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Black Cubans Call for Change

Visitor hears of shortages, travel restrictions - and distrust of the US government

By Vincent JamesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1992



HAVANA

`I'M a fan of New York blacks," Jose Luis, a 23-year-old black Cuban, says to his United States visitor. He was dressed in a fashion popular with some blacks in the United States: oversized pants, a colorful shirt with a leather vest, and well-polished leather shoes.

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"Is M. C. Hammer the most popular rapper in America?" he asked. He listened intently as his visitor tried to explain how rap music popular among some black Americans differed from that popular with some whites. Mr. Luis and his friends are known as "rapperos," a Cuban slang term for fans of US rap music.

"We don't have many lyrics yet; we just try and imitate what we can hear on the radio," he says. When the weather is favorable, young Cubans can tune in Miami radio stations for the latest in US music. He and his friends frequently break into impressive raps of their own, using their mouths and hands to generate beats and sounds. Desire for foreign music

Dozens of young black fans of reggae - pop music of Jamaican origin - can also be seen cruising the streets of Havana and other Cuban cities. With dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-shirts, they gather on street corners blaring the latest in reggae music from apartment windows.

An increase in foreign tourism in Cuba has created an insatiable appetite among young black and white Cubans for foreign music, clothes, and culture. "It's not right that we cannot go to other countries," Miguel, a young black reggae fan, complained.

"Look at how the people suffer here," another black reggae fan said in disgust, referring to growing shortages of food and consumer goods in Cuba. Despite feeling they have benefited greatly from Cuban President Fidel Castro's 33-year-old socialist revolution, Cuban blacks of all ages are calling for change.

"We have seen what works and what does not work in socialism," one black professor said. "The loss of Soviet aid has shown us the limits of our system." He cited the growing tension in Cuba and warned that, "change must come soon." Stories of segregation

Black Cubans combined their strong calls for change with suspicion of the US and of the Cuban exile community in Miami. Many tended to identify Miami Cubans with racist upper-class Cubans they said had kept blacks mired in poverty before Castro's 1959 revolution. Blacks make up roughly 11 percent of Cuba's population.

Older blacks told vivid stories of segregation in Cuba before the revolution. Blacks were barred from certain stores, restaurants, and neighborhoods in Cuba. "Blacks were considered an inferior race. Some houses in Havana had signs on them that said `No dogs, no blacks,' " one black doctor explained.

Blacks made a point of saying that not all Cuban exiles in Miami were racist. "I think many of them will be shocked by the advances we have made," one black worker said. Anyone who tries to take away the gains blacks have made will face fierce resistance, according to many blacks. "We are too educated and politically aware to let go of what we have gained," one black doctor said. "We are not going back."

Blacks also expressed a mistrust of the US government and US President Bush. Several blacks said they had no interest in fleeing to the US, as thousands of Cubans have in recent years, because of the racism they felt they would suffer there.

Several blacks said they wanted a mixed economic system in post-Castro Cuba, modeled after the Scandinavian countries. "We don't want American-style capitalism here," one black merchant said. "We don't want to give up the excellent systems of education and health care we have here." LA riots cause alarm

Black Cubans watched with horror as the government played images of the Los Angeles riots over and over again on Cuban television. Headlines in the Cuban Communist Party's official newspaper, Granma, blared "Violence and racism on the loose in Los Angeles."

Many could not believe that more than 50 people had died, insisting that the Cuban government had exaggerated the figures. "We need to have solidarity with the blacks in the US," one black student said.

"How are so many of them kept politically ignorant, and kept from gaining political power?" he asked.

In Cuba, race is viewed in very different terms than it is in the US. Roughly 51 percent of Cubans are mulatto, allowing most Cubans to say they have some black or white blood in them.

"There is really no such thing as a `black' or a `white' Cuban," one Cuban professor said. Even referring to "black Cubans" as a group is considered racist by many. So at first those interviewed identified themselves as "Cubans" and not as "blacks," but as the talk continued they began to refer to themselves as a racial group.

Blacks appeared to be both proud of, and at ease with, their role in Cuban society. Both white and black Cubans referred to Cuban culture as "Afro-Caribbean" and praised the large role African culture has played in creating Cuban culture.

While race relations in Cuba appear to be better than in the US, racism still exists in Cuba. "It's very subtle now," one white Cuban writer said. "People will say, `I'm not racist,' `I'm not racist,' but when their son or daughter comes home with a black boyfriend or girlfriend, they are furious and refuse to accept it," he said.

Nearly all black Cubans agreed, saying that racism still lingered in Cuban society. They specifically complained of the lack of black representation in the Cuban Communist Party. "There is only one member of the [party's top leadership] who is black," one black student complained.

Nearly every conversation with Cuban blacks returned to the event that clearly disturbed them the most, the Los Angeles riots. "How can such a rich and powerful nation allow this to happen?" one bewildered black student asked. "How?"