Cuba's Race Relations Seldom Discussed

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President Barack Obama yesterday decided to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba, and the ability of Americans to send money to family members on the island. The decision has met with widely divergent reactions. But largely unmentioned is the sometime complex racial dynamic between Cuban exiles, who are predominately white, and Cubans who remain on the island, 30 to 60 percent of which are of African decent.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a new study says more whites are going to jail for drug crimes and fewer blacks. We'll talk about what that might mean in just a moment. But first, does a new day for America's Cuba policy mean a new challenge for race relations on the island? When President Barack Obama announced he is abandoning long time restrictions on contact between Cuban-Americans and their families back on the island, many Cuban-Americans celebrated the opportunity to visit their families in Cuba more often and to send money home. Others, of course, say the challenges only prop up the dictatorial government.

But largely unmentioned in all this is the racial dynamic in play among Cuban exiles and Cubans who remain in Cuba. An overwhelming majority of Cubans living abroad are white, while sources say the island population is anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of African decent. Joining us now to talk more about this is Mark Sawyer. He is the director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. He also specializes in studying race relations in Cuba. Also with us is Mario Baeza. He is of Cuban decent. He is the founder and chairman of the Vme Media, a Spanish language television network. They're both here with me. Thank so much for joining us.

Mr. MARIO BAEZA (Founder, Chairman of Vme TV Network): Thank you.

Professor MARK SAWYER (Director, UCLA Center for Study of Race, Ethnicity, Politics): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Mario, can I start with you, because you still have family in Cuba. How do you respond to the president's decision to lift restrictions on visits and remittences and so forth?

Mr. BAEZA: Well, I think it's a great first step. I think it's very important that a step be taken and that the President really come through on his campaign promises to do just that. So I think we're very pleased to see that is hopefully the first step in a process that's gonna lead to normalization of relations with the island.

MARTIN: And why? What about the argument that this just reinforces the Castro regime's hand, it doesn't change anything on the island, it just sends more money onto the island, it doesn't change any of the governance dynamics and so forth?

Mr. BAEZA: Well, I mean, I think it does change governance dynamics because the money is being sent to individual people and individual families. And, well, that is to say most of the money. There is a kind of a tax that the government puts on it of about 20 percent. But basically I think the focus is and needs to be on the Cuban people, in my case, on my own family. And the idea that now I'm in a position without restrictions to be able to help them, not to have to see them suffer, to be able to go to funerals when I lose some of my family.

I think that's an important first step. And you know, irrespective of the administration that's governing Cuba, I think it is important because it gets some wealth in the hands of the people and allows them to have a better quality of life.

MARTIN: Professor Sawyer, if I could just get your take on the impact of the new policy.

Prof. SAWYER: It's going to be a huge impact. It's intensification of relations between the people in America and the Cuban people. And we're probably going to see more in terms of academic exchanges, cultural exchanges. It's exactly the way to go just to, as Mario suggested, you know, end suffering on the island but also promote sort of positive changes.

MARTIN: One of the reasons we are curious, we wanted to talk about, a little bit about the racial dynamics in play here is that among the strongest advocates of changing U.S.-Cuban policy are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But in his column yesterday, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, the Congressional Black Caucus delegation that visited Havana last week was naïve not to notice or disingenuous not to acknowledge that Cuba is hardly the paradise of racial harmony and equality that it pretends to be. And Professor Sawyer, it's our understanding that most of the Cuban immigrants in the U.S. at least those who we see are not of African descent. And I'm just wondering if this new policy kind of reinforces a racial status hierarchy.

Mr. SAWYER: Well, first of all just to bracket the comments, of course Cuba isn't a racial paradise. But that's never been the, I guess, the litmus test as to whether we might have a relationship with some country. We have relationships with a number of them that obviously don't qualify as that. That being said, Cuba probably did more than almost any country in the hemisphere to try and eliminate racial disparities but they fell short. And one of the things that we've seen is that the intensification of market relations as well as the unequal flows of remittances to the island have exacerbated the gaps that were not entirely closed by the leveling policies implemented during the revolution.

MARTIN: Mario Baeza, what's your take on that?

Mr. BAEZA: Well, I mean, I agree. I think that, I think really one of the biggest challenges facing the government of Cuba right now really deals with this very issue. I mean, they have for years and years pursued a strategy, or a socialist ideal if you will, that really tried to narrow the disparity between the poorest and the wealthiest in that society. And they largely certainly narrowed it considerably. But then, you know, as the Russian subsidies were taken away in the '80s and the like they had to turn increasingly to tourism and remittences as a way to really cover their budget and operate and keep the social programs that they had going.

In so doing, you ended up with, you know, a group of people who are affiliated with the tourist industries or they had family abroad, and most of these are not Cubans of color. And in both cases they are benefiting directly. So you now see a widening, you know, of Cubans and it does divide along racial lines.

MARTIN: There are in number of high profile Afro-Cuban dissidents such as Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. And are you disappointed that members of the Black Caucus didn't lobby for his release, at least not that we know of, Mario?

Mr. BAEZA: Again I wasn't privy to the conversion so I don't know what happened there. I assume that they probably did raise it, but I certainly do not have any knowledge of it. Obviously, dissidents in Cuba is an issue for all of us, regardless of their color. But obviously for the Black Caucus and for those as to whom race is an important issue, I would expect them to also be a champion of trying to get freedom for them as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about the Obama administration's decision to ease restrictions on visits and remittances to Cuba, primarily by Cuban-Americans. I'm speaking with Mario Baeza. He is a business man of Afro-Cuban descent. Professor Mark Sawyer is also with us. He teaches race and ethnicity issues at the University of California in Los Angeles. Professor Sawyer, what about that? You made the point that racial equality tends not be a priority in our bilateral relations with other countries. But do you think it should be?

Prof. SAWYER: It certainly should be and has gotten some increasing mention with, we now have a bilateral working group with Brazil on racial equality. It's becoming more of the conversation with countries like Columbia and others in the Americas. Many of the countries in the Americas have frequently trumpeted themselves as racial paradises but have fallen far short of that, whereas in particular the Afro-Latin or Afro-American populations at large is one of the poorest and most socially behind in almost every category, health, education, et cetera, that we can imagine. So there are huge steps to be taken.

And there is a substantial amount of discrimination. And many countries have very poorly developed laws around, sort of protecting black populations, indigenous populations and others from discrimination.

MARTIN: And what about in Cuba? Do you think that racial discrimination is still a significant factor in Cuban life? You hear wildly varying reports on that. What do you think?

Prof. SAWYER: Yeah, well, I published a book on this called "Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba." And while they have a strict anti-discrimination regime the day-to-day practices fall far short of that. And people's attitudes are also very complicated. And Cubans are very willing, since racism officially doesn't exist there though they've been sort of more willing to talk about it these days. People are frequently willing to say and act in very racist ways. So, there is discrimination and it isn't as vigorously, while the laws on the books are quite good, it isn't as vigorously attacked as it should be.

And there is no official affirmative action regime. While it has been debated in the past, nothing has ever been implemented.

MARTIN: And Mario Baeza, what's your take on that? Do you think that racial discrimination, racism is a present factor of life in Cuba? And do you think that that should be a factor in changing U.S. policy?

Mr. BAEZA: Well, I do think it's a factor in Cuba, as it is in just about every other country in the world, frankly. The whole issue of color plays out really all through Asia, all through the Americas, certainly in this country and in Europe. So, you can't single out Cuba on that. But you do wonder, I mean, 60 percent of the population is Cubans of color. When you look at the leadership in Cuba you see virtually no one of color. When you look at the tourism sector, you see very few. I mean, these are the high paying jobs that have access to hard currency.

You see relatively few, very few Cubans of color. And it makes you wonder, you know, what is really going on there. I think there have been surveys done in Cuba, among Cubans of color and 83 percent felt that sort of racism is alive and it does and it is a factor in their lives.

MARTIN: And how do you think that issue should be addressed going forward? I mean, back in 1993, you had been sort of floated for a position at the State Department, which ultimately did not work out. Do you feel that the issue of racism is given sufficient weight in our relations with Cuba? Should it, going forward?

Mr. BAEZA: I think, I mean again, I think it should a factor. I don't -certainly it shouldn't be the defining factor in our negotiations and discussion. But it is a factor because it is a factor just that goes generally to the fair treatment of all citizens in the country. We do have to acknowledge though that, you know, and part the reason the Cuba situation is so complicated is because back in the beginning, the Cuban government actually, after the wealthy, the upper middle class and middle classes exited Cuba in large numbers, that government, the Cuban government relocated about 1.5 million, mostly Cubans of color from rural areas, brought them into the cities, installed them in some of the houses that had been abandoned and gave them a really high quality first rate education.

So it's really one of the first massive education programs that happened for people of color probably anywhere in the world.

MARTIN: We need to - and we're almost out of time but I just wanted to ask you very briefly, do you think that we will see the embargo end in our lifetime?

Mr. BAEZA: Oh, absolutely. I think it's, I mean, I'm hopeful that it will end actually sooner rather than later. But certainly I think in any reasonably foreseeable future it's in the United States' best interests to end the embargo. If nothing else, for the jobs that would be created here.

MARTIN: Mario Baeza is the CEO of the merchant banking firm Baeza & Company. He is also a founder of the Spanish language V-me Media. He joined us in our New York bureau. We were also pleased to be joined by Professor Mark Sawyer. He teaches race and ethnicity at the University of California in Los Angeles. He is author of "Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba." He was kind enough to join us by phone from his home. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BAEZA: Thank you very much.

Prof. SAWYER: Thank you.

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