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Cuba, Blacks and the New York Times

The Zurbano Controversy

by NELSON P. VALDES

The Sunday New York Times (NYT) publication of the opinion piece entitled “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun” by Roberto Zurbano has turned into a debate on whether a segment of the Cuban population has done well or not after 1959. The author stands by the text of his piece but takes issue with the title – which is not his. Certainly he ought to be upset with the title that the title the NYT gave to his article. The author wanted it to read: “The country that is coming: and my Black Cuba?” but the paper decided  ”what its fit to print”  and came up with its alternative: “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.”

Seemingly the NYT assumes readers will end up remembering the title rather than the gist of what the author wished to convey. Moreover, the author’s title implicitly criticized the economic opening of the economy  in which the black population will not be able to compete in a leveled playing field. In other words, the original title implied a concern with market forces determining eventual social outcomes. The NYT, as if by magic, transformed a concern with the future of the Cuban revolution and its impact on a sector of the population into a denunciation of the revolution because it had not been at all concerned with the blacks of the island in the past. We ought to blame the NYTimes not Zurbano, at least for the title.

Then there is the substance of what the author wrote. That is, as Cuba’s economy “opens” to market driven forces those who have capital in the island or can receive it from abroad will benefit, while those who do not will not have the same comparative advantage. The problem, however, is that the author fails to explore the objective social and historical circumstances that do not allow poor blacks [or poor whites one might add] to be well prepared when the unfair rules of supply and demand dictate outcomes. Instead, the author ends up assuming that the fundamental reason for the disparity of resources stems from racial prejudice against the non-white population.

There are other assertions. The piece starts by stating, ” change is the latest news to come out of Cuba, though for Afro-Cubans like myself, this is more dream than reality.” There are certainly many  social, economic, cultural and political problems confronted by the majority of Cubans, and the situation is bound to be exacerbated for those who have been poor by over three generations.

Yet, Roberto Zurbano’s own story is more nuanced. He was born in 1965. That means that he was 26 years old when the Soviet bloc collapsed and the Cuban economy went into a deep crisis – the so-called Special Period when over 30% of GNP disappeared as well as traditional suppliers. Yet, the previous year Zurbano published his book Elogio del lector, a literary criticism work. And many other works followed right at the height of the economic collapse.

In 1992 the author published a second  book. This was followed by collections of poems in 1994 and 1995. By 1996 he had an additional book on Cuban Literature and Postmodernity. He received national literary and cultural pricesin 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1999. Since Zurbano is a gifted and prolific writer he also published in numerous journals and magazines then.  He has been editor of Cuba’s Hip Hop Magazine. Zurbano also has two radio programs (Radio Metropolitana, Radio Rebelde) and once a month offers literary criticism in one of Cuba’s TV stations. Because of his cultural and academic contributions he has travelled to Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, US, France, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Canada, Guadaloupe and Costa Rica.  Last but not least, he has been publicly recognized as a major contributor to Cuba’s National Culture.

Zurbano has achieved much because of his knowledge and effort. He deserves it. Yet, he writes, as if he has been denied access to resources, recognition or power. Perhaps he was the exception. But if blacks in Cuba do not fare as well as he does, one has to look at the situation not merely through racial lenses but from the framework of  historical and sociological context. The author tells us of a very serious problem but is not that clear as to its causation. He writes,

“An important first step would be to finally get an accurate official count of Afro-Cubans. The black population in Cuba is far larger than the SPURIOUS NUMBERS OF THE MOST RECENT CENSUSES. The number of blacks on the street undermines, in the most obvious way, the numerical fraud that puts us at less than one-fifth of the population. Many people forget that in Cuba, a drop of white blood can – if only on paper – make a mestizo, or white person, out of someone who in social reality falls into neither of those categories.” [my emphasis]

The author leaves the impression that the classification of color or race is determined by the census taker. That is not the case. In Cuba census takers ask households to self-classify, just as it is done in the United States. In fact, the Cuban authorities follow the guidelines established by the United Nations. [2]

If a sector of the Cuban population fails to accurately recognize its own skin pigmentation, then one has to search for the elements that contribute to color or racial self-identification. The reasons might be more complex and diverse than assuming the racism of “the other”.  [3]

History might play a part. For example, throughout Latin America, as in Spanish colonial times, the authorities imposed a caste system that integrated color and wealth/class. Thus, a black person could be a slave or a freeman. And a black freeman could purchase a “gracias a sacar” and be considered from a legal standpoint a mulato. And the same was true for any other color gradation. Consequently, someone who had the necessary wealth could “adelantar” [get you ahead] regardless of one’s color. [4] What is clear is that in Spanish colonial society matters of color/race classification were negotiable by material wealth. [5]  Such social practices and  consonant cultural and ideological ramifications could survive even after the historical conditions that originated them disappeared.

A thorough objective analysis of the issue of color and race is necessary in Cuba. But the influence of class and income should not be dismissed. This discussion should be guided by a sense of history, economics and sociology.  And one has to pay attention to the details and particularities that are country specific.  There are some outstanding contributions that should be considered. [6]

Last but not least, the complexity of any society also produces numerous variations, interplays and results. Neither a class reductionism or its race version can offer a clear analysis of what is the situation and what should be done about it.

Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico and director of the Cuba-L Project, where this article also appeared.

Notes.

1. For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun, New York Times, March 23, 2013.

2. La medición del color de la piel en los censos de población y vivienda [2009].

3. See:  Michelle Fine and Cheryl Bowers, “Racial Self-identification: The effects of Social History and Gender”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, April 1984; Jenny Laishley, “Skin Colour and Preference in London Nursery School Children”, Race & Class, July 1971; Ulf Hannerz, “The Rhetoric of Soul: Identification in Negro Society”, Race & Class, October 1968.

4. José Maria Ots Capdequi, “Sobre las confirmaciones reales y las “Gracias al Sacar” en la Historia del Derecho Indiano,” Estudios de Historia Novohispana, Enero 1968.

5. Estelle T. Lau, “Can Money Whiten? Exploring Race Practice in Colonial Venezuela and Its Implications For Contemporary Race Discourse, ” Michigan Journal of Race & Law, No. 1, 1998.

6. the following deserve to be thoroughly  studied is Verena Stolcke’s, Racismo y Sexualidad en la Cuba Colonial, Madrid: Alianza editorial, 1992; and by the same author, “Invaded Women; Sex, Race and Class in the Formation of Colonial Society,” European Journal of Development Research, Dec 1994; Esteban Morales, Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and racial inequality; Desafíos de la Problemática Racial en Cuba, Habana: Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2007; and by the same author: La Problemática Racial en Cuba, Habana: Editorial José Martí, 2010