Even in Castro's Cuba, light skin wins

May 31, 2002|By Clarence Page

HAVANA - To most people in Cuba or outside of it, race is a big non-issue on the island. However, if race isn't much of an issue here anymore, color still is.

Tanya Quintero, a light-skinned mulatta and prominent independent journalist in Havana, said she was not aware of racial discrimination until she had a daughter with darker skin than she. Suddenly, some of her friends referred to her child with a Spanish phrase that literally translates as "sour or dark stomach" but figuratively is slang for "a child who comes out darker than her mother," she said. Lighter-skinned children later made fun of her daughter for being a marron, brown.

With her conscience heightened, Ms. Quintero left the official press a few years ago and wrote articles such as one that she published last year titled "Where are the Blacks?" It called attention to the near absence of dark-skinned faces on official Cuban television. Within days after the article appeared on a Spanish Web site, Ms. Quintero says, three new dark faces appeared as announcers on Cuban TV.

"The state security police always monitor our work," Ms. Quintero said, certain that the new hires were no coincidence.

If so, we can at least thank the Castro government for being responsive. But as the government has flirted with capitalism, legalizing private possession of the dollar and signing contracts with big hotels to lure tourists, another echo of the old regime has returned: lighter-skinned Cubans displacing those with darker skin for highly visible and lucrative jobs in the country's bustling new tourism industry.

Also, the millions of dollars in "remittances" that Cubans in the United States and elsewhere send their relatives back on the island reach few "black" Cubans because more than 90 percent of the exiles are "white." As a result, the long-standing economic gap between darker and lighter Cubans widens.

I use quotation marks around "black" and "white" because the terms don't mean the same as they do in the United States, with our traditional "one-drop rule." Race in Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, is somewhat fluid: You are pretty much what you say you are, even within the same family.

Cuba has done what California activist Ward Connerly is calling for in his proposed ballot proposition to stop California from asking questions about race on state forms. Cuba's government does not keep a racial count, and as a result, racial estimates vary. Most Cuban and State Department estimates put the island's black and mixed population at more than 60 percent. An eyeball examination of the streets of Havana quickly bears that out, along with an even greater dominance by white Cubans in the higher echelons of the government and business enterprises.

"We fought the revolution not as Afro-Cubans but as Cubans," said Juan Diego Nusa, a tall, dark-skinned journalist for Cuba's official AIN (National Information Agency). He was decidedly content with the government's equal-opportunity efforts. His sentiments were echoed by other official Cuban journalists when they were questioned by the group of black American journalists with whom I was traveling.

They spoke of how awful things were for black Cubans before the Castro government took over in 1959. Blatant racial segregation was so fierce that Fulgencio Batista, the island's light-skinned mulatto dictator, was nevertheless too dark to be admitted to the tony Havana Yacht Club.

Fidel Castro, the son of Spanish immigrants, outlawed racial discrimination five years before the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Blacks have benefited greatly from new access to schools, health care and other opportunities that were opened to people of all colors on an equal basis.

But at least twice since the mid-1980s, Mr. Castro has called for new vigilance against the color prejudices that persist in his political party and in Cuban society.

Some blacks are beginning to ask openly what the revolution has done for them lately.

The success of race relations in Cuba today seems to be a lot like it is in America: It depends on whom you talk to.

As Mr. Castro flirts with capitalism and begins to look his 75 years, new questions need to be raised about what is going to happen to his revolution. I have little doubt that the lure of free enterprise will outlast his brand of socialism. But in the meantime, his brand of capitalism is beginning to parody the worst sins of capitalism, including prostitution, street hustling and discriminatory color codes.

Like Americans, Cuba's "blacks" are making progress. I shook hands with Ruben Remigio, the country's first dark-skinned Supreme Court president. But the true nature of progress is hard to measure because the government is reluctant to keep numbers or engage in accion afirmativa.

That's true to form for Mr. Castro. What's the fun of being a dictator if you have to be accountable? It's a lot easier to leave such messy issues as race in a constant state of messiness. It's easier to deny that you have a problem that way, even when you do.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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