Cuban resident in the United States
Before the heat of the economy and the statistics —in the midst of the conversion of Castroism to the capitalist faith— end up drowning the already muted cries of the ideology, we should agree on one thing: few regimes like the inaugurated on January 1st, 1959, although frustrated in the essentials of economics, have made fashionable so many products of the spirit: from the beards and long hairs of their heroes to the image of its Guerilla Holiness captured by Korda and disseminated by Feltrinelli; from sport to educational achievements, though it was enough to put a microphone in front of an athlete to begin to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the education system. Among all these products only a few have had such a lasting impact on the universal consciousness —let’s remember that I’m writing from a hipster era, where the beards have returned without the long hairs— than the so-called racial policy of the Cuban Revolution. It matters little that —as noted by Sir Hugh Thomas— the programmatic text of the early Castroism (History Will Absolve Me, 1954) contain neither the slightest allusion to the racial issue nor the word "black", not even as part of the color spectrum. Or that at the dawn of that Revolution nothing announced that the racial issue would become a leitmotif during the early years of revolutionary power. Seen from a distance, it is understood. It wouldn’t be entirely consistent that a white son of a Spanish immigrant called a revolution on behalf of racial equality against a mestizo ruler —black in the stricter U.S. racial profiling— who more harm than good had carried out a discreet racial policy and suffered discrimination in his own flesh, as the official version has been insisting until today, by the Cuban bourgeoisie, even after having come to power. A few days after the triumph of the revolution, the very Fidel Castro said to an American journalist that the "matter of color" in Cuba “did not exist in the same way as it did in the U.S.; there was some racial discrimination in Cuba but far less; the revolution would help eliminate these remaining prejudices”1.
Let’s abstain from belaboring other statements by the leader of the Revolution about the same time, which insisted with persuasive vehemence on his non-communist political affiliation. Just a couple of months later, in March 1959, he called for a campaign with the slogan: “Job opportunities for all Cubans, without discrimination based on race or sex; let’s put an end to racial discrimination in the workplace." 2 Whether there was too little or too much racism in Cuba before 1959, for the Revolution (or Fidel Castro, if there is any difference) it would be enough to declare in less than three years, on February 4, 1962, that "the discrimination based on race or sex" was suppressed. 3 And the entire humankind, always in need of happy endings, seemed to believe it. After that, the silence.4 It would be a version of the facts.
The other version
Rather than suppressing racism, the Cuban Revolution revolutionized it. It generated, so to speak, a revolutionary racism. While traditional racism makes every effort to preserve and justify the social, economic and political inequalities, the "revolutionary" racism would endeavor to eliminate any obvious way of discrimination in order to prohibit then any criticism of racial discrimination and any reference to race, except the folkloric ones. This is recognized by Professor Alejandro de la Fuente: "Just as the overtly racist acts were judged as counterrevolutionary, any attempt to publicly discuss the limitations of Cuban integration was also considered as a work of the enemy."5 And so it was. All "black" associations were closed along with the "white" associations. The automatic and unmitigated repression against black intellectuals who criticized the racial politics of the Revolution, such as Walterio Carbonell and Carlos Moore, was not exactly an incentive to create more or less autonomous associations on racial basis. Nothing happened in those years, which suggests that an Independent Party of Color like the one founded in 1908 and massacred in 1912 would have triggered a different reaction by the revolutionary government in comparison with the violent reaction by the government presided by General José Miguel Gómez (1858-1921). Thus, the "minorities" discriminated until then had no choice but to delegate their ability to claim in the "revolutionary" avant-garde and to rely upon its kindness and its degree of empathy with their problems. Although the revolutionary racism did not share the public discourse of traditional racism on the manifest minority’s inferiority, the latter would concur with the former in assuming that such minorities could not and should not decide for themselves what to do at their own pace and convenience. Despite public declarations of equality, the Revolution seemed to implicitly suggest that such minorities were decidedly inept in matters of autonomy and social self-consciousness. It may be objected, not without reason, that such view of the revolutionary racism was characterized by the recognition of autonomy and social self-awareness only to the aforementioned revolutionary avant-garde and to nobody else. In regard of the freedoms of expression, association and criticism, all the components of the so-dubbed masses are also limited by the punctilious suspicion of that avant-garde. Thusly we arrive to the point that the Cuban regime exercises coercion and repression in an indiscriminate and equalitarian manner. Such equality in repression would be true if the Afro-Cuban population wouldn’t have been carrying the extra burden of having to thank the Cuban Revolution for its infinite generosity, as if restoring inalienable rights would have been an act of pure justice, but an exaggerated concession; as if this sector of the population was deemed inferior at heart. From such an undeserved equality granted by the Revolution, the latter will require not only the absolute assignment of the ability to express and to defend the particular claims of that population, but also tireless devotion and eternal gratitude. Here is where the revolutionary racism, unlike the traditional one, does make a distinction between black people: the distinction between useful and unpardonable blacks. Useful like all the black figures that after a demonstrated obedience, are displayed in a manner more symbolic than real as legitimate representatives of the Revolution, for instance: the late Commander Juan Almeida, at the dawn of the Revolution, and the current President of the Parliament, Esteban Lazo, in the present times of endless agony. The unpardonable blacks are those like the dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who treacherously attempted to harm the image of the Revolution by dying in prison after more than eighty days of hunger strike in 2010. He was so unpardonable that despite the recognition by international organizations as prisoner of conscience, he was branded both in life and posthumously as a "common criminal."6
In the memories of his stay (1964-84) in Cuban prisons, the late writer Jorge Valls asserted: "Blacks were subjected to a particularly bad treatment. 'You, black, said the jailer, how could you rebel against a revolution that is making you a human being?' The blacks always ended up receiving more punches and bayonet pricks than the others.7
The cardinal distinction
If anything distinguishes the revolutionary racism from its traditional variant, it’s the pragmatism. Ignoring the rights of a human group does not mean giving up in trying to use them for benefits beyond the simple economic return. Exploiting the symbolic value of certain concessions does not guarantee equality, but so it’s quite effectively simulated. And the Revolution, such an entity that functions as a nickname of some Castro, is not only responsible for granting the dignity of the black population, but also the only guarantee to keep it.
Thus, in the early hours of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro signed a statement calling to fight the invaders who “are coming to take away the dignity from the black men and women after having been restored by the Revolution [while] we fight to keep the supreme dignity of the human being for all”. 8 During the interrogation of the captured blacks invaders, Castro questioned the ideals of those who fought "against a revolution that has established social equality and given black people the right to education, the right to work, the right to go to a beach and the right to grow up in a free country, without being hated or discriminated.”9
Such an epidermal and rhetorical confrontation against racism also served to contrast the egalitarianism of the nascent Cuban Revolution against the American nation that was still struggling with racial segregation in the South. Castro allowed himself to speak sympathetically about "the semi-enslaved U.S. blacks”10 in order to emphasize the difference. Any conflict between race and nation was solved with two sentences: one by Jose Martí and the other by Antonio Maceo. Dissected in a seminal essay by Enrique Patterson11, the Marti’s sentence reads like this: "In Cuba there is no fear of a race war . Man is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black." It was contracted by the political routine to "a Cuban is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black." Maceo’s sentence reads as follows: "Whoever tries to seize Cuba will gather the dust of its soil soaked in blood, if not perish in the fight" (the politicians changed "appropriate" to "seize"). It does not even mention the issue of race. The only sentence by Maceo currently present in the Cuban political repertoire made it clear that the main concern of the most important national hero of African descent was the danger of foreign intervention. The Cuban racism should be resolved then by the Cubans themselves and, as it is well-known, being a Cuban means more than being white or black, more than ...
As time goes by
The accumulation of social problems of all kinds in the contemporary Cuban society —including the merger of remnants of traditional racism with the praxis of the revolutionary racism— did not diminish the idea that any criticism had its origin in the CIA headquarters. If in the present living conditions of Afro-Cubans show no signs of improving, the local Ministry of Truth will always worsen the past as a last resort.
While in January 1959 the "question of color" did not exist for Castro "in the same way as in the United States" and there hardly was "certain racial discrimination" and "remaining prejudices" that the revolution would eliminate without difficulty, the official digital encyclopedia Ecured notes nowadays, despite all the evidences to the contrary, that "in the Havana of the 1950s, the university studies were practically closed to blacks and mestizos". It also states "politics was a business of the whites" and that "only political party in which blacks could develop their leadership qualities was the Socialist People's Party [Communist]." Thus some details like Fulgencio Batista becoming president being neither blond nor communist were simply ignored. In the past managed by Ecured, black men worked in agriculture, construction, trade and crafts, while women worked as housemaids [sic]. The police was mainly composed of whites, like the armed forces, especially the officers. Apparently the difficulty to transform Benny Moré and Celia Cruz in Caucasians forces to slip that music was "the only sector that maintained the existing tradition since the eighteenth century with broad participation of blacks and mestizos." 12 But Celia Cruz was a certified schoolteacher before becoming a professional singer, so this would be another tall tale by the “worms” in Miami, as it would be her entire career. 13 While the Cuban past is not difficult to modify, the present of the Afro-Americans complicates this idyllic and baronial view of the Castro racism. Partly because the images of German shepherd dogs attacking black protesters seems a bit old- fashioned; partly because the current situation cannot be summarized with the deaths of African Americans at the hands of the police, as the Cuban press promptly informs. Despite the efforts of the efficient Castro propaganda machine, it is more difficult to transform the outside world than the Cuban past in order to convince the captive Cuban audience that the entire U.S. black male population is doomed to work in agriculture, construction, trade and crafts, while the females have only the job option of being maids if they don’t possess musical talent. Watching Hollywood productions for decades has served to find out that being black in America is not incompatible with being a lawyer, judge, police chief, or actor. If Cubans pay attention to the news, they will also realize that being black is not incompatible with the post of Secretary of State and even, occasionally, of President.
And precisely the two-day visit of the U.S. President Barack Obama to the "first socialist territory in America" has put the revolutionary racism against the ropes. At the same time, as it happens with a cornered boxer, the visit forced it to do its best. Trying to recover from the symbolic barrage of Obama's visit —“the fall of the imaginaries", as Yesenia Selier coined it14 — both the Cuban government and press sought to reopen the trenches against an "enemy" deployed in all its imperial humility. Against the imperialist cunning to choose a son of a Kenyan black man as its representative, Cuban President Raul Castro could hardly oppose the replacement of his grandson as usual companion by the somewhat ghostly Esteban Lazo and Salvador Valdes Mesa, especially if we compare such a maneuver with the active interlocution between Obama and black personalities during his meeting with Cuban representatives of the opposition and the civil society. The official response to the visit —branded by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as an "attack on our history, our culture and our symbols"— was the apotheosis of the revolutionary racism. And precisely the founder of that racism and a black journalist gave the most outrageous answers. Fidel Castro warned against the "more honeyed words" of the African American President's speech to the Cuban people. They came loaded with poison: "It is assumed that each of us was on the brink of a heart attack upon hearing these words." Castro did not hide his favorable expectations: "Somehow I wanted that Obama's behavior would be correct. His humble origins and his natural intelligence were evident.”15 It draws attention Castro’s insistence on Obama’s intellect, as if it entails some contradiction. He had said earlier: "Undoubtedly, Obama is intelligent, well-educated, and a good communicator; he made many people think he emulated Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.”16 These expectations lead the founder of the only Cuban dynasty to hold some kind of misconduct against Obama. And immediately it leads Castro to invoke Mandela when he was "a prisoner for life and had become a giant in the struggle for human dignity." In his article "Brother Obama," the old dictator became delirious, but did not distract himself from his main goal: to warn that Obama —however far he may be from the old prophecies about the imperialist enemy: that white and obese mister with a bag full of money— is anyway this very enemy in the flesh: "No one should be under any illusion (...) We don’t need any gift from the empire." And Castro dips again into the talismanic phrase by "the glorious black leader Antonio Maceo". Taking by dictation "whomever attempts to conquer Cuba will only gather the dust of her soil soaked in blood, if not perish in the fight," the clerk reinforced so Castro’s new call to behead symbolically the old enemy.
Far more diaphanous was Elias Argudín, a black reporter from the newspaper Tribuna de La Habana, who wrote that Obama "chose to criticize and suggest, with subtleties, in a veiled, yet unmistakable incitement to rebellion and disorder, without caring about being in someone else’s home. There is no doubt, Obama went too far. I cannot but tell him, in the Virulo style: "But Negro, are you Swedish?”17 It is worth recalling the origin of the phrase, which was also the title of the article and generated so much criticism that the author was compelled to retract somehow or other. It was uttered in an old humorous skit from the early 1980s, in which a black man was trying to enter with a Swedish passport to an exclusive Cuban shop for diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. He was stopped at the door with that phrase. The latter originated in the conditions of the particular Cuban apartheid, which prevented the vast majority of Cubans from having access to services and facilities reserved for foreigners and certain privileged Cubans. Since then it has been used to remember, with some insulting jocularity, both to Cubans in general and to black people in particular, the limits resulting from their condition. In the new context, the phrase seems to be designed to remind the U.S. President what he could not do in his situation as either a black person or as a guest, however presidential he could be.
The revolutionary racism was evidenced by the emphasis in certain expectations associated to the race of the incumbent U.S. President. Hence the visceral reaction of the official media to his visit and especially to his speech in defense of the democratic values. Being black, American democracy is not up to Obama, even if Martin Luther King Jr. started his anti-racist crusade with a call to "apply our [U.S.] citizenship in its full meaning.”18 Although Cuban journalists and officials who attacked the U.S. President should know that Obama became president with the popular vote in a country that they have been demonizing for decades, they could not hide their surprise when Obama stood for the essential American values. Somehow they were expecting from him the same devotion they expect from the black population on the island, because the revolutionary racism —like any other one— consists in liking the skin color with certain attitude. In this case, they expected at least some complicity of Obama on behalf of the alleged advantages granted by the Revolution to the black race. Both the stupor and the viciousness of the attacks in the official Cuban press went beyond the mere political antagonism. They denote a poorly controlled rage toward a phenomenon that is not fully understood, because it was never understood: that blacks were not grateful for the sleepless efforts done by the Revolution to turn them into human beings. This revolutionary racism patronizes those rendering obedience and brutally represses those who do not. Such racism should not be a surprise for anyone, because it was always there. It always relied, like any other variant of racism, on failing to recognize a particular group on an equal footing. We do not notice it better now because the aged revolutionary avant-garde altered the standard. What has changed is actually the world around it in almost six decades of Castroit power. Nothing like the presence of the first black American president in Havana accentuated the contrast and the absurd anachronism represented by octogenarians still pretending to be liberators. Now the revolutionary racism must take a step forward in its evolution facing the new challenges without losing their own notion of essential superiority. For example, it could adapt the old phrase by Martí: "The imperialist enemy is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black.”19 Thusly the revolutionary racism could remind us that, beyond its atavism and superstition, the "revolutionary" variant of racism is primarily part of a system of domination over the entire society.
1-Thomas, Hugh. Cuba or the Pursuit of Freedom. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, 1120.
2-Castro, Fidel. "Speech delivered on 22.March.1959". http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1959/esp/f220359e.html
3-Castro, Fidel. "Second Declaration of Havana". http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1962/esp/f040262e.html
4- The scholar Alejandro de la Fuente asserts in a fundamental text on racial issues in Cuba: "The initial campaign against discrimination declined after 1962, leading to a growing public silence around the issue except to highlight the success of Cuba in this area." Cf.: Fuente, Alejandro de la. A nation for all. Race, inequality and politics in Cuba. 1900-2000. Madrid: Editorial Hummingbird, 2000, 383.
6-See "Report by the UNEAC and the AHS to the intellectuals and artists in the.world" (http://mesaredonda.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2010/03/16/a-los-intelectuales-y-artistas-del-mundo-pronunciamiento-de-la-uneac-y-la-ahs/) or the article "For whom death is useful?", by Enrique Ubieta (http://www.cubadebate.cu/opinion/2010/02/26/orlando-zapata-tamayo-la-muerte-util-de-la-contrarrevolucion/#.VxpGTDArIdU)
7-Valls, Jorge. Twenty and forty days. Madrid:.Encuentro,.1988,.51.
8- "The press released by Fidel on April 16.and.17,.1961": https://verbiclara.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/los-comunicados-de-fidel-entre-los-dias-15-y-19-de-abril-de-1961/
9-Playa Giron: Defeat of imperialism. Havana: Ediciones R, 1962, 457. The question about the presence of black soldiers in the invading troops, posed by Castro and his supporters, has its inverse symmetry. After the failed attack to the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, “Batista’s soldiers openly said that it was a disgrace to follow a white such as Castro against a mestizo such as Batista. When Captain Yañes [sic] came on Castro hiding sleep in a bohío, it will be recalled that the soldier who found them cried: ‘Son blancos””. Thomas, Hugh. Op. cit., 1122.
10-Castro, Fidel. "Speech delivered on 22.March.1959". http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1961/esp/f190561e.html
11 Patterson, Enrique. "Cuba: discourses about identity," Encuentro, No 2, 1996, 49-67.
13-Muñoz Usain, Alfredo. "The Cuban press dismisses the icon of the anti-Castro," http://www.elperiodicodearagon.com/noticias/escenarios/prensa-cubana-despide-icono-anticastristas_68044.html
14-Selier, Yesenia. "Obama and the fall of.the.imaginaries" http://www.diariodecuba.com/cuba/1459548754_21390.html
15-Castro, Fidel. "Brother Obama". http://www.granma.cu/reflexiones-fidel/2016-03-28/el-hermano-obama-28-03-2016-01-03-16
16-Castro, Fidel. "The summit of the guayabera". http://www.cubadebate.cu/reflexiones-fidel/2012/04/13/la-cumbre-de-las-guayaberas/#.VxpoTzArIdU
17-The article was removed from the network, but it left many references in a variety of websites, for example: "Smack in Cuba by Article against Obama" "http://www.elmundo.es/internacional/? 2016/03/30./56fc146122601dcd088b4640.html
19 During a Summit of the Americas (Cartagena de Indias, April 2012), the official newspaper Granma published a cartoon of Obama dressed in guayabera and a vaguely Andean character saying: "The empire, although dressed in silk, empire remains!" It paraphrased the saying of "Monkey, even dressed in silk,.monkey.remains". http://www.granma.cu/granmad/secciones/opinion-grafica/lapiz361.html