Those ‘Other’ Cubans & ‘Change’

Blue Dancer (Yemaya)_Cuba 060, originally uploaded by hoyasmeg.
Since Castro the Elder left office, Cuba has undergone important changes. I think the pace of change is only going to increase over the next few years. But, you know that old saying about how the more things change?
One continuity in that Caribbean island is the failure to address in any meaningful way the pernicious impact of racism on Afro-Cubans. A series on Cuba in The Root really got me thinking. See here and here. There is also a particularly interesting piece by Leonardo Padura. Take a look at an except:

As if a few more dark faces in the official apparatus could really be an answer to the profound problems that have so much to do with economics and social thought and so little to do with the utopian volunteerism of our leaders who, in the end, are simply practicing politics with their “anti-discrimination” decrees.

Then there is this gem:
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the definitive answer to this problem demands new and more dynamic policies that, unfortunately, mostly depend on an island bereft of economic possibilities for white, mulatto and black Cubans so in need of improvements in their real and everyday life.
Padura also describes the the comparatively poor living conditions of black Cubans and abuse by the police. So many questions arise from the manner in which Padura describes racism and the attempts to counter it. Primary among them is to account for the the scorn that is paid to leaders attempt to use public policy to counter racism and injustice (that is the ‘practicing politics’ jibe). Was LBJ practicing politics when he signed the Voting Rights Act? Even if he was, so what?! Didn’t it help bettering the conditions of African Americans by allowing them to be full fledged citizens? Many political theorists from the Greeks to contemporary times will acknowledge that politicians are selfish. That’s why citizens need means of influencing their leaders.
Moreover, the issue is not really whether anti-discrimination laws exist, it is the extent to which these laws are actually enforced. In a country where the state has such a huge influence over housing and job allocation, these disparities are inexcusable. Given the political context which not only permits, but necessitates state involvement, and the existence of laws to combat racism, this failing could be considered even more egregious than what obtains elsewhere.
Lastly, I am again puzzled by the commentator’s call for new ‘dynamic policies’ to address these disparities. Well, if that kinda obvious. The issue is what form this reform should take. No advice is given in this critical area. When I hear ‘dynamic’ capitalism comes to mind. But, that can’t be it since Cuba’s record on health and education are far better than what obtains in most capitalist countries. And the reference to economic constraints must be a reference to economic growth. However, as anyone who studied a bit of economic and economic history will tell you, growth is nothing without equity.
One of the disappointments I had with the coverage by The Root is the failure to capture the lived experience of racism in Cuba. What do average, everyday black people think about how their country has addressed (or not) racism? Afro-Cubans have to know what substantive change will not come easy or cheap.
Cuba’s racial dynamics is not only not the paradox the author sets out to portray it as, but Cuba itself is a very polarizing subject. The last thing I want is for this commentary to be interpreted as a Cuba-bashing rant. In President Obama’s inauguration speech he intoned that it is not what leaders destroy, but what they can build which is the true testament to the quality of their leadership. I agree.
The Cuban state has important domestic and international achievements which cannot be dismissed. But they can’t be given a pass on the fact that they went half way around the world to fight for the rights of black people, while failing to change the evil that lies under their own roof. Justice is like charity, it must begin at home.

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3 Responses to Those ‘Other’ Cubans & ‘Change’

  1. worldperipheries says:

    I would be curious to get a comparative perspective – see whether Cuba has dealt with it (marginally) better than other countries who are surfing the multicultural wave: “The most physically ruined parts of the cities are those where most black and mixed-raced Cubans, weighed down by spiritual burdens and secular misery, have lived for generations. They are also the ones who, in the economic and social climbing of the last few decades, are least represented … and let’s not mention certain attitudes, repressive attitudes”. Does that sound particular to Cuba? It seems to describe Europe or North America as well, despite the increasing visibility of Blacks (and other minorities) in high level jobs etc… Having Obama in power will by no means radically influence the opportunities of kids on the southern side of Chicago. So yes the Cuban dream has to be confronted to reality but let’s not feel too comfortable with ourselves either. I cannot speak about post 9/11 US because I have never lived there but racism in Europe is rather clearly on the increase, including in government policy (see France). Granted these “minorities” constitute the majority of the population in Cuba so this surely has different implications.

    I think your answer to the use of politics is to be found in your link to Carlos Moore’s interview. I like his location of racism in “the political, economic and judicial structures of power; the day-to-day etiquette of interpersonal relations; the social imaginary where Otherness is mythologized and re-signified through cultural attitudes and patterns, value systems and aesthetic norms”. Politics can probably interfere relatively effectively for the first and second aspects (and Padura’s demeaning of politics is sort of outlandish) but the third aspect basically requires a paradigmatic shift in how we perceive the “natural” and the “valuable” (which reminds me a very silly anecdotic example about how a white European colleague got pissed off at an African colleague laughing at our guesthouse because it was “a white man’s house”. The white woman in me agreed and sighted. The white man could not understand how the house, who felt comfortable to him – and him only- may just not feel home to anyone differing on few or many cultural aspects: this was really the only way to organize a house!)

    Anyways just a few thoughts 😉

    • Thanks you for your open mind and critical perspective. Love it.

      Yes, I too believe that Cuba is not exceptional in many of the patterns discussed. Yet, and I agree that empirical evidence would be great, it is my firm belief that Latin countries in the Americas have more difficult time with racism. That is, there is more racism in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic (let is not even get in Central and South America ;( ) than North America or the anglophone Caribbean.

      There are two reasons why I think this is. First, democracy allows for challenges to the status quo. The consequence is that the official narrative of what it means to be Canadian or Jamaican can be challenged and anti-racism becomes apart of that narrative. Secondly, the black people themselves are less passive about asserting their rights. I also think that class provides some protection in these places, than is far less pronounced in the aforementioned Latin cases.

      Yes, Moore’s description of racism is excellent. I also think that not all forms of prejudice can be eliminated or should all forms of prejudice be considered racism. For me, racism is structural. So I was very puzzled by Padura’s glib dismissal of politics.

      The white man in your story needs to ‘decenter’ himself. Anthro pun intended.

  2. Bokar says:

    Good commentary. Agreed that Cuba has many changes to make in regards to racial equality. To their credit, let’s not forget the fact that they’ve done MUCH especially in the larger context of the severe racism that has and continues to exist in Latin America.

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