Market-style reforms widen racial divide in Cuba
Tue Sep 2, 2014 5:00am EDT
(Reuters) – Cuba’s experiment with free-market reforms has
unintentionally widened the communist-led island’s racial divide and
allowed white Cubans to regain some of the economic advantages built up
Under President Raul Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel Castro
in 2008, Cuba has expanded its non-state workforce, loosened travel
restrictions and promoted private cooperatives and small businesses.
As the communist government relinquishes its once near-total control of
the economy, inequality has widened, undoing some of the progress seen
since the 1959 revolution.
Much of the funding for new businesses such as restaurants,
transportation services and bed-and-breakfast inns – targeted at
tourists, diplomats and dollar-earners – comes from family members who
emigrated to the United States over the last 50 years, especially Miami.
They sent almost $3 billion to relatives back in Cuba last year and, as
they are mainly white, their investments put black and mixed-race Cubans
at a disadvantage as they try to set up their own businesses.
Walter Echevarria, a 60-year-old black man, co-owns a humble cafeteria
run out of a ground-floor Havana apartment belonging to one of his partners.
There is no seating, and the clients are mostly state workers who order
pork sandwiches and juice or a coffee for about 15 Cuban pesos, or
“It’s usually the whites who have family abroad and send them money, and
they can set up bigger businesses,” Echevarria said while customers
lined up at the take-out window during the busy lunch hour.
With the additional economic freedom under Raul Castro’s reforms, there
is also greater discrimination.
Armed with a substantial resume, Miguel Azcuy quit his job at a
state-owned restaurant to go job-hunting in Cuba’s incipient private
labor market two years ago, hoping to wait tables in the fast-growing
The job offers never came. Azcuy, 39, had a degree from gastronomy
school and 15 years of experience in state-owned restaurants.
He’s also black, and says his race closed opportunities that would be
available to white Cubans. Researchers and analysts also say the
market-oriented economic reforms under way have put poorer Afro-Cubans
at a disadvantage
“I felt like the owners of many of these places looked at me with
disdain,” said Azcuy, who has since managed to open a small cafeteria
selling coffee and juice from his home near a major hospital in Havana.
“They didn’t trust me. They didn’t give me a chance. They probably
figured that sooner or later the blacks will let you down. Here people
say they are not racist but at the moment of truth their prejudices come
Anecdotally, the divisions appear obvious in a society descended from
Spanish colonists and African slaves.
Tato Quiñones, a researcher who heads a private group called Brotherhood
of Blackness, says it is enough to observe the small number of
Afro-Cubans who have relatively lucrative sources of income such as
owning restaurants, driving taxis, or renting out rooms in their homes.
Shortly after Raul Castro took over as president in 2008, he allowed
Cubans to visit resort hotels, previously reserved only for foreigners.
Today, in the exclusive beach resort of Varadero, the Cuban clientele is
almost all white.
Black construction workers largely built the hotels but client-facing
staff are mostly white.
MONEY FROM MIAMI
When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, it was mostly the privileged
white elite that fled the country for Miami, not the largely black
workforce of laborers, sugar cane cutters and domestic help.
Following changes in U.S. laws in 2009 and 2011, Cuban-Americans can now
more easily travel to Cuba and send unlimited remittances to their families.
A study by the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group found Cuban-Americans
sent a record $2.77 billion in remittances to Cuba in 2013. Of that
total, 82 percent passed through white hands. Twelve percent was sent to
mixed-race relatives, and 5.8 percent went to blacks.
By contrast, Cuba’s 2012 census showed that 64.1 percent of Cuba’s 11
million people are considered white, 9.3 percent black, and 26.6 percent
of mixed race.
Besides financing the fledgling private sector, remittances contribute
to a more general inequality in Cuba. The relatives of exiles and
doctors who work overseas or commercially successful artists line up at
hard-currency stores to buy luxury goods while most Cubans scrape by on
$20-a-month government jobs.
Before Castro’s revolution, education was largely off limits to blacks
and mestizos and they were shut out of universities and jobs that
involved interacting with customers. Whites had their own social clubs,
beaches and private parties.
As soon as he assumed power, Castro eliminated segregation and attempted
to abolish inequality by giving all Cubans access to free education and
health care. The government hails those as among the revolution’s
Today Cuba is largely a mixed-race society, though one in which lighter
skinned Cubans still enjoy advantages in all but sports and entertainment.
Many Cubans are of ambiguous racial heritage, and a panoply of names
exist to people of various hues. The terms are more descriptive and not
Some Afro-Cubans say they have not experienced racism under the
revolution, advancing in education and careers without impediment.
Echevarria, the sandwich shop co-owner, said he was content with his
humble business and not too bothered by inequality. “Racism exists. Not
like before, but it exists.”
But other black and mixed-race Cubans say they feel racism, and experts
say whites still have better access to good jobs and higher education.
Those disadvantages grow more acute with major economic changes, such as
when the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a deep recession in the
1990s and now as market forces have a bigger role.
“That’s what has dragged our people back and is being aggravated today,”
In 2011, the ruling Communist Party sent a message on racial equality by
raising the number of blacks or mixed-race Cubans on its 115-member
Central Committee to 36, almost in line with the census data.
And the official Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) is working
on proposals to counteract inequality, both in media representation and
in society, such as harassment by police, a common complaint.
But Cuba does not publish demographic data such as income or crime by
race and experts say it makes it very difficult to design economic,
social and cultural policies to boost equality.
“In Cuba the statistics are color blind,” said Jesus Guanche, a frequent
writer on matters of race. “If you want to enact measures to help
disadvantaged people, you have to identify them.”
(Editing by Kieran Murray)
Source: Market-style reforms widen racial divide in Cuba | Reuters –