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What Can South Africans Learn from Cuba About Racism?

by Tembinkosi Qondela
July 2007

The recent debate about “affirmative action” (AA) and/or “employment equity” (EE) started by Prof. Benatar opened an opportunity to bring in my experience and lessons of racism from my recent tour of Cuba. I must also say that it is courageous to note that most loud voices on this debate have been white South Africans.

I visited Cuba last December with a group of 13 white Americans and one Australian under the auspices of Global Exchange. I was the only black and African in the group. My exposure to racism started at the immigration offices. I was questioned for three hours.Immigration police even attempted to take away my passport but I refused to let them.

Things became worse in the hotels and public parks. I was repeatedly stopped by security staff at the hotels while coming in and out with the members of the group. The problem was that none of my white colleagues were stopped or asked. This happened not once but many times in all the hotels in the more than five provinces we visited in Cuba.

It was the same at the public parks and streets. Colleagues in the group helped me most of the times from this systematic racist harassment. My colleagues even went to an extent of protesting by writing a letter to the organization responsible for our tour of Cuba. The director and his deputy of ICAP (the organization that hosted us) in the province of Havana met with us. The deputy director impressed me in his response. First, he accepted that it is true that black tourists are subjected to racism in Cuban tourist destination areas as they are suspected to be Cubans who are hustling the tourists for dollars. He also accepted that there was nothing they could do to undo my experience of racism. All they could do was to take steps to eradicate it over time. This was empathy that I have not come across in South Africa. Perhaps, he could identify with my claim and experience, being a black Cuban himself.

What impressed me about this experience, firstly, was that there was no denial from ICAP authorities that there is racism in Cuba. Also, they acknowledged that the negative effects of racism cannot be undone by any means except to focus on eradicating it for the future generations to come. I feel this is lacking in the policies and programmes of the South African state and in the responses of many white South Africans. It is legally difficult to make a case of racism in South Africa. Many white South Africans seem to think that they have sweated hard for the luxurious life they are living in and that black South Africans have got themselves to blame for their destitution. Workers are often advised by lawyers not to go the route of claiming racism as it will be difficult to prove within the legal framework. Government policies, including the national economic policy framework, are perpetuating the legacy of racism. No wonder the majority of the poor is still black.

The problem with equity policies is that they are tied to the supremacy of the free market. In a nutshell, equity policies as espoused are there to serve the markets, above all. While the political reasons for equity are for redress, redress is done to enhance competitiveness in the free market economy as opposed to dealing with social inequalities inherited from apartheid and perpetuated after apartheid. The result is that although we have had these policies for many years now, social inequalities have increased and still persist along racial lines.

Literature on racism in Cuba was contrary to the impressive response I got from the ICAP authorities. Alejandro de la Fuentes’s book on racism in Cuba traces racism back from slavery when black Africans came to the island as slaves. It was then entrenched by the US rule. La Fuentes points out a crucial point that South Africans should learn from. He made the point that one of the fundamental flaws of the Cuban revolution was disregard of racism although Marti raised it. In fact, in 1962 Fidel Castro was quoted saying that racism was totally eradicated in Cuba within the first three years of the revolution.

What made it less important after the revolution is the fact in the Cuban case, black communities benefited from the developmental state. It must be noted that unlike South Africa, Cuba provided free quality health care, education and other social services for all its citizens after the revolution.

This denial of racism by Cuban authorities has allowed racism to resurface much more strongly in Cuba in recent years with the bringing back private ownership of property. It is an open secret that the tourism industry is booming in the context of racist practices. For example, it is alleged that hotels and tourist companies are now actively engaged in racialised employment practices. More and more black Cubans are employed in jobs in hotels where they are not visible to tourists, which are usually poorly paying jobs. One reporter reported that the perception is that tourists prefer to be served by light complexion Cubans as opposed to dark. Also with the growing of inequalities in Cuba, more and more black people feel the effects of racism. As a result, to the young black Cubans growing up under the current conditions of increasing inequalities, racism is an issue of concern.

One of the things we can learn is that racism cannot be washed away by wishes even in the context where government policies are geared towards the poor. In South Africa, we cannot say that policies are geared towards the poor, because social services are provided to only to those who can afford, so how much worse can the problem be? Denial of racism is dangerous for social stability. Another lesson is that you do not need corrective policies such as affirmative action or employment equity alone while your whole political-economic framework is promoting competitiveness in the free market. What you are doing with these policies is to serve the markets and not to serve the social and political purpose of social redress. This is fundamental in the failure of our policies.

The Cuban approach of providing free social services to all those who cannot afford them seems more important to me even than affirmative action or employment equity. We should aim for an economic system that provides good quality jobs to everyone without regard to colour. Where jobs cannot be provided to all we must provide social support to all those who are poor without regard to colour. However, we must bear in mind that we are coming out of a systematic system of racism which we need to undo. That means that we must be conscious of the effect of apartheid racism in shaping our material accumulation or non-accumulation, in our mindset, in our views about one another and in our public and private institutions in their practices. All these racist patterns will affect whatever we do in future until we have succeeded in overcoming them, which will be in the generations to come when social inequalities are eventually eradicated.

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