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CUBA: Dissidents Work for Racial Integration
By Patricia Grogg
September 15, 2008
HAVANA, Sep 3 (IPS) - Dissident groups in Cuba are attempting to open up a debate on the problem of racism in the country, in order to promote "full integration" of all the island's citizens, without discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or skin colour. To that end, a committee "without ideological affiliation or political goals" was formed this week at a workshop on the issue, to promote actions and initiatives to guarantee "a voice and a forum" for Afro-descendants on this Caribbean island, "with the responsible support" of all Cubans who are aware of the problem.
The Citizens' Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) "will attempt to bring the issue out of the closed intellectual debates where it has been closeted for the past 15 years," said Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the moderate dissident Arco Progresista, a coalition of small social democrat groups and one of the participants at the workshop, to which the foreign press was invited. In his view, alternative civil society organisations should seek ways to achieve the self-recognition of black people, who are not represented in proportion to their demographics and their cultural contribution to Cuba. "The CIR is pursuing recognition and racial integration, not conflict or racial pre-eminence, " he said.
The latest census, from 2002, indicates that out of 11,177,743 Cuban nationals living in the country at that time, 7,271,926 were white, 1,126,894 were black, and 2,778,923 were of mixed-race heritage. The classification was based on skin colour. Cuesta said that the CIR plans to hold regular discussion workshops and carry out a "sticker" campaign against racist behaviour by the police, which tends to be "selective" and "harasses" darker-skinned people more often than whites. The CIR will also institute a "Tolerance Plus" Prize for combating racism and promoting racial integration, to honour people and institutions who have made outstanding contributions to promoting racial harmony. "But we are basically going to work with ordinary people, because racism is not an issue that can be solved by waving placards. A great deal has been written about the subject, there is a cultural and aesthetic debate, but there are no practical solutions. These have to be sought together with the people," Cuesta said.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the socialist government made efforts to stamp out discrimination of all kinds on the grounds of race, sex and place of origin, making it punishable by law. Article 42 of the constitution stipulates that "the institutions of the state educate everyone from the earliest possible age in the principle of equality among human beings."
Among the first measures taken by the Cuban Revolution were universal access to beaches, clubs and hotels that were formerly reserved only for "whites", and equal rights to education, healthcare, employment and access to positions at decision-making level. However, several studies recognise that eradicating institutionalised racism did not abolish all of its latent expressions, as originally expected. The problem was ignored and excluded from academic debate for years, until it re-emerged in the 1990s.
The economic crisis in Cuba triggered by the collapse of the East European socialist bloc and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country's main trade and aid partners, complicated the situation and widened the gap between people who were already socially disadvantaged and the rest of the population.
The recession was a factor that reproduced and exacerbated social, and therefore racial, inequalities, given the historic links between race and class, according to a 1996 study by María del Carmen Caño Secade of the University of Havana, published in the Cuban cultural journal Temas. Participants in the dissident-organised workshop complained that black sectors of the population have fewer opportunities for getting better-paid jobs, receive less in expatriate remittances from abroad and live in the poorest neighbourhoods with the worst housing, all of which makes them more vulnerable.
"We're looking for solutions to black people's most critical problems, so that their difficulties can be brought out into the open," the first step towards overcoming them, said Leonardo Calvo, who also attended the workshop.
Descendants from indigenous peoples, Spain, Africa and to a lesser extent Asian and other European countries contribute to Cuba's population and national identity, which ethnologist Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969) called "a Cuban 'ajiaco' (a rich stew)," or melting pot. So far, debates about race issues in Cuba have been limited to academics, experts, intellectuals and other cultural sectors.
Some non-governmental organisations have also promoted discussion about racial discrimination. For instance, the "Color Cubano" Project, sponsored by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), aims to raise awareness about racial discrimination problems within Cuban society, and stimulate reflection about the country's truly multiracial character.