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Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism Between Two Fires

by Sujatha Fernandes on September 2, 2016
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They’re caught between a government that denies the existence of racism and fellow black Cubans who lack racial consciousness.

On May 4, the Network of Afro-descendant Women convened an urgent meeting of activists, academics, and members of organisations fighting against racial discrimination in Cuba. At the meeting, held at the Jurists’ Union Center in Havana, the longtime anti-racism activist Gisela Arandia presented a document calling for government action in response to a series of incidents on the island following Barack Obama’s visit in March. These included several racist articles published in Cuban periodicals, an employment ad on Cuba’s Craigslist site, revolico.com, soliciting white applicants, and then a poster that appeared on a central street in the middle-class suburb of Vedado with a swastika and the note “Kill the black.”

According to the Cuban novelist and activist Alberto Abreu Arcia, who was present at the meeting, there was much debate about the document, with some arguing that it was too conciliatory, that the events needed to be placed in the context of growing racialised poverty and renewed diplomatic relations with the United States, and that it should be accompanied by concrete proposals for change. Even so, many agreed that these events were not isolated incidents but rather make visible the racism that has not only survived but been strengthened due to an official policy of silence on issues that have supposedly been solved by the revolution.

Cuba today finds itself at a crossroads, with the spectre of economic openings bringing the prospect of greater social inequalities, especially racial inequality. This moment has a parallel in the early 1990s, when the turn to tourism and global markets in the context of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a deepening racial divide and more overt racial discrimination. At that time, black people in Cuba had no organizations from which to address this racism. As the Cuban revolution had desegregated whites-only spaces, launched an anti-discrimination campaign, and opened up avenues of social mobility through employment and education for Afro-Cubans in the 1960s, most of the race-based organisations that had represented them were simultaneously deemed unnecessary, and some closed of their own accord. In the past decade or so, there has been a reemergence of anti-racism organisations across the island, with some fifteen groups forming in fields from legal rights to youth, culture, communications, and barrio-based community organising. These organizations are vital during the current period of openings with the United States, as Cuba is more exposed to a market economy, and the potential inequalities it brings.

The 51-year-old writer Roberto Zurbano has been one of the island’s most vocal critics of racial inequality. In March 2013, when he was head of the publishing house of the venerated Casa de las Américas, Zurbano published an op-ed in The New York Times about how blacks are being left behind in the new market-driven economy. His piece was titled in Spanish, “The Country to Come: and My Black Cuba?” After a series of edits, the Times published the final piece with its own heading, “For Blacks in Cuba the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” As a result of this pejorative headline and the article itself—an affront to the leadership of Casa not so much because it was published in the Times but because Zurbano’s byline included his position at the cultural institution—Zurbano was demoted from his position as head of publishing, although he still works at Casa.

Zurbano’s experience reflects the balancing act being performed by many anti-racism activists in Cuba, who find themselves, as he says, caught between dos fuegos, or two fires: on the one hand a government that still denies the existence of racism and, on the other, black Cubans who lack a racial consciousness. In many parts of Latin America, race has not been used as a primary marker of identity; this is even more the case in Cuba, where the post-revolutionary leadership declared that equality between blacks and whites had made racial identifications obsolete. That has made it harder to organise and mobilize Cubans along racial lines.

Yet in the face of these obstacles, anti-racism organisations have continued to grow. Five years ago, Afro-Cuban leaders, along with anti-racism activists across Latin America and the Caribbean, decided to create a transnational anti-racist organisation with local chapters across the region. In September 2012, Latin American and Caribbean activists, with the support of the Cuban minister of culture, Abel Prieto, officially launched the Regional Afro-descendant Articulation of Latin America (ARAAC) at the Ludwig Foundation in Havana. Leaders across the region felt that the Cuba chapter should be a point of coordination for regional work, given the profile and growing strength of anti-racism work there. After the New York Times incident, ARAAC defended Zurbano’s right to raise issues of racism in Cuba, affirming that the black population suffers disproportionately from poverty and lack of social mobility. Afro-Cuban activists navigate a tricky terrain within Cuba, but are growing in profile and size.

*  *  *

Zurbano was born six years after the 1959 revolution. He came from a poor family of Jamaican descent, the youngest of five children. At the age of 2, he was sent to live with his grandmother in the Nueva Paz town of rural Mayabeque province, where she taught him to box and to read. Only one part of his family benefited from the revolution. The lack of education on his father’s side meant that they were not able to take advantage of the possibilities opened up by the revolution for black people. His mother’s side, though, was better prepared to benefit from opportunities for educational advancement, professional development, and access to material goods and services. Almost all of his relatives on his mother’s side of the family became professionals in healthcare, education, engineering, and the military.

As in the United States, racism in Cuba dates back to the colonial era, when the Spanish colonisers wiped out the indigenous population and brought African slaves to the island to work on the plantations. Even after the abolition of slavery in 1886, black Cubans were denied equal access to education and faced segregation and barriers in employment, with greater concentrations of poverty. The 1959 revolution sought to remove barriers for Afro-Cubans in areas of education, housing, and healthcare, reducing poverty and creating social mobility for many Afro-Cubans. However, as seen in the case of Zurbano’s family, not all black Cubans were able to take advantage of these opportunities, and racism did not disappear. It was simply relegated to private spaces.

At the age of 26, Zurbano became the vice president of Brothers Saiz Association (AHS), a group of young writers and artists in Havana province. At that time, the association was considered irreverent and counter-cultural, and government leaders decided to remove him from the post. He was transferred to the military, where he served two years in the infantry. During this time, Zurbano defied the authorities and the regimentation of military life, spending much of his time in a cave used by runaway slaves in the hillocks of Managuaco. It was here that he developed his interest in Africa, reading novels and essays by African intellectuals. After leaving the military, Zurbano developed a friendship with an African diplomat and began to question why the strategic alliances of Cuba with Slavic socialism seemed to preclude a deeper engagement with Pan-Africanism and the Marxist writers of the Caribbean, such as C.L.R. James.

Close-to-the-Edge-frontcover-7c414212adcd1973c226c08becaac78cIn the mid-1990s, Zurbano became vice president of the national AHS and discovered the nascent cultural movement of hip-hop, where young black rappers from the poor and marginalized barrios of the cities were raising issues of racism in Cuban society. The Cuban hip-hop movement, which I detail in my book Close to the Edge, emerged at a time when black youth were increasingly feeling the effects of racial discrimination in the post-Soviet era. While this generation had benefited from the extension of education, housing, and healthcare to black families, they came of age when the revolutionary years were giving way to times of austerity. Black Cubans were being excluded from employment in tourism, saw declines in their standard of living and housing, and were constantly harassed by police and asked for their IDs. Racism had become more visible. In this context, the militancy of American rap music appealed to Cuban youth. Afro-Cuban youth began to proudly refer to themselves as black.

Zurbano saw the rappers as the vanguard of the Cuban anti-racist struggle. They were public and vocal about racism, and they opened up a space for debate and reflection about it in Cuban society. Cuban intellectuals such as the historian Tomás Fernández Robaina helped to develop the racial consciousness of the rappers by holding workshops on black thought. At this time, during the 1990s, Afro-Cuban visual artists such as Alexis Esquivel, Manuel Arenas, Elio Rodríguez, and Roberto Diago were also raising issues such as the manifestations of racism in the tourist economy. Arenas’s painting Carné de Identidad (ID Card), of a black man showing his ID card, set against the Cuban national emblem, recalled the rappers’ protests against police harassment of black youth. The establishment accused these rappers and artists of being “radical blacks,” even as their work resonated both locally and globally. Over time, though, the rap movement won an important space, one that was helped along by prominent allies such as the American actor Harry Belafonte, who spoke personally with Fidel Castro about the importance of the movement.

*  *  *

While the anti-racism struggle in Cuba was spurred by the efforts of the younger generation, its leadership also includes an older generation of black Cubans who remembered the pre-revolutionary years and view the current manifestation of racism with a different lens. These Cubans, mostly older professionals, recall the hardships of the pre-Castro era and take pride in their advances under the revolution, even as they seek to educate others about the need for a racial consciousness in the ongoing fight against racism.

Norma Guillard, 70, came from a poor family in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. Her parents, a dressmaker and tailor, had only an elementary education. The oldest of five children, Guillard was put in charge of her siblings when her mother left the house early to go to her factory. Guillard was 13 at the time of the revolution, and at the age of 15, she joined the Conrado Benítez Brigade and became a literacy teacher. She was one of 105,000 youth who left their homes and went into the countryside, where 76 percent of the population was illiterate. Guillard recalls that it was a difficult moment; the US government was launching repeated offensives to try to overthrow the newly installed Cuban government. Guillard was placed in the zone of Aguacate in Guantánamo, very far from her home. In this zone there was a counterrevolutionary insurgency, which killed a member of her brigade.

Guillard was rejected in her first home placement because of the color of her skin and was then placed in a mixed-race family. Despite the racism and hardships of rural life, the literacy campaign was a kind of liberation for Guillard from the constraints of social norms and gender expectations. After her placement ended, she went to Havana on a scholarship to study Russian. She was housed with other students in the homes of wealthy exiles who had left the country after the revolution. During this time, she also confronted the machismo of male students who wanted the female students to wash and iron their clothes, which Guillard refused to do.

Guillard went on to become a social psychologist, with a focus on women’s empowerment, anti-racism, and LGBTQ activism. In the mid-1990s, she was one of the pioneers of a small network of women known as Magín (Image), which sought to engage in feminist activism and advocacy outside the direct control of the state-sanctioned women’s federation. In the midst of the post-Soviet economic crisis, these activists found the federation—and its lack of a feminist perspective—unequipped to deal with issues such as the revival of sex tourism, the growing gender gap, and the negative portrayals of women in the media. The women activists promoted certain radical perspectives on gender and sexuality in Cuban society, such as the rights of women to engage in sex work, as long as they retained their dignity and self-respect. After operating for a few years, Magín was dissolved by the Communist Party in 1996; this was part of a broader crackdown on independent groups that year, but was also due to a fear by the government that women organising independently presented a risk of division in Cuban society. For the women, this was a machista line of thinking: that they needed to be saved by the men who understood how politics worked and how women could be seduced by the enemy.

In the new millennium, this experience was to be repeated with the anti-racist organization Color Cubano (Cuban Color), which was started by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Guillard participated in activities of the organization, although she wasn’t part of the leadership. Zurbano joined it in 2002. As the organization reached a moment of intense activism in the mid-2000s, the Communist Party put pressure on UNEAC, which eventually dissolved Color Cubano and created a new organization, Comisión Aponte, from which several of the original anti-racism leaders were excluded.

In spite of these setbacks, anti-racism activists continued to find spaces to work. Guillard directed the Section of Identities and Diversity in Communication in the Cuban Society of Psychology, which provided a venue for discussions about racial discrimination. And it was around this time that Zurbano joined the Casa de las Américas as director of the publishing house, where he edited dozens of titles by black authors from Cuba and around the region.

*  *  *

The contemporary anti-racism struggle in Cuba is a product of this history. It is multi-generational and transnational. The groups that have emerged over the past decade span from the urban centers of Havana to the eastern region of Santiago de Cuba. The spaces for their social activism are still limited, but leaders—many of them black women—are making efforts to engage Cubans from a range of social backgrounds and in multiple settings, from policy to activism.

In November 2012, the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Barrio Network of Afro-Descendants) was started in the Havana barrio Balcón Arimao. The organisation was founded by three women, Maritza López, Hildelisa Leal, and Damayanti Matos, with the aim of supporting anti-racist activism in the marginalised barrios of Havana and creating projects to promote the economic vitality and solidarity of the majority-black residents. The Red Barrial is based on a horizontal style of organising, local leadership development, and collective decision-making, drawing on ideas of popular education and taking inspiration from radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and Martin Luther King Jr. Working closely with the female-led organisation Grupo Afrocubanas, the Red Barrial seeks to bring together local barrio residents—mechanics, religious leaders, architects, and doctors—to discuss old and new forms of racial discrimination and ways to fight it.

Another project begun in 2012 is the legal-cultural organisation Alianza Unidad Racial (Racial Unity Alliance). Started by the lawyer Deyni Terri Abreu, it focuses on civil rights, citizen education, and penal rights. The Alianza offers free legal workshops and has won several anti-discrimination cases, including one of a black man who had suffered employment discrimination. It has also defended black Cubans in cases of excessive police harassment. While about 10 percent of Cubans self-identify as black in the country’s census, the Cuban social scientist Rosa Campoalegre argues that they are greatly overrepresented in the criminal justice and penal systems. Black youth are constantly stopped by police on the streets, asked to produce ID, and arrested without cause. As a legal organisation, the Alianza has faced some challenges, given that the state-approved national organisation of lawyers is usually required to provide legal representation in court cases. As a result, the Alianza has generally been limited to court accompaniment, legal advice, and cultural work, such as training people in how to dress and present themselves in court.

These various organizations come together under the umbrella group ARAAC, which counts on the participation of many longtime anti-racism activists in Cuba, including Zurbano, Guillard, Arandia, and Abreu, as well as the historian Robaina. Arandia saw the formation of the Cuban chapter of ARAAC in 2012 as a major advance in the struggle for racial equality in Cuba. While ARAAC evolved out of the earlier struggles on the island, Arandia also saw it as marking a different moment, when various groups could come together in a new structure to change public policy, reach out to broader social sectors, and build alliances with Afro-descendant groups across Latin America and the Caribbean.

In response to official rhetoric, which holds that talking about race divides the nation, the activists of ARAAC argue rather that it is silence about race that divides the nation. Activists have been bolder in staking out their autonomy from the state. Gisela Morales (Giselita), who stepped down from a paid position in ARAAC, argued at the May 4 meeting that she did not want to take money from the state and that ARAAC should be independent: “If the citizens decide to meet, they don’t have to ask permission from the state, and no one can dissolve a process that the citizens decide to take forward.”

*  *  *

Spurred by the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States, we are now living in a moment of heightened anti-racist struggle globally. Groups such as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) in Australia and the New Urban Collective in Amsterdam have taken inspiration from #BlackLivesMatter. This moment presents new opportunities for the anti-racist movement in Cuba. Cuban activists recognize the vast differences, of course: that while police brutality and murder of black youth is all too common in the United States, in Cuba police rarely use arms or kill unarmed black people. But the disproportionate surveillance and harassment of black youth on the island does provide grounds for transnational solidarity. The other opening has come from the United Nations–sponsored International Decade for People of African Descent, which began in January 2015 under the themes recognition, justice, and development. The conversations, gatherings, and networks generated from it could give momentum to anti-racism organizations and their demands in Cuba.

Anti-racism organizations in Cuba may fall outside the radar of the international news media because they don’t fit the profile of the typical dissident groups, such as those calling for freedom of speech and denouncing the government. Rather, groups like ARAAC are part of a lineage of activism that exists within the parameters of the Cuban revolution, recognising its progress in fighting structural discrimination and seeking to preserve the social and economic benefits that Afro-Cubans have won. Their allegiance to the ideals of the revolution has helped Afro-Cuban activists to navigate a path for independent dialogue within the constraints of the political system. But the threat of closure or sanction is always a possibility, as is the reality of racist backlash, as seen in recent events. One article published last month on the Cuban website El Heraldo Cubano denies the existence of racism in Cuba and attacks the Alianza Unidad Racial and another organisation, Cofradía de la Negritud (Brotherhood of Blackness), as counter-revolutionaries funded by the US government. But these organisations and activists openly define themselves as anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and decolonising. That does not endear them to the kinds of US democracy-promotion programs sponsored by USAID and the Obama administration.

There is now more than ever a need for these anti-racism organisations on the island, as recent openings to the United States and an expanding market economy have generated greater racial and economic inequalities. Given the concentration of black Cubans in substandard housing, their lack of access to capital, including remittances from abroad, and the prevalence of racist norms in hiring for the tourism industry, Afro-Cubans are much more poorly placed to take advantage of openings for social mobility and economic improvement. Black-led anti-racism organisations provide the best chance for ensuring that Afro-Cubans are not left behind as normalisation proceeds.

This post was originally published on 24 May 2016 by the Nation. Image credit: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa.

Sujatha Fernandes

Sujatha Fernandes is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

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