May 18, 2001

Tourism reviving racism in Cuba

By Ron Howell. Newsday. May 18, 2001. Chicago Tribune

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba -- This is the capital of Cuba's black belt, the place where slaves rose up against Spain in the 1800s and where Fidel Castro's band of revolutionaries in 1959 declared a society that would forever end racism on the island.

By the accounts of many observers, Castro went a long way toward achieving his goal of a raceless society. He outlawed discrimination. He built schools and hospitals by the score in poor communities where people of color lived.

It is curious, then, to enter the Melia Santiago, eastern Cuba's first five-star hotel, and find that none of the employees in the lobby is black.

"One has to notice when one goes into the hotels that out of all the people working in the front and in management, maybe one, maybe two, maybe none will be black," said Carlos Thomas Brown, 58, a local musician who is black.

Cubans are ordinarily reluctant to complain about race bias or even admit that it exists, but increasingly some are expressing their frustration.

"Everywhere else in Cuba a black person can rise to assistant manager or manager of a [state] enterprise," Thomas Brown continued, "but in tourism, no. The people who are running the tourism businesses are white, and they prefer to have their own people working there."

Four decades after Castro's revolution proclaimed the death of racism, scholars and even some government officials say Cuba's new opening to foreign tourism and the U.S. dollar is reviving old racial attitudes and disparities.

"The evidence is overwhelming that there has been a rebirth of some kinds of racism, in attitudes and . . . even discriminatory behaviors," said Alejandro de la Fuente, a white Cuban-American and University of Pittsburgh history professor who recently published a book on race in Cuba. He warned that the problem could worsen if officials and the public do not overcome an ingrained denial that racism could exist in Cuba.

Before the recent tourism boom, many Americans, including some race-sensitive blacks, returned from visits to Cuba declaring there was no racial bias.

In Santa Clara, a day's drive west of Santiago, local folk speak of how racism permeated life in prerevolution Cuba. In those days, the beautiful downtown Vidal Park was segregated.

"At night there was music, and boys would walk together in one direction and the girls in a circle in the other direction, but blacks and [mixed-race] mulattos had to stay in separate circles, and they were not allowed to walk with the whites or there would be trouble," said Rolando Guerra Dominguez, 68. Guerra Dominguez, a retired cabaret worker, has mulatto ancestors but considers himself white and walked with the whites.

Fraternal societies in town were divided on racial lines. Jose de la Caridad Navarrete Suri, 76, was a member of Bella Union.

"That was the society for the darkest complexioned people," he said. "We had our club and we would get together and throw parties and dance." Mulattos would join the Maceo club. Whites were members of the Casino Espanol.

When Castro's government took power, it outlawed the clubs and other signs of racial distinction.

With social policies that stressed schooling and health for the broad population, notably the poor, the communist government virtually eliminated the gaps in education and life expectancy between wealthier whites and poor blacks.

A newly educated black class of civil servants arose, attaining coveted positions in state-run establishments. Whites emigrated in large numbers to the United States.

But like almost everything else in Cuba, the country's effort to erase racism was affected by the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union. Moscow had provided several billion dollars a year in aid, funding the social programs that had narrowed Cuba's racial divides.

As Cuba fell into an economic depression, its citizens going hungry and tens of thousands fleeing in boats to the United States, the government sought to revive its economy by opening the country to foreign tourism and allowing Cubans to possess U.S. dollars. It was those two changes, specialists say, that largely ushered in renewed racial bias.

"Whites are predominating in the sectors that service tourists," said Pedro Rodriguez, an investigator with the state-run Center for Anthropological Studies.

"We have interviewed many blacks, and more and more of them are saying it's easier for them to get a job in the interior of an establishment, as a cook or cleaning up, than to get one where you work closely with the tourists," he said.

Because all Cubans get their salaries in pesos, the most desirable hotel jobs are top administrative ones, which can offer informal bonuses, or in the lobby, where tourists present tips in dollars.

The most serious allegations of race bias are against foreign-owned, rather than state-owned, hotels, Rodriguez said. The Melia Santiago is owned by the Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia.

Rodriguez says many hotel administrators appear to be using an old "Hollywood" standard of beauty in selecting employees who deal with tourists.

"They believe that beauty is blond hair and white skin. This is part of the social psychology that many say is returning," he said.

University of Pittsburgh professor de la Fuente agreed. He said that as he researched his book, hotel administrators told him they preferred whites or light-skinned mulattos because those groups had buena aparencia-- good looks--which impressed tourists. This year 2 million tourists are expected to visit Cuba, mostly from Canada and Europe.

Race and tourism also intersect uncomfortably on the streets of Havana these days, where police often question dark-complexioned young Cubans on the assumption that they are hustlers looking to make a dollar from tourists.

"It is not right to do that to me, because I was just standing here. I wasn't doing anything," said Norge Castillo, 17, a black youth with African-looking features. A police officer had just stopped him on a corner in the tourist-laden area near the Havana Libre hotel.

Checking Castillo's identity, the officer determined that the youth had no police record.

For Castro and others who have made racial equality an abiding quest, the most painful reality may be the persistent poverty of Cuba's heavily black eastern provinces.

Nationwide, one-third of Cubans identified themselves as black or mulatto in the latest census, in 1981. In Santiago province, 70 percent did so.

While some black Cubans in the Santiago region have begun to voice the idea that disparities in Cuba are linked somehow to skin color, many Cubans repeat the long-standing position of the government.

"Racism no longer exists in Cuba," said Guerra Dominguez, the retired cabaret worker in Santa Clara. "Fidel did away with all that."

De la Fuente said that if anything will impede efforts to combat discrimination -- especially the job discrimination in the tourism industry -- it will be this habit of denial.


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