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Interview with Esteban Morales

Shots without Shotgun

by Hilario Rosete

CubaNews translation by Robert Sandels, edited by Walter Lippmann
Lee el articulo original en español

'The specter of racial difference [was] seen as a source of social division  […] that the enemy could take advantage of'

“Even though it was already a thorny matter before we began the independence struggles, little has been written about the issue. Few historians paid any attention to it and studies that deal with it in the present are rare. I lament the fact that the subject is taken up by people living outside the country who do not always share our circumstances.”

University professor Esteban Morales began talking. When he directed what is now the Center of Hemispheric and United States Studies (CEHSEU) at the University of Havana, Morales believed that the racial issue could become an Achilles heel and a target for the darts of those who make US policy against Cuba.

“How valuable it would be if attitudes coming from us would set the pattern,” he added. “The problems in our reality should not be handed to us – we should be the first to take them up. The racial issue could be another one of the arguments the United States uses to attack us. It is an issue ‘from inside the Malecon’ that concerns Cubans.”

A two-term member of the Academy of Sciences, doctor of Economic Sciences and doctor of Sciences, Esteban has served as visiting professor in some twenty institutions of higher learning in ten countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe. Every time he goes to the United States, he is asked –just because he is black– how black people are treated in contemporary Cuba.

Cuban ostrich
“They are interested in the racial issue in Cuba. Since any black person from Cuba who appears before the public in the United States, no matter what the subject, will be asked about racial discrimination in Cuba, they should study the issue in depth. Because ours is one of the countries that has worked the hardest for equality and opportunity for all, we must not remain silent on the subject. We face a complex problem that has to do with how Cubans have been treated historically and in contemporary times. It influences the context of relations between Cuba and the United States and the island’s political alliances and it is related to our capacity to learn from errors committed in connection with other issues.”

As a black person, do you run the risk of becoming obsessed with such research?

“I waited 15 years before getting my feet wet,” he said, “preferring to let the matter mature inside me. Picking topics for research is one thing and starting work on them is another. I began work on it in 1986. I found that the literature had several flaws. There was a social reality that was not being addressed.

“I was 16 years old in 1959, black and poor. I had suffered discrimination but could not write from the position of the sufferer, whose focus is never objective. It would also have been hypocritical. Because of the social and political organizations I belonged to, my academic and professional resume, my frequent appearances in the media, it could be said that I was one of those blacks who made the best use of the rights that the Revolution guaranteed to all Cubans.

“Resisting subjectivity is one of my goals when I sit down to write, but I am not obsessed with the issue. I have a scientific approach to the subject, although emotion cannot be absent either. So, I try for a balance between the two poles with the understanding that the problem is a burden for my country and that, as a revolutionary intellectual, I have the duty and the right to add my grain of sand to its study, understanding and resolution. In historical analysis, we have to be honest and avoid behaving like the ostrich that hides its head while leaving its vulnerable parts exposed.

Target shooting
He was a student assistant in the School of Economics at the University of Havana, where he received his degree in 1969, then worked there as a professor and at various times directed the School of Political Sciences and the School of Humanities, both at the University of Havana. He said that the most recent chapter in the investigation of the subject was opened by Fidel in March 1959, but that after 1962, there was a long period of silence that, fortunately, has now ended.

“Yes, the racial problem has been a complicated one throughout our history. It was always a source of contention. Since the late nineteenth century, the US and Spanish colonial justification was that the blacks who fought for the independence of the country were eager to establish a republic in the Haitian style and criticized the authority of Maceo and other black leaders. One hundred years later, the racial problem did not appear in the Moncada Program though it was a concern for the July 26 Movement and would be included in its plans to establish civil liberties and political democracy. It is no accident that at the end of March 1959, Fidel Castro began to raise the issue in several of his speeches.”

Alma Mater looked at the March 22, 1959 speech. The Comandante called for a campaign to end the inferior treatment of blacks in Cuba. “There has been in our country,” said Fidel, “the shameful practice of excluding blacks from work…. There are two types of racial discrimination: one in cultural or recreational centers, and the other in the workplace …. if the first one defines the possibilities of access to certain circles, the other – a thousand times more cruel – limits access to the places where one can earn a living… and so we commit the crime of denying to the poorest sector, more than to any other, the possibility of working .… There must be a ban and a public commendation against those … who have so few scruples as to discriminate against some Cubans …because of lighter or darker skin…. Let us end racial discrimination …, and work for an end to that odious and repugnant system….” [1]

Set afloat
“However,” continued Esteban, “in 1959, the conflict between Cuba and the United States began to intensify. In January 1961, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba; in April, came the mercenary attack at the Bay of Pigs; imperialism continued to support counterrevolutionary bands. So once again, there was an environment unfavorable for the study of the problem. The specter of racial difference, seen as a source of social division or an element of divisions within the revolutionary forces, things that the enemy could take advantage of, spread throughout the period. In 1962, on the threshold of the October Crisis, after sectarianism had been denounced, after the Second Declaration of Havana and the exclusion of Cuba from the OAS and after the US presidential order establishing the total blockade of commerce between the two countries, the issue ‘flew’ from the public arena and became taboo. When anyone talked about it, it had to do with an earlier time. The silence lasted until the late 1980s and early 1990s. The crisis that hit us from outside and provoked an internal crisis extended into all areas and set the issue afloat. Despite the great social and human achievements of the Revolution, the issue had not been definitively resolved.”

By what signs did it become more or less clear, at the height of the special period, that the issue needed resolution?

“There were obstacles to employment opportunities –a painful form of discrimination– which, as Fidel said, limits the possibility that a person can make a living, as well as limiting access to higher education and important roles in certain areas. There is another fact: 85% of Cubans living abroad are white. Blacks and mestizos make up only 15% of the total and they emigrated late, almost without any support in the receiving countries, which was usually the United States. Consequently, they are least able to help their relatives in Cuba. Those in Cuba who receive remittances are essentially white. Among them are intellectuals and people who traditionally had purchasing power.”

Lack of conscience
Esteban wrote several works on the subject and a masterful book, Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba, [2] presented at the 17th International Book Fair in Cuba, 2008. Its premises were set out in Cuba: some challenges of color, which received third prize from the jury in the third edition of the International Essay Competition Countercurrent Thinking, which met in Havana in 2006. In its decision, the jury said the essay offered a critical view of a current issue in our America –the racial and cultural question– and addressed the complex process of lifting the burdens of racism in a revolutionary country.

Summing it up, Esteban said, “The essay argues that the race problem is perhaps the most complex, ‘unknown’ and the most difficult one in our social reality. No other problem causes more anxiety, concern and distrust. It is easy to find people who do not want to hear anything about it, and if they do hear of it, they decline to comment. Are they unaware that this issue is linked to others such as the economy, equity, human rights, inequality, social justice, marginalization and religious discrimination?

“The potential outcomes from this problem will depend on who manipulates it and for what purpose. On the negative side, as we have seen, is its potential to create social division; on its positive side, it is linked to the pursuit of social and cultural integration and the struggle for national unity.

“But returning to the matter of ignorance, I mean ignorance in a dual sense: it is true that many people know little about the issue, but there are also many with a weak conscience who coldly prefer to remain ignorant.”

Felicitations from the cradle?
In our efforts to understand the origins of this problem, might we forget that the burden of discrimination still exists in Cuba?

“We might forget that there are some who wish to practice racism. We might even avoid the question of whether Cuban culture is capable of reproducing segregationist attitudes per se.

“All we need to do is review our history again. Whites, blacks and mestizos start from the same place. The colonizer with white credentials – and that does not mean they were white-- arrived as such, while the blacks were brought as slaves and the mestizos arose out of the mixture. The labels were passed down from one generation to another.

“When it comes to wealth in Cuba, statistics from the bourgeois republic show that blacks and mestizos had little of it, but after 1959, the fact that the starting places continued to reflect traces of colonialism and neocolonialism shows that five centuries of racism cannot be erased in five decades.

“We talk about the innate prejudicial character of our culture. The Hispanic element has played a dominant role ever since the discovery. The Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz concluded that class, race and culture were all part of the sixteenth-century invasion. Do we understand that?

“Perhaps it is not very difficult today for many Cubans to admit that they are macho, but it is rare to find anyone who admits to being racist. Asked if they are racist, people take offense. Nevertheless, racial discrimination is also a remnant of that birth and development.”

I hate you my love
It is paradoxical, said Alma Mater, that despite the discriminatory context of the hegemonic spirit, from the first color scheme off contrasting black and white tones and the later coding system based on the differences, in the end, it all would be cooked up into a "Cuban stew."

“The levels of race mixture in the Caribbean and Cuba,” Esteban said, “are greater in the English-speaking, French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Caribbean. There, the processes of social mixing were based on the physical distance between the white masters and the black slaves. Today, all Cubans sing and dance the same. We are not really a Catholic people nor are we seriously religious but we are syncretic believers combining Christian beliefs with African religious elements without ceasing to be one people. We have no ethnicities or minorities; we are a multicolor people. I remember the photographic exposition of the faces of thousands of Cuban artists, athletes and women that a French photographer presented in the late 1990s in Havana. [3] In them, you can appreciate that we have a spectrum of tones and gradations of black and white, a catalogue of the shapes of lips, mouths, noses, hair etc.

“As for Fernando Ortiz’s ‘Cuban stew,’ watch out, the stew is still not boiling and we must continue stirring it and making sure that the cooks do not lower the heat. Some people are not interested in being part of the broth where more ingredients are cooked than we could have imagined.”

Only by exception
Fidel publicly addressed the subject of race again on February 7, 2003. The leader of the Revolution said that, despite the rights and guarantees achieved for all citizens, “the same success in the fight to eradicate differences in the social and economic status of black people had not been achieved.” [4] The comandante took up the subject again on December 5, 2004 in the Conference Center at the close of the Eighth Congress of the UJC. Alma Mater checked the text:

“I spoke the words in this paragraph,” said the then Cuban president, “without hesitation at the close of the International Pedagogy Congress in 2003 .... It was something that I carried inside that I wanted to express, the sad legacy of slavery, a society of classes, capitalism and imperialism. There never was real equality of opportunity anywhere. The possibility of studying, of getting ahead and obtaining a university degree was always the exclusive preserve of the sectors that had more knowledge and economic resources. The poor who escaped this fate were the exception. "[5]

“It took 44 years, from March 1959 to February 2003," said Esteban Morales. ”Fidel again encouraged us to continue our study, proclaiming that the progress achieved through socialism had created the foundation, but what was missing was the leap forward. He was right to say that, thanks to the Battle of Ideas, the lives of children, adolescents, the young and today’s Cuban families are no longer what they were in the late 1990s. Racism in Cuba is not institutional. The government, the Party, the institutions are not racist. Never before did blacks and mestizos have a government that would defend their interests, but discriminatory burdens remain within the individual conscience, in the attitudes of groups and specific individuals. From this dichotomy comes the force that tries to suppress the subject and which, through that conflict, contributes to a resurgence of segregationist ideologies, and raises the danger that racism could be reconstructed in the social conscience of the nation.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Address given by Comandante Fidel Castro Ruz, prime minister of the Revolutionary Government, in the Presidential Palace, March 22, 1959. His speeches and interviews on this and other topics of the moment are collected in the two volumes of thematic selections of his thoughts. See Fidel Castro, El pensamiento de. Selección Temática, vols. I and II, Editora Política, Havana, 1983.
[2] Esteban Morales Domínguez, Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba. Fundación Fernando Ortiz, collection La Fuente Viva, vol. 29, Havana, 2007.
[3] Photographic exposition, Mil artistas cubanos, Mil deportistas cubanos, y Mil mujeres cubanas, by Pierre Maraval in 1996, 1997 and 1998, in Pabellón Cuba, ExpoCuba and the Habana Libre Hotel, respectively.
[4] Fidel Castro Ruz, Seguiremos creando y luchando. VIII UJC Congress. Closing address delivered by the Commander-in-Chief. Office of Publication, Council of State. Havana, 2004, p. 18.
[5] Ibid.

 


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