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Vol.63/No.37       October 25, 1999 
Conference debates 'Afro-Cubans in Cuban society: past, present, and future'  
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A conference entitled "Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, Present, and Future" took place here September 16-17 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The two-day event presented a range of views on the question of racism and racist prejudices in Cuba. It included participation by a number of Cuban writers and artists from both within Cuba and outside the country.

The event was organized by the Center for International Policy, the Cuba Exchange Program of the Johns Hopkins University, the Latin American Studies Program of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the Fernando Ortiz Foundation in Havana. The foundation, led by well-known Cuban writer Miguel Barnet, focuses on the study of ethnology, sociology, and Cuba's popular traditions. Barnet is vice president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Prior to the national congress of UNEAC in November 1998, the Foundation organized two days of discussion on the survival of elements of racism and racial prejudice in Cuban society today as well as the kinds of measures that must be taken to confront this problem.

This includes giving a greater presence to blacks, as members of Cuban society, in television and other mass media. Barnet attended the conference and participated actively in the discussion.

At a panel discussion entitled "The Past: From the Ten Years' War to 1959," Aline Helg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas, argued that Afro-Cubans reached their heights in 1895-96. "Perhaps Afro-Cubans are entering the millennium more marginalized than 100 years ago," she said.

This point of view was answered by several of the guests from Cuba. Panelist Pedro Rodríguez, a researcher at the Center of Martí Studies, pointed to the fact that the fight for independence and for the abolition of slavery were closely linked together in Cuban history. "This should be studied more closely to understand the problem in the present and future and to resolve it as they did by having a union of black and white Cubans," he said.

Among the panelists speaking at the session, "The Present: 1959 Until Today, on the Island," was Rigoberto Lopez , a film director and member of the Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry."We need to examine the problem not just from the point of view of black Cubans but the nation's point of view," he said. "One can't talk about a Cuban identity without including the contributions of black Cubans to Cuban culture."

Pointing to the fact that 33 percent of the population are Afro-Cubans, Lopez commented, "blacks have whitened and whites have blackened."

Wayne Smith, one of the central organizers of the conference with the Center for International Policy, hailed the fact that four Black American regiments fought in Cuba as part of the U.S. government's war in 1898 against its imperialist rival Spain.

A session was held on the topic, "The Present, in the Diaspora." There was also a session on "The Importance of Santería," moderated by UNEAC leader Barnet.

Santería originates in West Africa in what is now Nigeria and Benin. It is the traditional religion of the Yoruba peoples there. Its public practice was suppressed in Cuba before the 1959 revolution.

The final session entitled "The Future" was moderated by Enrique Sosa Rodríguez of the University of Havana and featured panelists Garciela Chailloux Laffita of Don Fernando Ortiz Casa de Alto Estudios; Gisela Arandia Covarrubias of UNEAC ; and Carlos Moore, a Cuban-born professor at the University of West Indies, who left the island in 1963. Arandia said that while great progress has been made by blacks in Cuba, "full equality has not been achieved." Some roots of racism she said are in learned behavior and prejudices. She also said, in her judgment, the decades-long aggression by the United States against the revolution "fueled suspicions" of those critical of race relations in Cuba.

Arandia pointed to discussions in the national assembly and in the university as potentially leading to a "more profound" discussion on race. She noted Cuban president Fidel Castro's remarks at the 1998 UNEAC congress regarding racial prejudice and the discussions there about the need to find solutions to the small number of blacks in prominent movie, theater, and television roles. "So we must continue forward and finish the project started in 1959," she concluded.

Moore is the author of Castro, the Blacks and Africa. He argued that 40 years of socialism and promotion of a single multicultural Cuba had not brought about the end of racism in Cuba. "A multicultural Cuba is nonsense and rubbish. There are two irreconcilable cultures in Cuba—one Black, the other white," Moore said.

He attacked the idea of a Cuban national identity where the anti-imperialist struggle had become intertwined with the fight of black Cubans for equality and the African culture has become incorporated into the Cuban culture.

Moore described the Cuban government as "white communist rule" and proposed a "government of parity of Blacks and whites" or "separation into two countries."

This attack on the Cuban revolution drew swift and sharp responses from conference participants.

"This idea of separation is an old one which we rejected long ago!" said Ana Cairo, a professor at the University of Havana. She added that Cuban culture and identity are not static, but "are being forged every day in every home, institution and mass organization."

Cuban journalist and writer Tato Quiñones explained, "I am neither white nor black but belong to a religious association (Santería) founded by Africans. The future of Afro-Cubans is tied to that of humanity as a whole," he added.

Another Cuban asked Moore, "My skin is light but I am not white as you would portray me. I was raised by my mother, a black woman. Where do I go in your Cuba?"

Arandia concluded, "This is not just a subject for the past but also for the future. And our future is not just what we inherited from the past. We must build upon the gains of the revolution."

Sam Manuel is a member of the United Transportation Union. Brian Williams is a member of the United Steelworkers of America. Janice Lynn, a member of the International Association of Machinists contributed to this article.  
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