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   Vol. 70/No. 3           January 23, 2006  
‘La Gaceta’ takes up fight against racism in Cuba
“Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, unprecedented efforts were made to eliminate racial discrimination in our country,” begins a special issue of La Gaceta de Cuba, devoted to “Nation, Race, and Culture.”

The journal is a bimonthly published in Havana by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC).

“Our revolution passed laws against discrimination and opened doors for blacks and mulattos,” said Miguel Barnet, president of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation and one of Cuba’s best-known novelists and writers, at a meeting to launch the new issue in early 2005.

“Despite the efforts of many people over many years in fighting racism and prejudice,” Barnet continued, “this problem has not been solved in the way we all aspire.”

The subject “has generally been treated from the standpoint of fear of provoking divisions” that the imperialist enemy could take advantage of, added Esteban Morales, director emeritus of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the United States, speaking at the same meeting. For that reason, “it’s generally been treated with silence.”

This question has been taken up in several special issues of La Gaceta de Cuba in recent years. This one, dated January-February 2005, does so from various angles in essays, interviews, reviews, short stories, and poems.

In her article “Are We Or Are We Not” journalist Gisela Arandia writes: “What’s involved is not just legitimizing the achievements attained after 1959, but also laying out how much still needs to be done.”  
Impact of Cuban Revolution
One of the first measures taken by the new revolutionary government following the January 1959 victory that dismantled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was to ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public facilities. This step was explained to the Cuban people in a speech by Fidel Castro on March 22, 1959.1

One of the articles in La Gaceta de Cuba, “A Necessary Debate: Race and Cubanness” by Alejandro de la Fuente, discusses the impact of those initial measures.

“It’s difficult to convey the creative potential that flowered at that historic moment,” de la Fuente says. “Beginning in April [1959], a whole number of conferences, roundtables, workshops, and articles in the press analyzed … the persistence of racism in Cuban society, and put forward proposals for its total eradication.

“From one end of the island to the other, cultural, recreational, and political events … were held, with the participation of whites and blacks,” de la Fuente continues. “An unprecedented national campaign was undertaken, with state support. In the process, cultural topics and practices that traditionally were not talked about or were scorned as being primitive cultural forms, were brought out into the open and reevaluated.”

The banning of discrimination in employment and public facilities was taken in conjunction with many other steps that brought growing equality of blacks within Cuba—an agrarian reform that distributed land to those who worked it, an urban reform that slashed rents and utility rates, a massive literacy drive and expansion of education, among others.

The nationalization of the factories and lands held by U.S. and Cuban capitalists in the summer and fall of 1960 capped these measures that struck deeply at the material foundations of racism in capitalist Cuba. The new social relations that emerged, de la Fuente points out, were codified in language, in the use of words such as “compañero,” which remains a universally used form of address in Cuba today.  
Persistence of racism
The successes in eliminating legal discrimination and overturning the economic foundations that inevitably recreated inequality led many, including in the revolutionary leadership, to adopt a stance that the problem of racism in Cuba had largely been solved. The remnants of racist prejudice, it was argued, would disappear with the passage of time and the continued advance of the revolution.

But despite the enormous transformation since 1959, racist attitudes and more subtle forms of discrimination were more persistent than many had anticipated.

De la Fuente refers to “a multitude of jokes, sayings, comments, and expressions that continue to denigrate blacks.”

An article by Daisy Rubiera Castillo, “The Time of Memory,” quotes a 94-year-old black woman named Reyita, whose life experiences formed the basis of a book Rubiera wrote. “There are almost no black actors,” Reyita observed in 1992. “And those you see are never the main characters but always maids, stevedores, slaves, whatever. That was understandable at the beginning of the revolution. But now? After all these years?”

One material reason for continued inequality, states Gisela Arandia’s article, is that overcoming the legacy of discrimination requires special measures to advance those affected. “The principle of ‘equal opportunity,’” she writes, does not solve the problem “for groups that for a long time have been at the bottom of the social pyramid.”

This question has been a concern of Cuba’s revolutionary leadership for many years. In a 1986 speech to a congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, Fidel Castro declared, “We can’t leave it to chance to correct historical injustices. To really establish total equality takes more than simply declaring it in law.” Referring to the need to advance the percentage of blacks and women on the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Castro said, “We can’t leave the promotion of women, blacks, and mestizos to chance…. We have to straighten out what history has twisted.” 2  
Special Period
With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by 1991, which had previously accounted for 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade, the island was brutally thrust back into the world capitalist market from which it had been partially sheltered for more than 25 years. The sudden and unilateral break in trading patterns—the effects of which were intensified by the heightened economic warfare organized by Washington—led to the most severe economic crisis in Cuba since 1959. The measures taken to address these conditions became known as the Special Period.

Some of the policies adopted—such as legalizing circulation and use of the U.S. dollar and the availability of numerous necessities solely in what become known as “dollar stores”—fostered growing inequality between those with access to dollars and those with none.

In his article, de la Fuente assesses this question.

“Although the economic crisis of the 1990s had a negative impact on all Cubans, it was also racially differentiated,” he writes. One reason for this, de la Fuente asserts, was that fewer blacks have access to dollars, since a much higher percentage of Cubans who are white left the island to live abroad. Cubans who are black are less likely to have relatives in the U.S. sending them dollars.

Another source of dollars the last decade and a half in Cuba has been the tourist industry, many of whose employees receive part of their wages, tips, or bonuses in dollars. “But access by blacks and mulattos to this sector of the Cuban economy has been seriously limited since the 1990s,” de la Fuente writes. “This exclusion has been justified on the supposedly neutral grounds that to work in tourism—particularly in those occupations that involve direct contact with tourists—one must have a ‘good presence.’”

It was instances of such discrimination at hotels and tourist facilities that led Cuban leader Raúl Castro to issue a public warning in 2000: “If a single person is not allowed to enter a hotel because of being black, then by law that hotel will be closed down.”  
New openings
But the Special Period had another important result: the abrupt decline in credibility of the Stalinist policies that led to the implosion of the Soviet and Eastern European regimes opened up political space for discussion and opposition to Cuban variants of some of those policies. Working-class solutions to problems, as opposed to administrative and bureaucratic actions favoring better-off layers of the population, increasingly stamped the revolution’s course.

This growing space is reflected in the battle against racism, too.

“Paradoxically the Special Period… has created the necessary conditions to break the official silence that has shrouded the existence of racism,” de la Fuente concludes. “What’s needed now is a serious national debate on the topic, similar to what took place in the spring of 1959.”

The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba has been one of the organizations leading the effort to address this question. As the introduction to La Gaceta states, UNEAC’s meetings “have been forums where, up to now, the subject has perhaps been debated with the greatest depth.”

One such initiative UNEAC took following its Sixth Congress in 1998, where the issue was prominently addressed, was the creation of a working group known as Color Cubano.

Gisela Arandia, who helps lead this group, describes some of Color Cubano’s work in her article. “The aim of this project starts from the need to carry out in Cuban society today an intelligent debate on the manifestations of racism,” she says.

Color Cubano “has held discussions that range from the role that the media should play in the struggle against racism, up to the need to incorporate racial themes into school textbooks as an important aspect in the classroom.

“Equally, Color Cubano has been participating in community activities” in Havana, “working in neighborhoods most of whose residents are poor blacks and mulattos."

The political stakes in the fight are tied to the advance of the revolution, explains Fernando Martínez Heredia in an article entitled “History and Race.” The fight against “the emergence and growth of racism in Cuba today,” he argues, “is a form of political struggle against a possible return to capitalism.”  
Cuban rap music
One of the cultural phenomena in Cuba over the last decade addressed in this issue of La Gaceta has been the emergence of rap and hip hop music. The raperos, as they are called, consist overwhelmingly of young black Cubans. Many of their songs deal with problems facing blacks in Cuba today.

When Cuban rap began to appear in the early 1990s, reaction to it was often negative, with many seeing it as “music of the enemy,” based on its U.S. roots. Some of the initial rap festivals and concerts, in fact, were organized outside of official channels, in a “semi-underground” manner.

This hostility began to change by the mid- and late 1990s, with UNEAC being one of the organizations taking the lead, together with the Ministry of Culture, the Union of Young Communists (UJC), and others. Rap concerts and festivals began to be officially organized, and rap started to be heard on the radio. State support and encouragement was given to rap musicians to pursue their art.

The best-known Cuban rap group is Orishas, whose three members currently spend most of their time in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of their CDs have been sold around the world.

An interview with the three is included in the special issue of La Gaceta de Cuba.

“People have always listened to black music in Cuba,” states group member Hirám “Ruzzo” Medina. But at the time the group was formed in the mid-1990s, during the most difficult years of the Special Period, he says, “There was distrust, the usual taboos: that we weren’t musicians, that we were people of the street saying crude things.”

“Orishas are a product of the street,” adds Yotuel “Guerrero” Romero. “We didn’t invent anything. All we did was detect the influences in the air, and transmit these like an antenna.”

Roldán González, the group’s third member, states, “We criticize the social situation in this country, in part, but our only intention is to build, to look for solutions, to give the world an entirely positive image of what happens here, … without lying, without exaggerating or hiding reality.” But “unfortunately there are still closed minds, people who don’t understand what you’re saying. To speak of what’s happening is not destructive. If they were to read the press, they’d see that we always put the Cuban flag as high up as possible. We love Cuba, and Fidel Castro too.”

Commenting on the fact that the group members currently live in Europe, Yotuel Romero says, “Many people have tried to situate the group politically with those criticizing Cuba. True, not everything goes well here, but Europe isn’t so great either. I’ve seen people injecting themselves with heroin in the subways, unemployed people dying in the streets. They criticize socialism all the time, but capitalism ends up devouring you. Cuba has problems, but in the barrios and slums of the United States, the situation is worse.”

Comparing Orishas to rap groups in the United States, Hirám Medina states, “The rest of Latin hip hop is too violent, too aggressive, a copy of the commercialism and negativism that exists in the United States.” He adds: “These groups are dominated by the market, something that hasn’t happened to us.”

This special issue of La Gaceta de Cuba also includes tributes to black Cuban playwright Eugenio Hernández Espinosa, articles on Santería, sexual stereotypes, and more.

Subscriptions to the Spanish-language La Gaceta de Cuba can be purchased at Rates are $40 per year for individuals and $75 for institutions; there is also a special student annual rate of $28. Those interested in following the discussion on these issues will find it worth every penny.

1. A translation of this speech was published in the April 19, 1999, Militant.
2. Published as "Renewal or Death" in New International no. 6, pp. 334-35.
Related articles:
Washington tries to force Cuban baseball team out of tournament
How Cuba’s support for Angola’s liberation struggle began
The role of women in Cuba’s revolutionary army  
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