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Dr Gayle McGarrity
University of South Florida








Race and Class in Cuba - Part 1, 1/24/10, Jamaica Observer


Sunday, January 24, 2010

WHEN I first returned to the United States in 1982, after living for a year and a half in Cuba, I was eager to share with my ´comrades´ on the left the extent to which racism and class divisions were still a glaring reality in ´Revolutionary Cuba´.

I had visited Cuba for the first time in 1976, when I travelled there with a group of Jamaicans interested in the legal and penal system. As it turned out, we never got even a glimpse of the prison system, but it was a great opportunity to get a first-hand view of other aspects of Cuban society. One of the first things that made an impression on me was the way in which white and mulato Cubans stared at a couple in our group -- composed of a very beautiful part Chinese, part Indian and part African girl and a very handsome, very black gentleman.

During this period in my life, I was influenced by the Black Power movement, Marxism-Leninism, Pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism. I was totally enamoured with the Cuban Revolution. I devoured books like Tania, about an East German girl who had been an integral part of the process, works by Che Guevara, and anything I could get my hands on about Cuba. I naively assumed that, since it called itself revolutionary, the government would have incorporated aspects of the international black consciousness movement into both its theory and praxis.

So, as I stayed longer in Cuba, I was very disappointed to find that attitudes towards race and ethnicity were similar to those in the English-speaking Caribbean in the 1950s. I soon realised that the reason the "inter-racial couple" from the Jamaican legal tourism group had been stared at so much, was that their relationship violated the norms of 'blanqueamiento´, which literally means whitening. It was expected that a girl with the characteristics which I described above would yearn to ´whiten´ herself, or more precisely her progeny, by finding a lighter-hued as opposed to a more negroid sexual partner.

White Cubans prided themselves on having eradicated racism. However, racism to them meant legalised segregation, lynching and other manifestations of the ideology of white supremacy in pre-Civil Rights United States. The fact that there was no longer legalised discrimination in public places was touted to mean that there was no longer racism.

Cuban Racism from a Double Perspective

Marxism-Leninism has often been criticised by those concerned with issues of racial inequality for only emphasising class differences and not examining the ways in which different economic systems have created and perpetuated differences based on phenotype. I soon realised that Cuba was not really a socialist state anyway; that is, one based on true Marxist-Leninist principles. But even if we are to accept that the government was really based on these principles, no serious attempt had been made to root out the true ideological bases of racial injustice.

As an anthropologist, I base my conclusions on techniques of participant observation, which simply means immersing oneself to the greatest degree possible into the society and learning about attitudes, behaviours and practices from the inside. As a woman of mixed racial descent, who is fluent in Spanish, I was in a unique position to capture the ideas and beliefs, ie, the ideology, of Cubans of all different racial classifications. According to popular perceptions, Cubans are usually divided into the following phenotypical groups:

* prieto, which means very black;

* negro, which means black;

* mulato, which means more or less half black, half white;

* moreno, which is a little lighter than mulato, with whiter features;

* jabao, which means with light skin but negroid features;

* indio, which means that one appears to be like an Amerindian, but is actually a light-skinned mulato or darker white;

* trigueno, which is almost the same as moreno or indio, but literally means wheat-coloured;

* blanco, which means white in appearance; and rubio, which is blond.

It is important to emphasise that these categories are not carved in stone. They often overlap, and different individuals will consider the same person to belong to a different category. Also, as the aim of the racial hierarchy in Cuba, and in most of the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America, is for everyone to gradually whiten themselves or ´mejorar la raza´ -- literally improve the race -- persons will be ascribed a ´higher´ position in the racial hierarchy if the observer likes them or wants to ingratiate him or herself with the observed individual.

During my first trip to Cuba, I also observed that those of similar phenotype tended to date each other, almost without exception. That is, a mulato claro would be seen with a mulata clara, a rubio with a rubia, a prieto with a prieta, etc. I found this strange, expecting that, in a society moving towards colour blindness, one would not find people sticking to their own precise category in their choice of a partner. When someone of a darker complexion did go out with someone lighter, they were generally considered to have really 'improved' themselves (adelantar la raza- to improve the race).

I was also disappointed to see that there were absolutely no contemporary books on blacks in Cuba, or under the topic of Afro-Cuba, in bookstores. The exception was books by Fernando Ortiz, a pre-Revolutionary ethnologist and folklorist. Whites claimed that there were virtually no blacks in higher government positions because blacks had not really participated in the Revolution. I determined that I would find an opportunity to return to Cuba and to really assess the situation methodically.

As luck would have it, my home in Kingston, Jamaica, was right next to the Cuban embassy, so I went there often. When I informed them excitedly that I wanted to study blacks in Cuba, I was told that I should go to Oriente, the Eastern part of the country, as that was where all of the blacks were. I would come to learn that this was an expression of the white Cuban tendency to claim that all blacks were descendants of Jamaican and other West Indian immigrants to Oriente. When I would protest that the Spanish had lots of slaves and that all of the blacks could not possibly be descendants of West Indian immigrants, known derogatorily as pichones (literally blackbirds), I was told that all of the ones who had come as slaves had inter-married, as the Spanish were so much less racist than the British. White Cubans expressed sympathy for the Jamaicans who were under the British, who did not mix with them, supposedly, and so the black population there was not able to dilute itself and move up the racial hierarchy.

I returned to Cuba on several occasions between 1976 and 1981, to pursue a Master's degree in Public Health. I was part of a delegation of persons of American-Indian descent who visited the island in 1980. We met with Fidel´s personal physician who told us about an International Health Master's programme, which was open to foreigners. I applied and got accepted. Now I felt that I would really get a chance to see what it was like to live as a mulata in revolutionary Cuba, and I was correct.

While waiting for the course to begin, I lived with a white woman who was a militante (militant) in the Communist party and who lived in the elite Miramar area of Havana. She prided herself on being very liberal as she had mulato friends. However, she warned me not to go to see the Conjunto Foklorico Nacional, as 'esta gente tiene enfermedades' -- those people have illnesses. I realised that she assumed that I would be doing more with the members of the Conjunto than just participating in their cultural events, as she was clearly referring to sexually transmitted diseases. When I did go to the performances of the Conjunto, there was hardly anyone in the audience. As I stayed longer in Cuba, I realised that no one, except for a very small group of people, was the slightest bit interested in this vital expression of national culture, particularly Afro-Cuban culture.

When I actually began the course, I moved into the Instituto de Desarollo de la Salud -- the Institute of Health Development -- in Arroyo Naranjo, near to Parque Lenin, on the outskirts of Havana. The very first night that I was there, I was thrilled to hear drums in the distance. I asked my fellow Cuban students, who were, with the exception of two mulato students, all white, if I could go and hear this expression of Afro-Cuban culture. I was told that what I was hearing was part of Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, to which only anti-sociales (those who were against the Revolution) accrued.

A Marxist view of Race and Culture

It did not take me long to realise that ´culture´ in Cuba meant European culture. This perception was not only a result of a history of European colonialisation and slavery, but was also a reflection of the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, as promoted under the Cuban so-called socialist system. The text by Constantinov, used in all educational institutions on the island, and called Fundamentos de Marxismo-Leninismo (Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism), supported a Darwinist view of social evolution, under which societies progressed from primitive communism, through feudalism and capitalism, and on to socialism and communism. The problem with this approach, as far as perpetuating erroneous views of human history, is that it places all of African traditional societies at the lower rungs of evolution and the European societies near the top.

Fidel Castro himself when he speaks about ´cultura´ in his interminable speeches, uses the term as synonymous with education, as opposed to using it in the way that we use culture in English. Throughout the years, he has often referred to how the Revolution improved the lot of ´gente de baja cultura´ -- which can be taken to mean either people of a low educational level or people who are lacking in culture, which anthropologists will tell you do not exist, as all people have some kind of culture and it is ethnocentric to arrange these cultures, conceptually speaking, in a hierarchical fashion.

Part of the reason for the Eurocentric concept of culture which is so pervasive in Cuba is that the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1959, and has remained relatively isolated from world intellectual currents since then. Only information that the government wants to enter the island does so. So all of the changes in mentality and practices that occurred in the United States, Brazil and throughout the region, during the 1960s until the present, have only recently filtered into the island and into the cultural framework of inhabitants. Despite the indisputable limitations of the Black Power movement in the United States, and the more recent growth of a similar phenomenon in Brazil and in other parts of Latin America, the transformation of Eurocentric views of history, culture and aesthetics has been invaluable in successfully attacking manifestations of cultural imperialism. Black began to be seen as something beautiful and not something that needed to be diluted in order to be acceptable. Numerous studies revealed the richness of African culture and the important contributions of African history to world culture and social development. Yet in Cuba, when manifestations of this new consciousness timidly emerged, they were brutally repressed, despite current government claims that concepts of negritude -- a movement with roots in the Francophone world, which promoted black civilisation and culture -- were encouraged.

Young idealistic black militants from the United States, who fled racism in their homeland, looking for a more racially just society in Cuba, were treated in a hostile fashion by immigration and other government authorities on the island. These militants, many of whom were hijackers, were firmly immersed in ideas of socialism and world revolution, so it is not as if the government could, in all fairness, categorise them as counter-revolutionaries. However, when I lived in Cuba, and even today, anyone who does not agree with the regime´s policies is branded counter-revolutionary and a danger to national security. I met several of these black Americans while I was living in Cuba and was deeply disturbed by the way in which their spirits had been wounded and their idealism challenged by their treatment at the hands of the Cuban government.

See Part 2 next week.


Dr Gayle McGarrity is a professor at the University of South Florida.


Race and Class in Cuba - Part 2, 1/31/10, Jamaica Observertop

BY Gayle McGarrity

Sunday, January 31, 2010


In the last decade, more and more tourists have gone to Cuba, not only to enjoy tropical beaches and cabarets, but to explore Afro-Cuban culture. This is laudable, as the cabarets were other places in which racism was blatant. It is amazing how Americans, both black and white, who are so critical of a phenomenon like blackface when it is found in the United States do not criticise it when they see it at Tropicana (the most prestigious Havana cabaret). When I expressed my dismay in 1981, I was told that it was not racist, but rather just an example of Cuban culture. This is just what white Southerners in the US said when they were criticised in the 1950s and 1960s for segregationist practices.

As the tourists are now quite interested in the black population and its cultural expressions, blacks have become quite in fashion. Police no longer harass people sporting dreadlocks as much, and foreigners are not steered away from aspects of black Cuban culture like rumba and Santeria, to the extent that they were when I lived there. Darker-skinned women are not harassed for consorting with foreigners to the same extent, but as with so much else in Cuba, the policy changes from day to day. One day, state security can be seen finding girls and boys for tourists' sexual pleasure, some of them very young; a few weeks later there will be a crackdown on jineterismo and offenders will be systematically rounded up.

When I was living there and the dollar was prohibited for all Cubans, some santeros -- traditional practitioners of African religion -- charged foreigners only in dollars. The practice led me to question whether or not the African deities were only concerned with the welfare of those who had divisas (foreign exchange). One of the great contradictions of the Cuban system is that all Cubans are by no means equal. Those who are in superior positions in the party and government have more privileges.

At the time when I was living and traveling to Cuba (during the 70s, 80s and 90s), only those Cubans who were high up in the party could enter the diplotiendas -- diplomatic stores -- and travel abroad. Now, there is a complicated system through which Cubans can travel if they are sponsored. This involves considerable expense and paying fees, but at least it gives ordinary Cubans a chance to see the outside world. As more and more Cubans take advantage of this, so do more and more black and brown Cubans. I have not yet had a chance to study the extent to which these new possibilities have altered the system by which mostly white Cubans sent remittances to their families back home, thus increasing their purchasing power and standard of living. I suspect, however, that the fact that more non-whites are travelling and sending money and coming back with increased financial resources may have somewhat increased their social status.

In fact, I have been motivated to write this article by the words of a black Cuban supporter of the Revolution, Esteban Morales . The latter, in a statement refuting what an influential group of 60 African-Americans were saying about the government's failure to protect the civil rights of blacks on the island, claimed that many blacks lived in inferior situations because they did not know how to transform their situation. "No saben como aprovecharse de las oportunidades que la Revolucion les ha dado" (They don't know how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Revolution). My position is that the blacks are perfectly able to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to them. I know too many well-educated blacks, particularly those who studied languages and other careers connected to the tourist sector who have been unemployed for years. It is a well-known fact that the best jobs, in fact almost all of the jobs in the tourist sector, are reserved for whites. When I was visiting the island frequently in the 90s, the argument was that white Cubans had to limit the number of non-whites in the tourist sector because the Spaniards and other Europeans did not like to see them. I would argue quite the contrary, that it is white Cubans who do not want to see them.

A Race-Class structure under White Marxist Paternalism

While apologists for the Revolution claim that most black Cubans support the Revolution, during my years of contact with the society, I have not found that they do to a lesser or greater extent than other Cubans. As in all systems, those who stand to gain from the system support it. Those who continue to live in dilapidated homes, who suffer from discrimination in jobs and education, who form the majority in the prisons, who are noticeably absent from local television and are the brunt of most jokes, obviously expected more from the Revolution. Of course, when they begin to protest, they are told that things are much worse in the United States and, if they complain, they are playing into the hands of US imperialism.

As regards class distinctions, I have previously referred to the present government´s declared commitment to socialism, or Marxism-Leninism. I would suggest that what actually exists is state capitalism. The basic tenet of socialism is that the masses, that is the peasants and workers, should control the state apparatus. The profits created in the economy should also accrue, to the greatest degree possible, to the previously disadvantaged. The government should ensure that the basic needs of all of the population are met. To confront the government on its own terms, I would ask then, where do the profits created by Cuban workers and peasants end up?

There is no doubt that some goes to health, education and social services, but anyone who seriously analyses the society can see that there is clearly an elite class. Although we are asked to believe that these are representatives of the workers and peasants, and that this is why they are entitled to a higher standard of living, this is clearly not in keeping with the ideology of socialism. As this elite is disproportionately white, one could argue that the majority -- who are non- white -- labour to provide for the ´needs 'of the ruling white elite. It must be clarified that certainly not all whites are elite, but definitely almost all social - and it could be argued economic - elites are white.

Apologists for those in power point to Juan Almeida, the only black who has maintained an elevated position in government, as proof that blacks in Cuba have power. However, these same individuals say that Colin Powell, former secretary of state of the United States, and President Barack Obama, both African-Americans, are just "puppets". Why is it that the proponents of the Revolution see the latter as mere figureheads, while Almeida is seen as being so powerful? Although Almeida is usually trotted out to receive foreign dignitaries from black countries, I would suggest that he has very little real power. In this regard, Cuba is essentially not much different from Brazil -- not all the poor are black, but virtually all of the rich are white.

Turning once again to the terminology of the theory which those in power claim to be implementing and putting into practice, we must examine the concept of the superstructure. Supposedly the superstructure (that is the body of ideas, beliefs and practices) in a society is a reflection of the infrastructure (that is the economic system, the so-called relations of production). Racism then is seen as an ideology used in the past to justify economic systems like slavery, colonialism and capitalism. I would argue that racism in Cuba today is also used to support an economic system. If the majority of the citizens actually believe that they are inferior and that whites are supposed to be in control (either because they had an enhanced role in the Revolution, or simply because that is just the way the world is), then they are less likely to rebel.

I do believe that feelings of inferiority are being erased to a small degree, but not because of anything that the government is doing. The fact that many of the ideas which lead to enhanced self-esteem among blacks come from abroad, does not in any way make these ideas ´foreign' ideas which run counter to Cuban culture. Ideas of Marxism-Leninism also came from abroad, and they were supposedly embraced almost without condition. The international black Movement is enriched by contributions from throughout Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Oceania.

As I have stated above, I do not believe that ideas emanating from many of the proponents of this movement are sufficient to transform societies for the good of all. However, particularly for those of African descent, I do believe that they are important precursors. One cannot build a society free of class and racial oppression if the majority, both those who perpetuate and those who suffer from racism, really believe in white superiority.

The racial propaganda of the Cuban regime

In Cuba, as I have implied above, racism and discrimination are linked to lynching and dogs being set on peaceful demonstrators. The fact that blacks are the brunt of most jokes is not considered racism. The fact that most white Cuban men cringe at the thought that a white woman might have sexual relations with a non-white man is not considered racism. The fact that the participation of blacks in world history, and more particularly in Cuban history, is left out of textbooks is not considered racism. The fact that African phenotype (like kinky hair, broad nose and big lips) is largely regarded with contempt, is not considered racism. The fact that the most deteriorated residential areas are where the majority of blacks live, is not considered racism. The fact that Fidel always refers to his Spanish father and never to his light-skinned mulata mother is not considered racism.

Those who take exception to the petition by the African-Americans to which I referred above, claim that the Revolutionary government cannot be accused of racism as it helped defeat apartheid and colonialism in Southern Africa, sent doctors and other professionals to work in underdeveloped nations and has allowed students from many black countries to study free of charge on the Isle of Youth.

It is not clear whether or not the present Cuban government provided assistance to liberation movements and governments in Africa for purely altruistic reasons, or because of geo-political considerations. Helping to train cadres in these countries has done much to secure support for the Cuban revolution in international fora like the United Nations. Just because doctors and other professionals go to work in black countries does not mean that they do not have racist ideas. Many of those who went abroad, either as military personnel or as professionals, and with whom I spoke in Cuba, expressed great resentment that they had to go there. Albeit, many of the professionals did not object, as they received consumer goods, like cars and electrical appliances, and often improved housing, when they returned.

Some assert that Armando Hart Dávalos, who was minister of culture for far too long, is not racist and Eurocentric because he allowed black musicians to travel and even live abroad and to return when they liked, in contrast with earlier policies that made it impossible for those who left to come back. First of all, the main reason that he allowed musicians, not only black ones, to go in and out is that the government has been very embarrassed by the number of 'cultural workers' who have defected while away on foreign trips. Secondly, his cultural policies have always been very Eurocentric. There is no comparison between the way that the Conjunto Folkorico, which is largely but not exclusively Afro-Cuban in orientation, has historically been treated, and the way that the Ballet Nacional has been nurtured. The Director of the National Ballet, Alicia Alonso, was criticised some years ago for not having any dark- skinned dancers in her group. She apparently reluctantly relented.

Racism coexisting with Socialism?

In conclusion, Cuba is not the only racist country in Latin America. The kinds of manifestations of white superiority that are discussed here are by no means exclusive to Cuba. We could be talking about Brazil, Venezuela, Dominican Republic or Colombia. But Cuba is the only country in this hemisphere which has had a successful revolution that has claimed to be dedicated to eradicating social and economic injustices and inequality.

I will never forget when I presented a paper on Racism as a Public Health Problem in the Americas, at a conference on Social Sciences and Medicine in Caracas in 1995: I was interrupted and reprimanded after only five minutes of the 20 minutes allotted. I was told by the outraged chair of the conference that racism was only a reality in the United States. It was unknown in Latin America. As I talked about subjects like the ways in which white elites abandoned their mixed-race offspring, who often grew up resentful and disenfranchised, the cheeks of the almost exclusively white male participants grew crimson. The exact same kind of reaction is occurring now, at the end of 2009, when a brave group of African-American intellectuals dare to protest manifestations of racism, epitomised by the unjust arrest and detention of a mulato activist on the island. In a response by black Cuban intellectuals, identified with the government, we are told that these Americans have no right to comment on race relations on the island because the United States is the most racist country in the world, and Obama only became president by denying his ´blackness´. The fact that African-Americans live in a racist society is no reason that they cannot criticise racism in other countries, just as members of this group of intellectuals have always done at home. As I emphasised throughout this article, we expect more from a Revolutionary process than from societies that are unabashedly capitalist. The fact that unconditional defenders of the Revolution fall back on the old tired accusation that those who criticise anything about Cuba, even in a spirit of constructive criticism, are agents of imperialism, is lamentable.

Here we go again! 2/1/10 by Tony Menelik van der Meertop

Here we go again! 

The dust has not settled, nor is all the missing accounted for - and we haven't even had the time to properly honor those who died in the Haitian earthquake. Yet anthropologist (Gayle McGarrity) in response to solidarity against Carlos Moore's anti-Cuban petition is citing her 1970's, 80's and 90's experience in Cuba as empirical evidence to dismiss Cuba´s efforts to address the question of Race in that society. Gayle McGarrity´s analysis clearly dismisses the historic role that Black people in Cuba has played in fighting to get their society to address the underdevelopment of Black people there. While correctly talking about the ideas of white superiority that individuals harbor in Cuba, McCarrity is guilty herself for assuming that Black people in Cuba did not play nor continue to play a significant role in fighting for their liberation. This is a display of how a Eurocentric academically trained anthropologist is also impacted by racism in which she too suffers from internalized black racial inferiority. 

Is Gayle McGarrity suggesting that with a magic wand that the process of a socialist revolution ends personal ideas of race, sex and class? Is she also suggesting that the pressure by capitalist societies like the United States on Cuba has no impact on the development of that society and how the race and sex questions are addressed? 

McGarrity is making the same mistake that Ron Walter's made in his stubborn refusal to admit he made a strategic mistake in being sucker punched by the Carlos Moore's letter. Some of those that signed the petition could have anti- socialist, anti-Fidel and anti-Cuban ideas. If they do, they are entitled to those ideas, but they should be honest and not use Race as a misguided and divisive wedge in building solidarity with Cuba and unity within the Black movement in the United States. It is one thing to point out the contradictions of Cuban society especially from a 70´s, 80´s and 90´s observation - it is another to examine what are ALL of the factors that must be addressed to change those contradictions and how are they being addressed NOW. 

Those of us who disagree with the Carlos Moore petition signers do so, not because we believed they are counter-revolutionary (while a few maybe), it is because we disagree with them and their position and find them misguided and divisive on this question. These are brothers and sisters we love and have worked with in various capacities over many years. 

What is the solution? Is it to have elite academics and intellectuals sign petitions and wage polemics or to struggle against the imperialist forces responsible for under-developing marginalized and oppressed societies. Struggle has to be more focused than going and speaking at Travis Smiley's State of the Black Union forums. It should also include working with independent grassroots community and worker struggles and fight backs to address the inequalities in their lives and having these academics and intellectuals accepting leadership from community and working people's initiatives. How many of those "brave groups of African-American intellectuals" who signed Carlos Moore's petition, including Gayle McGarrity are doing that? Sure, I would agree that there are different roles that people play, but where is the coordination with those who are leading these initiatives? 

After Malcolm's and King's death, COINTELPRO, the Reagan years, Bush I and II, the Patriots Act, the industrial military complex, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and Jena Six, Katrina, and now Haiti, what will it take to build a new mass movement that addresses black national oppression and human rights throughout this world? Or will we continue to have 1) a fragmented movement with a disoriented left and 2) comfortable, complacent middle and upper-class intellectual and professional classes enjoying the benefits of being gatekeepers while the masses of Black and poor people fall deeper in the American nightmare? 

Let's Stand with Cuba! 
Let's Stand with Haiti! 
Let's Stand with the survivors of Katrina! 
Let's build a united movement! 

Tony Menelik Van Der Meer 
Boston, MA 


Dr McGarrity has a chapter in No Longer Invisible, edited by Pedro Perez-Sarduy and Gene Stubbs.



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