By Dwight Hobbes
“Challenges of Race for the Cuban Revolution: The Perspectives of Two Afro-Cubans,” convened June 25 in South Minneapolis at Pillsbury House, offered a revealing look at the social fabric of America’s long-controversial neighbor to the south. Ninety miles off Florida’s coast, Cuba has been a subject national interest since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. The forum with Dr. Esteban Morales, Elio Rodriguez, Dr. August H. Nimtz, Jr. and Dr. John S. Wright focused on the characteristics of race and racism in Cuba over the ensuing time period.
Esteban Morales, Ph.D., Cuba’s leading authority on race, is professor of economics and political science at the University of Havana, honorary director of the Center for American Studies at the University of Havana, and member of the Commission Against Racism and Racial Discrimination of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists-UNEAC. Among his books are La Problemática Racial en Cuba: Algunos de Sus Desafíos (The Race Question in Cuba: Some of the Challenges). Receiving censure last year, Dr. Morales was “separated from the ranks” of Cuba’s Communist Party for his article “Corruption: The true counter-revolution?”
Retuning to the U.S. for the first time since 2000, he engaged a rapt audience with frank commentary on race and racism in his country. He emphasized that Fidel Castro declared the problem of racism solved by the revolution, whereupon Cuba’s political elite promptly ignored reality for the next more than half-century.
Tracing racism to its origin, he noted that before Cuba became a republic, “Whites came from Spain in a good situation. They wanted [to be there]. Blacks came with a very big disadvantage.
“Colonization [did] nothing to [solve] the problem. The republic did nothing. They say, ‘All the Cubans are equal.’ The Cubans [weren’t] equal. Also, today, they are not equal,” said Morales.
He then laid blame squarely at the feet of iconic leadership: “The first racist is Fidel Castro, the man who did the most for the people of Cuba in the last 200 years. Because, in Cuba, there is no civil rights. No human rights.
“We changed the regime, but the Black and Mestizo have racist discrimination. Fidel comes from the bourgeoisie, [which] is White. Who did the revolution? A middle-class White.”
It struck a humorous chord with several attendees when Morales noted that Mestizos have among them color-struck people who consider themselves superior because they have more White blood than others, an attitude that has long been with American Blacks whose self-esteem is linked to the lightness of their skin. The same chord was struck as he spoke of friction between Cuban-born Blacks and Blacks who arrive from the Caribbean, not unlike friction in the Twin Cities between African Americans and Somali immigrants.
At the reception following “Challenges of Race for the Cuban Revolution,” Morales reflected on a debate on race scheduled to take place in Cuba in 2012. “We must improve the qualities of socialism in Cuba [to help Black citizens]. It’s necessary to change the political regime.”
Artist Elio Rodriguez explores racial identity. He is one of the curators of “Queloides/Keloids: Raza y Racismo en el Arte Cubano Contemporáneo,” an exhibit depicting persistent racism in Cuba. In 2010, it showed at Centro Wifredo Lam (Havana) and then at the Mattress Factory Museum (Pittsburgh).
Rodriguez’s participation via online link from Madrid, hampered by technical problems, effectively was a wash. The audience did, however, view a half-dozen pieces from the exhibit.
Drs. Wright and Nimtz co-facilitated with Wright smoothing over glitches in Morales’ command of English vernacular, partly summarizing Morales’ address and offering perspectives himself. John Wright, Ph.D. is a professor of African American and African Studies and English at the University of Minnesota.
Broadening the framework in which U.S. Blacks customarily perceive racism, Wright noted, “Americans tend to think about slavery [as if] we were the center of events in the New World. In the British Empire, Jamaica was far more important than the northern colonies. In the French world, Haiti was [the center of the slave trade].
“For the Spanish Empire, Cuba played that role. More slaves came to Cuba than to the continental U.S.”
Looking at contemporary attitudes, Wright referred to activist scholar Carlos Moore’s 2008 essay “Why Cuba’s white leaders feel threatened by Obama,” in which anthropologist Maria Ileana Faguagua Iglesias quoted a Communist Party official, “[Barack Obama] will be the worst ever American president, because he is a Negro and they are worse than the Whites.”
August H. Nimtz, Jr., Ph.D. is professor of political science and African American and African studies at the University of Minnesota. He’s also a member of Minnesota Cuba Committee whose books include Marx, Tocqueville and Race in America. At the reception, asked what benefit he felt a forum like this was to an American audience, he answered, “To bring valuable information that is not available for the most part.
“Most people know about the economic blockade that’s been in place for 50 years. But, there’s another part of the blockade, and that’s the information blockade. Washington does not have in its interest for working people to know about Cuba’s realities,” said Nimtz.
The event was sponsored by the Minnesota Cuba Committee, African American and African Studies Department, University of Minnesota and Obsidian Arts.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.