The paradoxes of being black in Cuba

The Baltimore Sun

Havana -- To look at her meager two-room house that doubles as a storefront souvenir shop, it may not seem that Vivian Madrigal Ponjuan has a lot in life. But she says she is fortunate because she has a roof that doesn't leak, running water and a refrigerator full of food.

The fact that she has a warm place to sleep is a gift of the revolution more than 40 years ago that put Fidel Castro in power, she said. Life before the revolution was hard for her family, who, like many blacks, lived in extreme poverty. "Before there were a lot of problems for black people," said Madrigal Ponjuan. "It is different now."

While many Americans and Cubans who have fled the island view Cuba as a place where basic freedoms are denied, black Cubans see things differently. Castro staged his successful war for control of the island from Cuba's mostly black city of Santiago, organizing disenfranchised, poor blacks and promising a raceless society.

He delivered on much of that promise, making discrimination illegal and opening the doors to better education, health care and professional jobs for black Cubans. All that has been required is unfaltering loyalty to his undemocratic regime. To many disadvantaged black Cubans, that seemed a reasonable deal.

But a racial paradox also lingers in Cuba. While institutional racism has been eliminated, remnants of more subtle discrimination still abound. Some critics say the Castro regime hasn't promoted enough blacks to positions of power.

Some scholars say the racism of today dates to the days of slavery, which created a thinking that blacks were inferior. The message was passed down over the years in more subtle ways, such as the lead characters in television shows.

"Colonization made it so black persons should be ashamed," said Digna Castaneda Fuertes, professor at the University of Havana and author of the book Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans Before the Cuban Revolution. "Slavery has many consequences," she said through a translator. "Including race issues."

Before the Castro revolution, a white elite ruled the country and held most of the wealth. After the revolution many whites fled the country while "mulattos" (those of mixed race) and black Cubans remained. About 90 percent of Cuban exiles are white.

Today Cuban's population is 51 percent mulatto, 37 percent white, 11 percent black and 1 percent Chinese, according to CIA statistics.

In many respects, Cuba now appears to have more racial harmony than the United States. Interracial marriages are common and neighborhoods are integrated.

"Black people became persons after the revolution," said Ruben Remigio Ferro, the president of Cuba's Supreme Court, who is black. "It was the basis for creating the social and economic development of black people. The Cuban revolution gave to poor people and black people more opportunity than ever before."

Ferro, whose father raised his family on a meager farmer's earnings, was 5 years old when the revolution ended. He was able to get an education and attend law school to rise to the highest position of the country's court system. His older siblings, whose school age years were before the revolution, didn't go to school and weren't able to get professional jobs.

Despite many success stories like Ferro's, racial issues linger.

Some economic disparities that were created in the past because white Cubans had more opportunities for education and better jobs have carried over to present times. Even after schools were open to all, there weren't many schools in the rural areas where blacks lived. The universities have since set up satellite campuses in different provinces.

"You cannot talk about institutional racism," said Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. "But we still have manifestations of discrimination."

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s brought to the surface any racial problems that may have existed. Without the economic support of its Communist ally, Cuba suffered financially. There was a shortage of food and power blackouts. Many whites had a financial advantage over blacks because they received money from their relatives who had fled to America, creating an economic disparity between the races that exists even today.

One testament to the racial problems that have lingered was the opening of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana in 1987. Named in honor of the American civil rights leader, it aims to address Cuba's discrimination issues. The center has built affordable housing and provided job training to black Cubans and encouraged racial harmony.

"By law [discrimination] doesn't exist, but it remains in the minds of certain people," said Daysi Rojas, head of the solidarity program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

Television shows often feature characters who are blond, when typical Cubans are darker-skinned, Rojas said. Some lighter Cubans that she knows won't marry darker-skinned people, she noted.

Most Cubans don't like to talk about race issues. Many prefer to identify themselves by their nationality as Cubans rather by their race.

But the Cuban government has begun to acknowledge some of the racial issues. Alarcon said the government will look at ways to address racism through policy, such as with efforts to help more blacks and women advance in certain industries.

Despite some discrimination concerns, many black Cubans remain devoted to the regime for bringing them more equality.

Madrigal Ponjuan said she makes a good living selling souvenirs to tourists from her home. Her husband has a successful career as a fisherman and her son went to college to become a physical therapist for baseball players. She has no desire to leave her home country.

"Life is good for me," she said.

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