“Cuando se acabó el racismo en Cuba [whem racism ended in Cuba]…”
This is the way a former Cuban basketball player began a sentence when I asked him about race and sports in modern Cuba. Yes, officially racism in Cuba ended in 1959, with the ‘eradication’ all legal forms of discrimination, thus racism no longer exists in this socialist utopia. Ha. Everybody on this island knows that that idea is nothing but an inane fantasy. Racism is a reality that black people in Cuba, including myself, face every time we are stopped by the police, interrogated by hotel staff, or stared at when walking with foreigners.
Coming here, I knew more or less what the deal was. I’d read enough books and listened to enough testimonies to know that racism would be alive and well in Cuba, but I was unprepared for the forms it would take. For example, I knew that people would call me negro, negrito, mulato instead of señor, and though it would be wildly offensive to call someone ‘blacky’ in English, the Spanish equivalent doesn’t carry quite the pejorative weight. Consequently, I don’t really consider this racism, just a difference in language.
That is not the case with the police.
Before I go into more detail, I should explain that in Cuba there is an abundance of jineterismo (which roughly means selling yourself or your services to foreigners in order to earn money in dollars). Although the most well-known form of this is prostitution, jineterismo takes many distinct forms. It is also important to understand that though the Cuban government somewhat condones these activities (from prostitution to unlicensed tour guiding), they are still punishable offenses. And for a Cuban, walking around with foreigners is grounds for being stopped by the police, questioned, and possibly arrested.
And guess who the police choose to stop almost exclusively (or 99% of the time as a Cuban friend told me), negros and mulatos.
In my first experience with this, I was on the other side. Our entire group was walking through Old Havana, the most tourist-laden portion of the city, when a man, with a slightly darker complexion than I, offered to show us the way to a free salsa concert
(Now, I don’t know if this guy was doing this out of the kindness of his heart, or if he expected some sort of renumeration, but at the time he seemed like he genuinely wanted to help us.) Unfortunately we never got the chance to find out. After walking with us for a block or two, he stopped and turned his back away from us, but he was too late. The police had already seen him. We continued walking as the officers approached him, and when I looked back, they had him handcuffed with his chest on the side of the car. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept on moving away.
I suppose I’ve been getting karma for not helping him out. In the last month I’ve been stopped by the Cuban police at least 5 times. Once for walking with two white students in my program. Twice in the same day walking with three other black Cubans and three other white students. Once in Santiago, I was singled out of a crowd of 12 ppl, including three cubanas, as we sat in the middle of a plaza waiting for our bus. And once today, right in front of my residence, walking back from class with the rest of the group.
At first I thought the policeman was just greeting me as he had done the two ppl walking ahead. But then he called me, saying “ciudadano, favor de venga acá! [citizen, please come here]”. Stupidly, I didn’t have my wallet with me to prove my identity, so I tried to explain that I’m a student before he could utter a word. Then, my fellow students, tired of me having to constantly deal with this practice came to my defense. Seeing the unhappy faces of my friends, the policeman assured them that they shouldn’t be scared, that he was only trying to verify my identity for their safety, as if I was a menace to society.
Luckily for me, I am foreigner. Luckily for me, once I show the authorities my student card and the copy of my United States passport they tell me to have a good day and sometimes shake my hand. But millions of Cubans, the black, brown, and mulatto brothers who I feel a connection to, are not afforded this luxury. They are likely to get stopped even when walking with white Cubans.
And even here in Cuba, which consistently bills itself as a place free of violent crime, they face the prospect of police brutality or arrest. Just ask one of my Cuban friends, whose face and knee were split open by a cop who saw him walking near a fight, and after this incident he was first taken to the police station, and only moved to the hospital when the realized the severity of his injuries. Luckily for him the whole incident was caught on tape, and that man is a police officer no more.
I never felt compelled to tell anyone at home about my first few run-ins with the police. But for some reason this last encounter dug under my skin and made my body burn with restless anger. Maybe it was the way the policemen nonchalantly told my friends that they shouldn’t be scared, that they just wanted to make sure everything was ok. Maybe it was the way he smugly declared that there was no problem after he realized his error. Or maybe this time was one time too many for me.
I wanted to yell in his face, throw the few Cuban curses that I know at him. But I didn’t, I just smiled and shook is hand when he offered it. And at that moment, I knew I had given in, that I had just confirmed his belief that it is fine to dehumanize a population, fine to exercise his power to keep us in our place.
I gave in just like I had when I entertained the thought that the Ray Kelly protesters at Brown last week were in the wrong. I was wrong. They had every right and duty to chant down the man who continues the systematic dehumanization of an entire city’s minority populations. The man who too often pushes aside questions that reveal the racism and injustice inherent in stop-and-frisk. They had every right to deny him a platform to express such views.
Now, racism in Cuba is not racism in the United States. Personally I don’t believe it’s much worse, but it certainly is not much better. They are two parts of the same evil that spring from centuries of marginalization, prejudice, brainwashing, and complacency. The same evil that strips millions of their humanity and perseveres because too many good people do nothing. The same evil that can be conquered if we stop kidding ourselves and refuse to tolerate its expressions any longer, if we refuse to allow a destructive policy to continue because it’s easier to execute than actually changing the system that pushes people to the margins and then blames them for being there. We all have the right to to say this, just like my colleagues at Brown did last Monday.
Unfortunately for my Cuban brothers don’t have this option because Cuba is ‘united’, because racism does not exist here. They cannot protest or march.
For they will be silenced.
Fortunately in the United States we can and we have. And I thank the students currently on Brown’s campus for that.
But I understand that there are many people, both at Brown and in the wider community, who disagree with the viewpoint that I’ve taken up, and to them I say this:
I have the right not to be to accosted while walking down a street with white friends; my parents have the right not to worry that a presumptuous, trigger-happy officer or vigilante will gun me down; my amiga has the right not to be called an illegitimate American to her face just because of her Mexican heritage; my friend has the right not be bludgeoned and hospitalized for walking beside the wrong cop and the wrong time. And the black, brown, Latino, and Muslim citizens of New York City and our country’s other cities have the right not to fear the officers who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’ them.
We have the right not to tolerate the not-so-crafty, tired rhetoric of a man who upholds racist and unconstitutional policies, just for the sake of bs intellectual debate.
But we do have the right to be seen as humans, not delinquents.
And if you cannot accept that then I have no patience for you or your ‘discourse’.