hotels or clubs is often more than an average Cuban’s monthly salary.

Some of the most vocal social criticism has come from Cuba’s hip-hop movement.

The raperos, who call themselves black or Afro-Cuban, came of age during the Special Period. They picked up the music style in part from Miami radio waves through antennae placed atop high-rise residential developments in Alamar, east of Havana.

But they quickly adapted it to their own realities, using clever lyrics over percussion to criticize the police for harassing them, to protest a biased tourism industry and to ridicule the sex trade. They made a political statement by even discussing race.

At first, police shut down their street concerts. Later, the government began sponsoring their festivals, choosing which musicians could perform.

“They are trying to hold the revolutionary process responsible for being able to deliver on the kinds of claims and ideals that the revolution promised ... particularly about racial and class equality,’’ said Marc D. Perry. He’s an assistant professor in the department of anthropology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Perry wrote his doctoral dissertation on Cuban raperos and is currently working on a book about Cuban hip-hop.
In the dissertation, he quotes numerous raperos, including Hermanos de Causa, or Brothers of Cause.

In their song Tengo, which means, “I Have,’’ the performers play off a famous 1964 poem of the same name by Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, whose original words lauded the opportunities opened to black Cubans by the Revolution.

The poem became standard reading in secondary schools.

But the raperos changed it for their own use as social commentary, lamenting their lack of economic opportunities.
Their words translate to these:

I have a dark race and discrimination./ I have a job that demands from me and pays me nothing./ I have so much that I can’t even touch./ I have all these places I can’t even enter./ I have freedom inside a parenthesis of steel./ I have so many rights I don’t enjoy that enclose me./ I have what I have without having what I’ve had./ You have to think, take in the content./ I have a fractured behavior because of the people./ I have the element, I have the consent./ I have the foundation without having antecedents./ I have my talent, and that’s more than sufficient...’’

Perry, who is African-American, said he considers racism worse in the United States than in Cuba.

He notices more blending among races in Cuba, but also sees young artists frustrated by the direction their country is taking.

“It’s very important to understand that these young people are profoundly shaped by the revolutionary process,” he said. “They embrace a certain identification with the Revolution and often see their role to rectify its shortcomings.’’

Perry cautions against concluding that the raperos want to overthrow their government, when they may only want to remind it of the Revolution’s promises.

“I don’t see any catastrophe on the horizon in terms of racial politics in Cuba,’’ Perry said. “First of all, black Cubans have a very strong sense of identification with Cuba and the Revolution and the history, and that’s not going to change. Racism is still very real in Cuba, there’s no question about it. But I still think there is a certain commitment to try to continue to struggle. And I certainly think black and darker-skinned Cubans will be at the vanguard of that.’’

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.