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The World : The People Castro Can Count on During Tough Times--Cuba's Blacks

August 21, 1994|Ingrid Peritz | Ingrid Peritz is a Ford Foundation fellow at USC's Center for International Journalism and a reporter for the Montreal Gazette

HAVANA — Andres Castillo is a rarity in Cuba these days. He's an unwavering fan of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. His support springs from a simple fact: Castillo is black.

The son of an illiterate rural salesman, Castillo went to university, became an author and now edits the Cuban science magazine Innovacion Ciencia Desarrollo--all accomplishments he credits to a revolution that opened doors to blacks.

"Everything I have, I owe to the revolution," Castillo says. "Blacks, especially of my generation, know we were made by the revolution. So we're willing to put up with hardships now."

These are sentiments Castro desperately needs to hear. He depended on nonwhite support when he took power 35 years ago. Today, his country in crisis and Cubans leaving at a rate not seen since the Mariel boatlift in 1980, Castro needs it more than ever.

Cuba's racial profile has turned several shades darker since 1959. The exodus of predominantly white Cubans has left behind a nonwhite majority of blacks and mulattoes, who make up an estimated 60% of the country's 10.7 million people.

Nonwhites may well prefer drudgery than live to see the return of exiled Cubans from Miami. About 95% of the exile community is white. Older blacks easily recall the discrimination and racism of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Under the Batista dictatorship, blacks were barred from everything, from university classrooms to the best beaches in Varadero.

Castro outlawed discrimination and helped Cuba's poorest, among them many blacks who made up a disproportionate share of the uneducated and unemployed.

Today, the signs of change are evident. One lavishly adorned apartment building in Havana's once-exclusive Vedado district, where four families lived in the 1950s, is now home for 80 families. Nearly all are black.

Behind the building's elegant facade, however, residents subsist on meager food rations. Many acknowledge the gap between the revolution's promise and the depressing reality of Cuba today--and wonder whether racial equality was just another botched experiment.

Still, Cuba is an integrationist's dream. Blacks and whites fraternize in a way rarely seen in the United States, and the large mulatto population is proof of years of intermarriage. But recent reforms in Cuba have spawned new tensions. When Castro legalized the possession of dollars last fall, Cubans with relatives in Miami began receiving help, hurting blacks.

Moreover, 35 years of revolutionary rhetoric have not erased the visceral racism that is engrained in the country. Blacks arrived in Cuba as African slaves and outnumbered whites through the 19th Century. After Cuban independence in 1902, Spanish immigrants flocked to the island and whites remained a majority until Castro took power.

Whites never hid their fear that Cuba would become a country under black rule. Even if Cuba officially became color-blind, many whites did not.

"Racism didn't disappear, it just changed," said Benito Martinez, a sociologist at Cuba's Martin Luther King Jr. Centre, an ecumenical organization associated with the U.S. group Pastors for Peace. "It became more subliminal."

For example, some white Cubans describe blacks in terms right out of '60s Alabama. Black tourists from the United States and Canada complain that Cuban police regularly stop them and demand identification--experiences white tourists virtually never have.

Selma Bryant, a black woman from Montreal, said she was unable to book a hotel room in Havana with her white husband because the clerk assumed she was a prostitute. "I was dressed like a foreigner," she recalled. "But they thought I was a prostitute who got clothes from a foreigner."

Since the revolution, there have been virtually no affirmative-action programs, data on blacks' status is scarce and people's racial attitudes are not discussed.

"By not talking about it openly, it developed spontaneously," said Juan Luis Martin, a white sociologist at Cuba's Academy of Sciences. "We paid the price--we never had a debate about the attitudes you find today in the streets."

In fact, anti-black sentiment is growing as Cubans endure widespread hardships, Martin said. "People are looking for a scapegoat."

In "AfroCuba," an anthology published last year in association with the Center for Cuban Studies in New York, editors Pedro Perez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs contend that blacks' achievements under Castro have been concentrated in sports, music, medicine and the armed forces--"probably in that order.

"Why, despite the mass-housing programs, do blacks continue to predominate in older, poor neighborhoods?" they ask. Why are there more blacks in the country's jails? Why are blacks "the butt of racist comments and jokes?

"Why, despite the evident interracial mix of the country," they ask, "are black skin and black-white relationships considered socially undesirable?"

One answer is that blacks in Cuba, as in other Latin American countries, live with the psychological legacy of centuries of white dominance. Even today, being white in Cuba is associated with social mobility. About 73% of Cubans register themselves as white; in fact, the figure is closer to 40%. Still, Cuba's blacks may not be ready to throw out the gains they have made since the revolution. In radio broadcasts from Miami, they hear exiled Cubans threaten to repossess their homes and reclaim their lost power.

It's enough to rally such people as Castillo. Like all Cubans, he knows something is painfully wrong with his country--the three-hour waits for buses, the rations for food, the legalization of dollars that is creating two classes of citizens. But when he imagines what post-Castro Cuba might look like, he shudders.

"It would be like it used to be--more discrimination, more hunger. Blacks would simply be worse off. And we don't want to go backward."*

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