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“There is a lot of work to be done”: Cuban activist Norberto Mesa Carbonell Speaks on Racism and the Revolution

October 03, 2015

Interviewed by Luisa Steur, University of Copenhagen

From its start in 1959, the Cuban revolution has been dedicated to racial equality. In a country where slavery was abolished only as recently as 1886, the revolution had a tremendous impact – for many, it was the first time they got access to land and education (see Espina Prieto and Rodriguez Ruiz 2010). Partly as a consequence of universal egalitarian policies, these achievements were also due to the revolutionary government’s explicit commitment to eliminating racial discrimination. Even critical scholars like the political scientist Mark Sawyer (2006) argue that, though it so far has fallen short of becoming a racial democracy, Cuba has done more than any other society to eradicate racial inequality.

Yet, from the early 1990s onwards, the start of Cuba’s “Special Period”, the resources to promote the necessary further racial equality - or even to maintain existing levels of social welfare - were severely limited. The gradual market-oriented reforms necessary to deal with the economic depression, moreover, came at the price of rising inequalities. The evidence indicates that these changes have not been color-blind: racial inequality and racially defined tensions have increased substantially (de la Fuente 2001: 318).

To counter this trend, several black artists and public intellectuals have started coming together, forming a vibrant anti-racist activist scene, partly accommodated by the government-sponsored “Regional Afro-descendant Articulation of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuban Chapter” (abbreviated in Spanish to ARAAC).

It is at one of the public lectures on black history in the Jose Marti national library organized by an ARAAC member, that I first meet Norberto Mesa Carbonell, a black man in his sixties, leaning forward on his chair, a distinctly non-intellectualist cap over eyes brimming with political passion, ready to cut the occasional euphemism or round-about formulation regarding race back to straight-forward language. The following are excerpts from the long interviews I had with him at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015 :

Norberto, can you tell us a bit about yourself? And why is it that unlike many of your black activist friends you do not formally affiliate yourself with ARAAC, but you also refrain from joining dissident groups?

Politically I am complicated. That’s to say, one of the first great campaigns of the revolution was the Cuban Literacy Campaign (1961) and I had only barely turned ten years old when I joined to teach others to read and write! Then, in 1963, I was only just 13, when the greatest natural disaster to hit Cuba, hurricane Flora, swept over the island and I was with a brigade picking coffee in Oriente, very near from where Flora entered Cuba. Then when I wasn’t even 16 yet, in May of 1966, there was a big military mobilization – “the Americans are coming”, all that, and we were there, behind the canons, waiting for the American boats! That is to say, I’ve been brought up with the practice of the revolution. And on the other hand, I read a lot. I was invited to take part in the Festival de la Juventud here in Cuba in 1978, I was a leader of my worker’s base group, the organizer of a party cell. So you need to realize that for several years I have been a Communist party member. The revolution has meant a lot in my life.

But something happened in 1980 that made me leave the party. This was the time of the “Mariel boatlift” and it was many poor people, many blacks, who were leaving Cuba, for economic reasons, because of poverty. But we were supposed to treat them as traitors, to go to the docks to throw eggs at them as they left, to call them “scoria” (scum). And I found myself having to participate in a meeting where a young comrade was being criticized because he had refused to participate in that behavior. They even expelled him from the organization! And leaving that meeting I was thinking to myself, if my brother would leave on a boat, and people would want to treat him like that, as scum, they’d have to fight with me first. And so, because I was in the party by my own will, I decided to send in a letter requesting my deactivation. Imagine the commotion! But I had to - it was a question of conscience. But look, I am not of the counter-revolutionary, political dissident type who negates everything the revolution has done for this country. It’s achieved many positive things, including for blacks. That’s why I continue appealing to the institutions, sending them letters – unlike the political dissidents, I still think positively about those institutions. And I’ve stayed a revolutionary according to Fidel’s definition. Back in the day, all of us, the grand majority of the poor people, were revolutionaries, my mother in front, a real candela (passionate) Revolutionary militant! It’s what I tell those who spread this talk of blacks being counter-revolutionaries – it’s not true, I think still the majority of blacks are with the Revolution. Logically, after all the revolution brought to black people. But hey, that’s not to say we should be “grateful” forever, not demand further changes.

So look, then the 1990s came, the growing inequalities, racial inequalities – it was visible on the streets! And as I started becoming more concerned by this, I came together with others and in 1998 we publicly announced the creation of the Cofradía de la Negritud with the aim of fighting racism and racial discrimination in our country. We tried to get our organization registered but we never succeeded because the authorities always insisted that we change the formulation of our aims to pretend that racism is no longer a problem in Cuba today. We always refused, obviously. They don’t really object to our aims but they are nervous about Cuba’s reputation if we formally admit racism is a serious problem here – for all over Africa, Cuba, for its role in the anti-apartheid struggle, is known as the champion of the fight against racism. And Cuba has always been the most ardent critic of racism in the US – Fidel Castro even met up with Malcolm X at the time! So how can they acknowledge that racism is still alive and well here in Cuba itself?

What is threatening about the Cofradía is that we cannot be labeled political dissident like some of the other groups. We work within the same socialist discourse, even though we’re critical of the government: we don't want a Socialism with racial discrimination! And we work within Cuba, we follow the ideals of José Martí and Antonio Maceo (heroes of Cuban independence), we have both party members and dissidence members that participate in our meetings. That’s why we’re considered a problematic group.

The reason I don’t join ARAAC is because with ARAAC, the debate about racial discrimination remains under the Ministry of Culture and that is a limitation: racism is not only a problem of culture. What this struggle needs is the Communist Party to assume the lead on it, for the party to come out explicitly and say “we need to confront the problem of racism in Cuba again seriously”. Because so long as the party doesn’t take the lead and explicitly acknowledges the problem exists, all the other institutions will be hesitant. That’s how it is in Cuba. I really hope the problem will be discussed formally in the next Communist Party congress, on April 2016.

What are the major problems related to racism in Cuba, especially today? And have you experienced any of them yourself?

We have a lot of historical problems here. In fact, there’s a real crisis of black identity in Cuba because the organizations of black people have so often been repressed, accused of being “racist”. So blacks have had very little chance to form a proud identity. You can see it in this idea of adelantar (moving forward). What does it mean here for a black to “move forward”? It means marrying a white person, getting rid of his blackness! This whitening ideal that has been there since the founding of this nation – if it continues there will hardly be any black children born in Cuba anymore in fifty years! And look, this really limits the extent to which people can identify with their racial condition. And that is very much a problem today also. It makes it difficult for us to confront the most serious racial problems today, which are about blacks being excluded and pushed out of the more well-earning positions in the Cuban economy. It’s a huge problem in the tourism sector and I have some first-hand experience.

For years I’ve worked at the Marina Hemingway. I started there when in 1997 it happened that a leader of the party in my village got demoted for something or other to working as the boss of the shops there. So I though: why not I ask him whether there’s a job for me – after all, we’re from the same village, we worked together earlier. And by then I had my years of experience, trained at the reception of international hotels. Plus I speak English. So he said, “Norberto, fine, I’m going to help you with that, of course, we’ll arrange something. But listen, that what you’re saying about working at the reception or in the shops? Not that, not here in the Marina Hemingway. I’ll have to put you to work in the storehouse because here in the Marina Hemingway, blacks don’t work in contact with the public.” And that was said by someone who used to be a leader of the party in my village! Anyway, I didn’t want to pick a fight at that point and I said, “Ah, yes, the storehouse, why not...”.

After a while, however, I heard that they were looking for porters and I managed to secure a position. There were five of us then – two who had been there for long, had some higher-up backing and felt secure of their job so they didn’t bother to train themselves further. While me and the two others, all of us black, actually put ourselves to studying English. But then who were the first to be sent for re-training when the hotel entered a period where it didn’t need so many porters? Of course, us three blacks, who actually spoke English! I was sent to be trained as a security guard – and I remember entering the place we were sent to, you should have seen it: there’s so few blacks in the tourism sector, but there, where they send the excess staff for retraining, it was at least sixty percent black!

But things got worse: a restructuring was to take place and though I was only in retraining, they laid me off, totally illegally. I complained to the union but weeks passed and nothing happened. But I didn’t want to leave it at that, I was fed up. I decided to file a complaint on the basis of the violation of the right to equality, established in the Penal Code article 295. Nobody had any idea where I should file it so it was a long road - I went to a lawyer bureau first, from there I was sent to the Prosecutors Office of the municipality of Playa, who eventually again sent me on to the Police Station. So I remember arriving there at the local police, telling the official I was directed to that I wanted to make an accusation regarding the violation of the right to equality. She looked at me with total incomprehension: “violation of the right to equality??”. “Yes compañera, I want to accuse the manager of my workplace of racial discrimination!”. “No, but that…”, she was dumbstruck, told me to wait right there because she was going to talk to the head of the unit. And indeed, he took my complaint – and soon after I was called to give further details and they started an investigation! And then the news reached me through my former colleagues that the hotel was in a mess, all were full of commotion: the police investigator had come and been asking around and the manager of the hotel had been transferred to another hotel. But eventually I was called to the tax department to receive a letter stating that the investigation had shown that what I had complained about did not constitute a criminal offense and that no appeal was possible. And that’s where it died, the first case of an accusation of racial discrimination in that municipality, probably in all of Havana.

Then the employment office sent me to Cubatur at some point because they were looking to hire more tourist guides. I went running -- with my hotel experience and my English I was entirely qualified for the job! But when I reached, I was told the manager was not in, told to come back tomorrow. That’s how it went another day until the third day, I was sitting waiting for the manager to come in when two young white men came in, talking to each other about the job I had also been waiting for. And to my surprise, suddenly the manager appeared to be in! And when I wanted to join the two boys inside I was told that their places had already been secured earlier and there were no more places left. The woman working at the employment office, where I came to report there were no more places left was amazed: “how can that be, they told me just now there were many places…”. I gave her a copy of “Raza” (the 2008 documentary by Eric Corvalán on racism in Cuba) and told her to watch it to understand what was going on – she was a black woman herself. She avoided the issue ever since with me.

Look, these problems exist with all the better jobs in the Cuban economy. Most of my life I’ve actually worked as a geneticist for one of Cuba’s vanguard dairy enterprises, raising Holstein cows. I lived in Ethiopia for two years in that work too. At one point I was director of the genetics department. Earlier when I visited high-ranking meetings and noticed almost all other attendants were white, I didn’t think much of it. But nowadays I have started paying more attention. It’s because I’ve seen too many times that blacks, well-qualified for their job, got replaced by whites. This was what happened in the last job I held, at Labiofam S.A. ,Cuba’s prestigious bio-pharmaceutical enterprise: they were trying to get rid of all the black professionals in the export department where I worked – and of me all the more because of my activism. Many of my black colleagues left because of the harassment. One of them had twenty years of experience, he was terrific at his job – when they got rid of him, he soon enough found a job for a South African company earning more than three thousand dollars a month! Imagine. In the end even I choose to take early retirement because it started to become unbearable. They got rid of all the blacks in that department – but do they really think the African trade partners won’t notice this?

Last year our organization wrote an open letter to the CTC (the Worker’s Central of Cuba), asking them to come out to denounce this racism going on in the labor market but did they do something? Nothing. Here we have women talking about the double burden of discrimination they face, as women and as blacks, but those talks stay at the level of the base – when they visit CTC meetings, go to the intermediate level, they keep quiet – because the party doesn’t talk about it.

That’s why we need the party to assume the fact that the problem exists. As long as that doesn’t happen, no other civil society organization will talk about it - apart from the UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) - the intellectuals - they will talk about racism. But in the past tense, as if there’s no new forms of racism existing today! Ah well, “building a prosperous and sustainable socialism” is the order of the day now. “Prosperous and sustainable”, great – and what about racism?! All these new economic reforms, attracting foreign investment, increasing cuenta-propismo (small entrepreneurship) – all this is bound to worsen racial inequality in this country. The owner of a private restaurant, he’s bound not to hire black employees! The racial inequalities are getting more and more pronounced. And it will get worse now with what Obama announced – up to now, the limit to send to Cuba was 400 dollars per trimester. And it’s mostly whites who are sending and receiving the money of course and look what they’ve already been able to do in terms of opening restaurants, buying taxis, setting up tourist homes. Now they’re allowed to send 2000, imagine! And blacks? If they weren’t even getting 400 to begin with, they certainly won’t be getting 2000! The inequalities will grow more and more. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Does the economic problem of racism in Cuba mostly concern the more skilled, more educated black workers, the professionals?

No, certainly not. The main problem of racism in Cuba is poverty. It’s according to that criterion – the existence or not of poverty - that we should decide to what extent the revolution is making progress in eradicating racism. And when you talk of highly educated blacks, then you should note also that today the conditions under which blacks can become highly educated have changed a lot. Today many black youngsters cannot go to university, cannot become professionals like a previous generation could. Instead of studying to become doctors, they need to do all kinds of uneducated small jobs simply to allow the family to stay afloat in the short-term. Fidel Castro had initiated this loan scheme for youth to be able to study at the university but now they claim there’s no money for this anymore and they abolished the whole thing, disregarding the fact that many of those who received that money didn’t need it but for some it was simply essential to be able to study at all. Now how is it possible that we bring almost a thousand Pakistani youngsters here to study to become doctors, paying their education worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we can’t provide the five thousand Cuban youngsters who are poor the money to be able to study? This revolution was supposed to be “by the humble, for the humble” – and now only those families with money can let their children study?! This is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by people.

The housing problem is also very serious here in Havana, every other day there’s a building collapsing - and it’s usually blacks living in that type of building. All these people packed into warehouses as shelter for years on end – while up there in front of Soboney neighborhood they’re building houses with an individual garage each, can you imagine! And conditions are even worse in the so-called “marginal neighborhoods” [slums], where a very high percentage of those living there are black. And they claim blacks only constitute ten percent of the Cuban population – then there is a problem with our “social justice”! So: there’s a lot of work to be done. For example, we tried to take up the case of one of these large buildings on the verge of collapse: we wrote letters to the authorities, pushed for official meetings to address the issue, all to no avail, nothing happened. So then we said, ok, we’ll go there to document the issue, make it public – we went there with representatives of our organization and we had agreed to meet up with one of the owners of the building, a black woman called Angela. But when we arrived there, suddenly there was a group of nicely-dressed people – also black by the way, they make sure to choose blacks for that! – claiming that they were the owners of the building and “who had ever heard of Angela and everything is fine here and why don’t we just run off before they call the police?” Of course later we learned that Angela was inside the building at the time, having gotten afraid to speak up, and we found out those people confronting us didn’t live there at all, had nothing to do with the building, they had just been put there to chase us away – we knew it already because people from that building, they don’t have fine clothes like that, they are poor people. But you see, that’s why it’s so difficult to make progress here. Till this day I remain convinced Fidel Castro is a genuine fighter against racism. But the petty politics that has come in between, it’s making the fight almost impossible! Actually sometimes it depresses me: if even a political genius like Fidel Castro couldn’t solve the racial problem under the conditions that existed earlier, how will it ever be solved now?

These days I am pushing a small plan I have. You know that here in Cuba there’s thousands of acres of land full of weeds, because people don’t want to work on the land anymore. And there’s all these people who migrated to the cities but cannot find a proper place to live. My suggestion is to find black families who want to move to the countryside and set up an agricultural community. Of course they need to receive a lot of support, inputs, a tractor – at this juncture, why not ask to some NGO to support this financially, do something concrete for Cuba? And of course the Cuban state has to grant them ownership of the land. These days land is anyway being sold all over the place, so why not? And there’s something more: here in Cuba in the nineteenth century, a part of the farms actually belonged to the free blacks, particularly in el Oriente. But what happened is that when the invasion of the west by the new Liberation Army happened many of the mambises who joined it, many of them were these free blacks, who left their farms and to join in the march from the East to Pinar del Río [for historical details see Ada Ferrer 1999: 143]. But on their return they discovered that American companies had bought up all those lands! Because their title deeds weren’t registered properly, American companies could buy up everything. And what happened to those blacks? They were ready to protest of course. You know, the 1912 revolt in the Eastern province, led by the Partido Independiente de Color? Many of those who were part of the revolt had nothing to do with the party, rather it was this kind of peasants who had lost their land, who joined to try and reclaim their land. And in the ensuing repression, so many of them were killed. So this program, it is also a question of historical justice – that this government would give land to these people would be a great gesture. It should be for who wants - a program of historical justice for black families but if some whites want to join, why not! But for blacks, this is one of the few ways in which they will be able to improve their economic conditions – they don’t own restaurants, rooms for rent and taxis and all that to build a better life.

How do you yourself get by these days, how do you find the resources to organize the activities of the Cofradía?

Now I live on a pension paid in pesos, a few dollars, and surely it’s not easy. So I need to work at night as a guard for some rich guy up in my neighborhood, for 30 dollars a month. I don’t need much for myself but it’s difficult to organize with that little money – people travelling from far expect at least a “merienda”, something to eat, when you organize an event, they don’t like going hungry, and sometimes we need to postpone meetings simply because we don’t have the means and everyone is too busy “luchando” [making ends meet]. But at least people know we are doing it out of sincerity, not because of some ulterior interests. And we will continue, that’s for sure. For I cannot think of my grandchildren facing the same problems that I faced or worse, falling back to where we were before the revolution.

Espina Prieto, Rodrigo and Rablo Roqdriguez Ruiz. 2010. Race and inequality in Cuba today. Socialism and Democracy 24 (1):161-177.
De la Fuente, Alejandro. 2001. A nation for all: Race, inequality and politics in twentieth-century Cuba. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press.
Ferrer, Ada. 1999. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press.
Sawyer, Mark. 2006. Racial politics in post-revolutionary Cuba. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Luisa Steur <luisasteur@yahoo.co.uk>
Norberto Mesa Carbonell <nmesacarbonell@gmail.com>
for Global Express, October 3, 2015

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