HAVANA, Cuba. – “You are more likely to have a proposal accepted if you use fair-skin and blonde models than if you use Black models,” states Karina, a designer who has had the opportunity to work for various companies of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), and especially with entities that are part of the Armed Forces Economic Conglomerate (GAESA), like Gaviota S.A., where racism is more visible, almost like “an iron rule,” she adds.
Once in a while they will ask you to include a Black individual, but that is very rare, a formality to keep up appearances. If they don’t ask you, you best not do it because they will reject your work until you submit it with fair-skin models. (…) They will never say that’s the reason, they will simply tell you they don’t like what you have submitted, but one always knows what it’s all about,” continues Karina.
Rafael is another designer who has had similar experiences, although in his case it’s not only that his works are rejected if there are Black models in them, but also that he himself has felt discriminated as a Black Cuban, even though he is not seen in any of the images of his promotional proposals.
Although he graduated in 2014 as a graphic designer, with very good grades, it was impossible for him to remain as part of the permanent staff for the two tourism agencies (Palmares S.A. and Turarte) where he fulfilled the compulsory social service assignments and was released into the work force.
Rafael has no doubt that his “bad luck” was due to racism because, out of all the young designers that applied for permanent positions at the tourism employment pools and agencies –an indispensable requirement if one is opting for a job in this sector- only the fair-skin applicants had “better luck.” Only he and Danilo, another Black designer, were rejected probably for not fitting the “ideal corporate mold” of Gaviota S.A.
“Sometimes I was called for interviews, but I knew ahead of time that they would reject me,” says Rafael. “In 2016, I was hired for a job for Gran Caribe. I got it because I didn’t do the interview in person. I sent the proposal, I knew they would like it, and sure enough, they called me right away, but clearly, no Blacks in the piece, only lots of white folks. No Blacks
only light-skinned colored Cubans are allowed. And the usual: the light-skin Black Cuban woman next to a white, blond-hair hunk, in her role as a young prostitute, a jineterita. Local color as long as it’s whitewashed. No high contrast. That is the norm, no matter who you work for. And if it’s for Gaviota, it’s worse. At Gaviota, Blacks are like the plague. You only need to look at their social media. It looks like Norway. The only time I worked with them, I developed the whole publicity campaign with Black models, without benefit of keratin, it was scandalous. I did it on purpose. There was even a stupid guy who made a joke about it: ‘When have you seen a Black seagull?’ I wanted to smash his face in right then and there,” Rafael ends his story. He adds that in order to guarantee himself a stable job, and to have a better chance of being accepted, he decided to join a group of designer friends and work with them independently.
“Racism in Cuban tourism is no joke. It’s real. It’s palpable. The graphics, the visuals are all contaminated by that discourse that associates luxury, comfort and paradise with fair skin,” states Ismael, a designer with the Cuban tourism sector but who has also done some assignments for foreign agencies in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Spain.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen, for example, in the Dominican Republic, where graphics places emphasis on race, on that which is native, it doesn’t turn its back on that, on the contrary, it’s done with national pride. There are cases of racism, of course, but it’s very different from what’s expected from you here in Cuba, where “color” is merely an accessory, or better yet, an disgusting booger (…). It’s very similar to what happens in Mexico, where there’s a general sense of embarrassment regarding indigenous culture. A constant denial of reality. Male models are always young, fair-skin and blond. The female models always dress in white, to ensure a transparency that highlights whiteness (…) The folks with dark skin are the street vendors, the musicians, the cooks, the chauffeurs. The exotic element that is on display like a caged animal in a zoo, or like a wild beast in a safari. It’s never the client (…). I feel that same sense of embarrassment here, an embarrassment that comes from the decision-makers (…). To a certain extent, it’s a problem with the designers, too, who are not brave enough to tackle institutional racism in an intelligent manner, destroy the clichés, the prejudices. But I also think it goes deeper than that: that racism is in the very essence of the system, a system that is ashamed of anything that reflects that which is mixed race and Black, as manifested in all racist attitudes,” insists Ismael.
Institutionalized racism at Gaviota S.A.
Although the Cuban regime always gave assurances that it had eradicated racial discrimination during the early years of the Revolution, the truth is that today’s reality, especially where it concerns the tourism sector, has exposed the fact that little or nothing has changed with regard to racism.
“Magical solutions” barely touch the surface regarding certain elements and legal dispositions that have more to do with the dictatorship’s populist discourse than with a real will to find solutions.
In the meantime, the constant maneuvers to render racism invisible, and the criminalization of any form of independent social activism, have protected the power groups that insist on deepening the divide between Blacks and whites.
To have an idea of the real magnitude of this phenomenon, and to realize that it’s not circumstantial, we could begin by checking out the social media publications of Cuban companies directly linked to the tourism sector, as is the case with Gaviota S.A., whose racist practices are the most notorious, in spite of being managed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
This year to date, on Gaviota S.A. and Gaviota Tours official Facebook page, Black models have been employed on only three occasions for their promotional literature, while there have been more than one hundred publications where fair-skin men and women were employed.
On May 30, 2021, the image of a Black model was used for the first time this year to celebrate her reaching 12,000 followers, and it was not until two months later, on July 30, that another Black individual made it to the Facebook page. This time it was the image of a young man in the company of two white women and a white man, an unusual shot because in those cases where a group scene is to be represented, one never uses a Black family or a group of Black friends, and no children are ever included. For Gaviota, a happy childhood, the joy of youth and friendship, are the exclusive privilege of whites.
The next time a Black individual –a woman- appeared in a Gaviota ad was on August 5, and only because this woman was positioned on the far left of the photograph among a group of mostly fair-skin women. Another month passed before a Black male musician was featured in an ad, on August 30.
The oddest case took place this September 5, when an image was taken down from a publication a few hours after being posted on the Facebook page, for the sole reason that the female model used in the ad did not meet the aesthetic standards of Gaviota S.A. The model was a Black woman, her hair neatly braided, an image that tried to become part of Gaviota’s “Safe with Gaviota” campaign, aimed at luring tourism to the island amidst the health crisis it is facing.
“It was taken down immediately. It was a scandal. They called us at the Gaviota office of the president to tell us that it was an ugly image, that we should take it down immediately,” according to a source linked to the corporation. The image is no longer available on the Facebook page of Gaviota Tours, but CubaNet was able to take a screenshot of the ad before it was taken down.
The campaign “Safe with Gaviota”, which promotes Cuba as a safe tourist destination in the middle of the pandemic, has never included Black models in its posters. In fact, today’s front-page image which makes reference to health personnel and to security protocols against COVID-19, only features fair-skin individuals.
Some people could say that these are “unconscious” happenings, coincidences, but those who have endured discrimination because of the color of their skin –and that includes many who are in charge of promoting the image of this military corporation- attest to the fact that the absence of Black models is dangerously beyond a random occurrence.
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