New Internationalist

Together but not scrambled

Issue 365

A black English man, Rotimi Ogedengbe, visits Cuba and discovers that the island is not the racism-free paradise it claims to be.

All citizens have equal rights and are subject to equal duties. Discrimination because of race, colour, sex or national origin is forbidden and will be punished by law.’ The Cuban Constitution, 1959.

I couldn’t wait to get to Cuba. Like many a left-leaning, independent traveller, I’d had a long-held ambition to get there ‘before Castro dies and corporate America ushers in the age of McCuba’. But as a black English man what really drew me to Cuba was my perception of it as a model colour-blind society.

I had my first experience of Cuban officialdom at Havana’s José Martí International Airport. As a gesture of solidarity I wanted my passport stamped (due to the US embargo this only happens on request) but I chickened out when I caught sight of the surly, burly white-Cuban immigration official waiting for me in his booth. Dressed in immaculate military uniform, he was the kind of man who if he said it was Friday, it was Friday. He scrutinized my features for what seemed like an age, before finally letting me into his country.

I’d come to Cuba with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization who run language and culture exchanges. My plan was to do their four-week programme and then independently explore the island. I and the other (exclusively American) Global Exchangees were put up in the rather swanky Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana.

After our orientation meeting I took my first walk along Obispo, a narrow, car-free shopping street teeming with tourists and pulsing to the rhythm of live salsa music coming from the open-front bars and restaurants. Police officers, stylishly clad in dark bomber jackets and berets, were positioned at every junction. I noticed quite a few young black guys attaching themselves to tourists, using their routine opening gambits: ‘Hello my friend… Americano? Inglés? Francés? …Cigar?… Cohiba?’

I caught the eye of a pint-sized, wiry white-Cuban police officer standing at the corner of the block. He beckoned me over. ‘Identificación,’ he demanded. Assuming that he thought I was Cuban, I grinned, cheesily, and declared: ‘Soy de Inglaterra.’ (I’m from England.) ‘Identificación,’ he repeated. Mildly amused, I handed him my driving licence. After a minute of po-faced scrutiny he handed it back. He then dismissed me with a contemptuous flick of the back of his hand. I trudged off, shaking my head.

Just to round off my walk, the commissionaire, a white-Cuban chap with the physical presence of an elephant, challenged me at the entrance to my hotel: ‘Que quiere?’ (What do you want?), he asked, bluntly. ‘I’m not Cuban,’ I announced, peevishly, in my best Queen’s English. He smiled and explained, apologetically, that my face was very Cuban. This wasn’t the last time that this would be said to me. As Franklin, a white-Cuban student whom I met at Havana University, explained, ‘Man, you don’t just look Cuban, you look like a serious Cuban up to no good.’

I was stopped six times by police during my first week in town and routinely challenged at the entrance to buildings. Franklin’s take on it was that jineteros (street hustlers) needed to be kept away from tourists for the good of the economy: ‘When a jinetero sells, for example, Cohiba cigars to a tourist for $25 the Government loses much money because in the shops this will cost, maybe, $250,’ he explained. ‘Which means less money for the Government to buy food and medicine for the people.’

After three weeks in Old Havana I began to get a little frustrated. As part of a group of predominantly white, middle-class Americans staying in a flash hotel, I felt like an honorary, bubble-wrapped fat cat. I got on well with the Americans – they were good company and had what I considered to be good politics – but the whole group thing was acting like a barrier between me and a more visceral experience of Cuba.

Things got a lot more real when Victor, a 30-year-old black-Cuban construction worker, struck up a conversation with me while I was sitting on a bench. I must have had an ‘away with you, hustler’ expression on my face because he spent the next few minutes straining to convince me that he wasn’t after my dollars and just wanted to talk to his ‘brother from England’. He seemed genuine so I was happy to chat away. Before we parted he invited me to his home to meet his mother and girlfriend and sample some home-cooked food.

A few days later I caught a taxi to Alamar in Zone 5, east of Havana. One travel guide describes Alamar as a ‘modern, self-contained dormitory city conceived by Castro in April 1959 as the first revolutionary housing scheme in post-revolutionary Cuba … an example of the achievements of socialism.’ Well, yeah, I suppose, but I thought it plain grim.

Finding Victor’s flat wasn’t easy. The locals hadn’t used the original block and flat numbers for decades. Thankfully, an old woman who knew Victor took pity on me and walked me to his block.

Victor’s ebony-black partner, Ana, let me in. His mother, Maria, an impossibly sweet fiftysomething, was watching television. Victor led the introductions then showed me round the clean, orderly but extremely modest flat. Ana sat me down at a table set for eating then dashed off to the kitchen, grinning. She returned a few minutes later with some boiled yam, an onion and tomato sauce, fried plantain and a bean casserole.

After lunch, which was heaven, Victor took me out on to the balcony. The view was beautiful, a welcome antidote to the general ugliness of Alamar: to the right, the Atlantic Ocean, to the left, verdant hills.

Victor had never been out of Cuba but spoke very good English (due to his Barbadian mother). We were merrily bantering away until I tried out some of my X-rated Spanish. ‘Don’t use them words,’ he advised. ‘When white tourists use them, people say: “Oh, how cute, they try to learn our language.” But when black tourists say these words, people say: “Typical, black people the same everywhere, always looking for the worst.” ‘And that was it, he was off.

When you go to hotels in Havana, how many black people you see working there?’ I sensed that the question was rhetorical. ‘How many black people do you see on television? And when you see them, them either slave or criminal. How many black people you see in government? When black man walk around in Havana it’s “show me your papers” all the time from the police. The Government preach to the world that there’s no racism in Cuba but, man, let me tell you, them lie.’

I couldn’t help feeling naïve, as I was genuinely surprised by the strength of his statements.

When I returned to Havana I began looking at things through the prism of race. It was obvious that there was a class of white Cubans who had a hell of a lot more US dollars in their pockets than black Cubans. I saw them on the street wearing designer labels, eating in tourist-priced restaurants, buying expensive imported goods in dollar stores, coming out of the better apartment blocks in the better neighbourhoods. The money that white Cubans receive from relatives in Florida is a factor. But another, more controversial, factor is that black Cubans appear to have difficulty getting hired for the dollar-earning jobs in the tourist industry.

According to Global Exchange, 62 per cent of Cuba’s more than 11 million people are black (of African descent) or mulatto (of mixed African and Hispanic descent). Yet the overwhelming majority of the hotel workers, shop assistants, museum workers, official taxi drivers, bar staff and waiters in restaurants who I saw were white Cubans of Hispanic descent.

The irony is that visitors are often struck by how fully integrated Cuban society appears to be. In the bars and clubs Cuba gyrates to a vibrant multiracial rhythm. Cubans of all hues mingle in public and socially, and mixed relationships seem common. ‘At street level, Cuba has far less racial tension than virtually anywhere in the US,’ explains Gisela Arandia, a Cuban researcher and writer who spent time in America studying race relations. ‘Official Cuba, however, is a different matter entirely.’

After my four weeks with Global Exchange I moved into an apartment in Vedado, a posher, whiter area of Havana. It was exceptionally plush by Cuban standards and not half bad by middle-class, London standards. The owners were a personable white-Cuban couple, both mid-thirties, who worked in marketing. They employed a sixtyish black woman, Novela, as a housekeeper.

One day I asked Novela about life before the Revolution. She told me about being sacked as a dishwasher from a whites-only restaurant because a customer had caught sight of her in the kitchen and complained to the manager. She told me how Fidel Castro, after he swept into power in January 1959, immediately banned all the whites-only clubs, restaurants, schools, hotels, beaches, recreation centres and housing areas. What came through strongly was her gratitude, perhaps typical of the older generation, for the gains that the Revolution had brought to the lives of black Cubans. She spoke with immense pride about her grandson at university and a niece who was a doctor.

Fidel Castro, after he swept into power in January 1959, immediately banned all the whites-only clubs, restaurants, schools, hotels, beaches, recreation centres and housing areas

Next I headed east to Santiago de Cuba, which has the highest percentage of African blood in Cuba. Carrying a rucksack, it didn’t take me long to get latched on to by a couple of young, tourist-hungry Rastafarians, Emilio and Coco. I arranged to meet them later after I had found a place to stay.

We met at La Claqueta, an outdoor bar. There was a tacit understanding that I would pay for the drinks and their entry – which was fine as I enjoyed their company.

As the night wore on and the rum flowed, they began sounding off about police harassment, racism, their limited opportunities, their lack of money. Playing devil’s advocate, I brought up the gains that the Revolution had brought to black Cubans. Coco was adamant: ‘That was over 40 years ago. Young people want to wear nice clothes, nice trainers, go to clubs, drink, dance and be happy.’ Emilio made no bones about the fact that he was looking for any extranjera (female foreigner) to marry him so that he could leave Cuba.

At the end of the night they asked me point blank for some dollars. I said, with a smile, that I’d been buying them drinks all night so had no more money. They went off in a huff, waving their arms, calling me names. Next day I bumped into them in town and it was all smiles. Nothing personal on their part. Just business.

I’d come to Cuba with romantic notions of finding a multiracial nirvana. But what I encountered was evidence of socio-economic inequalities split along racial lines, and all the tell-tale signs of institutionalized racism. It’s not the ‘wogs go home’ racism of the far right in Europe. No, it’s subtler than that.

Juntos pero no revueltos; cada cosa en su lugar’ (Together but not scrambled; everything in its place) says a pre-Revolutionary racial proverb. ‘In truth, from 1959 to today is a very short time to cure an illness that is centuries old,’ says Gisela Arandia. ‘Cuba, and every other country on Earth, has to get beyond race. If we do, there will be no problem.’

Rotimi Ogedengbe is a freelance writer living in London.

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