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 Race Problem Cannot be Solved Until it’s Acknowledged
Date: Thursday, April 15, 2004


EDITOR'S NOTE: When U.S. voters go to the polls in November to pick a president, Florida — and its heavy concentration of Cuban Americans — may again play a central role in determining who wins. Nowhere will this contest be more closely watched than in Cuba, whose fate may be determined by the election's outcome. More than 90 percent of Cubans in South Florida are white; over 60 percent of the people in Cuba are black. In this series, examines the role that race plays in Cuba — and in the tug-of-war between the government of Fidel Castro and Cuban exile leaders in Florida.

HAVANA, Cuba — Whenever Fidel Castro, 78, announces a new program to advance the cause of social justice, his comrades in this tropical, socialist republic lavish him with praise.

Even when the inner workings of his central government muck up and fail to make good on a Castro promise, there is no criticism of the revolutionary leader, just a hopeful refrain from the faithful: “If only Fidel knew.”

As a first-time visitor to this fabled city, I decided to “do in Rome as the Romans do.” Whenever I was impressed, say, by the country’s free education system, I gave Castro his props; whenever I saw a problem — such as the focus by some officials on external threats to the exclusion of internal ones — I’d wonder if Fidel really knew.

And when it came to the struggle for equality in a nation still wrestling with the legacy of slavery, I frequently found myself at once impressed and concerned.

In Cuba, I heard again and again, race doesn’t exist and skin color doesn’t matter. “What we are striving for is equal access and the same chances for everybody,” a member of the National Assembly said.

One physician, when asked if blacks experienced certain diseases in greater proportion to others — as they do in the United States — answered immediately, “No.”

An assistant actually seemed to scowl at the question. It was, after all, counter revolutionary to suggest that there would be distinctions based on race or skin color in a classless society.

But how could there not be? Even as some officials acknowledged that the effects of centuries of racial oppression could not be erased after only 45 years of revolutionary effort, they seemed less willing to acknowledge that the problems were rooted in racism and may require solutions that take race into account.

I’d come to Cuba to learn more about this struggle and look at the influence that Africans have had on Cuba since their arrival as slaves in 1700s. Other researchers included Lonnae O’Neal Parker, who is a feature writer for the Washington Post and Gregory Kane, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. (I also write for the Washington Post), and DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service.

Among the places we visited was the National Museum of Literacy, which documents an unprecedented effort to teach millions of Cubans how to read and write within a few years after Castro came to power in 1959.

I was not only impressed but moved by the photographs of the martyrs that hung on the museum wall — some black and all in their teens when they were tortured and killed for advocating literacy under the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

At the same time, it was rare during my short visit to encounter a black man as exquisitely articulate as, say, the black, mulatto and Spanish looking women or the primary leaders, the Spanish-looking men.

Although we were told that many black men serve as doctors and teachers, the most visible black men during this visit were police officers. And more often than not, they were seen stopping and questioning black people.

During a meeting with university professors, I asked whether the African aesthetic or European aesthetic was strongest in Cuba, which is roughly 60 percent black. European standards of beauty dominate, they all agreed.

And yet, social programs aimed at lifting self-esteem and a sense of self-worth are premised on a belief that all problems stem from a heritage of poverty, not slavery, which has robbed black people of their self-esteem everywhere it’s ever existed.

Nevertheless, I was impressed with the poetry of the revolutionary language. The emphasis on cooperation instead of competition has great appeal. And the quest for a non-racial, egalitarian society is nothing if not noble.

But a race problem cannot be solved until it is acknowledged.

History is replete with examples of what happens when a nation — in the strong embrace of an iconic and charismatic leader — attempts to smooth over ethnic and racial differences among its citizens. When the leader dies, so does the unity.

If only Fidel knew.




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