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Cuba: Country of Oppositions - the contradictions of Cuban equality

By: Dr. Zélie Asava explores the contradictions of Cuban equality

Cuba means a lot of different things to different people but one thing it doesn’t usually equate to is racism. In Cuba’s post-revolutionary society, the discrimination between former slaves and former slave owners was said to have ended. Sadly this is not the case. Racial divisions continue to dictate where one is likely to live, what kind of house one inherits (no private ownership means houses are government owned and passed through families; they can be exchanged but not for profit) and in what kind of enterprise one works. While Cuba’s enviable health and education systems can combat this division in time to come, the lines remain clearly drawn for the time being.

I stayed in Cuba’s casa system, a sort of B&B network managed by the government. Not only did I never meet a dark skinned casa owner, some were clearly shocked by my mixed-race appearance, as most identified as white (despite their presumably mixed heritage).
While maids were mostly dark skinned, one owner described her Chinese-Cuban maid by pulling her eyes into slits. Havana has its own China-town and Chinese Cubans make up 1% of the population. Acceptable racism however permeates this predominately mixed society.
It reminded me of some of the jokey racism one comes across in Ireland where comedians like Tommy Tiernan have yet to understand what people consider funny about other cultures and what is simply offensive. More surprising perhaps was that Cuba has spent the fifty one years since the revolution working to stamp out all forms of prejudice whether it be against class, sex, gender or race. Yet a woman walking down the street alone attracts a series of advances from men, always loud and sometimes intimidating. Class remains divisive too as hierarchies of servants operate within casa owners homes.

Cuba remains captivated by it revolution; signs celebrating its victories and heroes are everywhere and open criticism may lead to jail. It remains a country stuck in the past, isolated from modernity and change. The term mulatto is still widely used (it is the name of the most popular rum), even though it is considered a racist term in the developed world. Yet while former apartheid practices continue to divide ‘black’ and ‘white’ societies, children of all mixes attend school together.

Cuba differs from other plantation colonies in that its slaves were allowed to live with their cultural groups (thus retaining African languages and traditions), to marry, keep their children and have homes. This led to the strong Afro-Cuban culture which now characterises Cuba.

Santería, a religion created by these Africans remains a key element of Cuban society, and a key metaphor for Cuba’s fusion given that Santería mixes Christianity with older West African traditions. The fusion of African and European rhythms, created by slaves, still dominates the music scene. And the black masonic houses (cabildos based on earlier ‘brotherhoods’) created during slavery continue to be central to the culture of those within the somewhat hidden Santería tradition.

The scars of Cuba’s 350+ years of slavery and apartheid (1522-1886) remain and young mixed-race women continue to act as playthings for older white men’s money. Unfortunately this also means that travelling in an interracial couple can meet hostility; people assumed that I was Cuban and my Irish partner was a rich Westerner paying for my services.

Cuba is a very confusing place, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, fertile and barren, a mix of cities, prehistoric mountains and rainforest, peopled by cultures from all over the world. I came away disappointed and enthused, encouraged by Cuba’s enduring commitment to what Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr described as the right for people to be judged on the content of their character before all else. Where Ireland’s equality programmes appear to be fading from view, equality in Cuba is a key civil aim. Yet social ills lie just beneath the surface, as they always do, reminding us that some personal prejudices will only be healed by time.

Integration is changing Cuba, as good health and education makes its youth more mobile and more open to diversity than their elders. Despite the problems this country grapples with, their movement towards change by educating youth together and as equals whether male or female, black or white, local or foreign, and regardless of religious differences, is a lesson in multiculturalism from which our authorities might actually learn.

11 November 2010   


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