Why is Apartheid Acceptable in Cuba?

I remember when no decent person would even consider of traveling to South Africa under apartheid, so heinous was that policy. Meanwhile, people from all around the world flock to Cuba, and as abhorrent as it is, it’s easy to label the white tourists as racists, they must be, how else could they turn a blind eye to such obvious apartheid?

I have to tell you, other than fidel worship, I’m at a loss to explain this from AllAfrica:

Overt Racism Gives Cuban Ideal a Sinister Hue

By Jacob Dlamini

I HAVE lived in the US on and off for the past three years and have yet to experience racial profiling, or what people of colour in America know as walking/driving/breathing while black. I spent three weeks in Cuba in 2000, and was subjected to racial profiling five times — all in one day.

I am sure, then, that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) — who swear by Cuba and all it stands for — will understand why a leftist like me is not as enthusiastic as they are about that socialist island. I had my love of Cuba mugged out of me by racism.

Racial profiling, for those who have not heard of it, is a phenomenon whereby people get stopped by the police for looking, well, black and therefore, in the minds of the police doing the profiling, suspicious.

You could be driving down a busy highway, walking through a shopping mall, or just taking a walk through your neighbourhood. You only have to be or look black to qualify for racial profiling.

My experience of racial profiling in Cuba came on the last day of what had been a wonderful holiday in which my girlfriend and I had travelled around the south in Santiago de Cuba, taking in the island’s majestic tobacco fields and pub crawling through the capital Havana’s districts.

My girlfriend was returning directly to SA and left early, while I was flying back to school in the US, and had to take a midnight flight. With nothing to do but eat, read and do some sightseeing (again) in a town I had come to know fairly well, I decided to rather take a long leisurely walk up and down the beach.

I had been walking for about 10 minutes when two policemen stationed at the beach motioned for me to come over to them. Thinking they were being friendly and wanted to chat with a tourist, I went over. The one who looked as though he was in charge said something in Spanish. The only word I caught out was documento. “It’s at home,” I said. They quickly realised I wasn’t local, and let me go. I continued with my walk.

It happened again about half-an-hour later, only with a different set of policemen. Them: “Documento?” Me: a shrug and a point in the direction of where I was staying. They let me go. I was bemused and, being in holiday mode, slow on the uptake.

By the fourth time, I was in a foul mood, said something about fascismo and pointed at the two Italian men who happened to be walking past us just then, asking why the police were not stopping them and demanding to see their papers.

I did not even stop for the fifth set of cops and told them to their faces to f**k off! By the way, the 10 or so policemen I dealt with that day were either AfroCubans or Cubans of mixed descent.

Then I started thinking about how all the prostitutes seemed to be young black women and men; how all the jobs in the tourism industry — from the state-owned taxis to the hotel receptions — seemed to be held by only white or very light-skinned Cubans; how on the few occasions that I managed to watch Cuban television, there were no black Cubans on TV. Except once, and he was only part of a band.

You might ask why anyone would want to visit an island that quarantines people with HIV/AIDS, treats its gay and lesbian citizens like criminals, and dishes out passports the same way a parent gives out candy to an obedient child — be nice and you will be handsomely rewarded with a pack of sweets.

But Cuba is about more than just tourism for many of us. It helped liberate southern Africa and offered, for a time, a way of looking at the current world and imagining a different one. That is why South Africans continue to visit it.

I have told this story numerous times over the past five years and people always ask the inevitable question: would I recommend Cuba as a tourist destination? My answer is always yes. Just don’t go there expecting a socialist haven where solidarity reigns supreme.

25 thoughts on “Why is Apartheid Acceptable in Cuba?”

  1. This guy just found out there is racism in Castro’s Cuba?
    Nearly thirty years ago, The Washington Post, on April 28, 1977, in the article “Hijacker Beaten In Cuban Prison,” quoted Black Panther Garland Grant, an African American hijacker in Havana, as saying:
    “‘I just want to get back to the United States. I’m living like a dog in Cuba,’ he said. He said blacks are treated badly. ‘There are more racism problems here that in the worst parts of Mississippi.'”
    “‘I’m probably being watched. Everybody here is too scared to say anything, but I’ve been (expletive) over so many times, I can’t be (expletive) over any more,’ he said.”
    “‘They can’t do anything more to me that they haven’t already done but put a bullet in my head,’ he said.”
    What does Assata Shakur have to say about this?

  2. Just the status quo for latin america? I see similar segregation in Mexico, although it doesn’t seem as obtrusive as in Cuba. It seems more class based.

    When I go to nice restaruants or bars in Monterrey Mexico, all the customers are white (mexicans, I’m usually the only gringo) and all the help is brown. You may occasionally see a brown person as a customer, but you’ll never see a white person working there.

    And don’t play the “it’s the same in the states” card either. It’s not. In the states wetbacks do manual jobs where they don’t have to talk (because they don’t learn english) but plenty of white people wait tables, bartend, cook, etc. When the mojados learn english they get to move on from bussing and washing dishes.

  3. GFK- Big difference, in Cuba apartheid is enforced by the State, with no redress available. The Mexican government does not impose segregation, let alone apartheid.

  4. Ziva; allow me to slightly disagree with your response to GFK. In Apartheid era SA, there was legally mandated segregation; e.g. written laws about where black people could live, go to school, work, shop, etc. To your point, there is a type of apartheid that is prevalent in Cuba, but in my mind it is a “non-legislated but definitely enforceable” segregation and discrimination against Afro-Cubans. In my opinion this “Racial Democracy” type of thinking is actually prevalent in other Latin countries also. By “Racial Democracy” I mean the idea of true harmony between Cuba’s different races; that unlike in South Africa and the American South there have “never” been any open and legally mandated tensions between them. Of course this isn’t true as the article’s writer points out prejudice does exist in Cuba and Afro-Cubans typically find themselves in the poorest level of Castro’s “perfect” society.

  5. Go-G0 Dave, In Cuba the law is whatever castro Inc. decides it is, whether written or simply enforced. Afro-Cubans are denied entry to into the segment of society that has, they are not allowed freedom of movement or choice. That’s apartheid. I’m not talking about prejudice or racism, nor is this conversation about other “Latin AMerican” nations. Cuba is a police state that rigidly maintains a two tiered society; Afro-Cubans are on the bottom. That is apartheid.

  6. Apartheid? What? Where? In Cuba? Are you kidding me?

    Quick, call the Congressional Black Caucus! Im sure they’ll be issuing fiery condemnations and denunciations of Castro in no time.

    Or perhaps im just kidding myself that these “champions of justice and human rights” aren’t selective with their righteous outrage.


  7. Our South African gent should walk through a mall in Houston, Texas. No two conversations would be in the same language, no two skin tones would be quite the same, and the native costumes of many countries would pass right by him. And nobody gets a second look. As for places tourists versus natives are or are not supposed to be? They don’t exist. Not saying there aren’t places tourists are better off not going to, but nobody cares where you are from.

  8. Z; I guess I have an issue with the use of the term “Apartheid” because this term is inherently tied to “prejudice and racism”. You state that “Afro-Cubans are denied entry to into the segment of society that has, they are not allowed freedom of movement or choice”, but being that Cuba is a totalitarian police state, aren’t these freedoms denied to every citizen of Cuba? Isn’t the “two-tiered” society (i) castro’s political elite and (ii) everyone else? Apartheid is legislated separation and discrimination; Cuba’s society is corrupt, discriminatory and racist. In the original article the author was the victim of Cuba’s racist society…..

  9. Go-Go Dave-

    You raise a fair point- but when you boil it down, the only difference between de facto and de jure segregation is that one of them is codified, and the other isn’t. I think you’re right in pointing out that the primary demarcation in Cuban Society is between the State and party apparachiks vs. the people, but if the practices of the State are almost uniformly discriminatory, that has to be factored into the equation as well when determining the character and composition of the State’s ideology. Perhaps it’s not as pronounced as South Africa’s former apartheid regime, but by and large the workings of the Cuban state are discriminatory towards native Cubans on many different levels, including race.

  10. Yes Go Go Dave it’s true that the division is the party elite and everyone else, but that party of elite is almost exclusively white, and then moving down into the non-elite, the best of the rest is also doled out to those who are white or lighter skinned leaving fidels “new man” the educated Afro-Cuba at the bottom. You can call it anything you want, it looks like apartheid to me, and in reference to the article I posted what the visitor from South Africa described is also apartheid.

  11. In a way, I kind of get the author’s drift about recommending Cuba while at the same time being angry or disappointed about the folks in charge. I’d love to visit a beautiful tropical island too, but not while hurricane fidel still thrashes it. Maybe for the author, this experience is the beginning and will push him toward being more outspoken against castro and his “revolution.”

  12. Yeah we all want to go to Cuba, but his recommendation to vacation in Cuba despite his own negative experience there really troubles me. I for one cannot understand the disconnect that allows people to enjoy themselves, vacationing away while fully cognizant that the local population suffers. I don’t get that at all, nor do I want to.

  13. GFK,

    When people travel to a foreign country (even one as close to us as Mexico) the intelligent thing to do is to read up on that country’s demographics: history, culture, race, etc. Mexico’s population reached an estimated 103.1 million in 2005. It is roughly divided as follows:

    Mestizos (mixed Amerindian and white)……….65%
    Whites and blacks………………………………. 5%

    Monterrey’s warm and dry climate, cool mountains and hot springs make Monterrey an attractive TOURIST resort. Monterrey is also the home of several institutions of higher education: the University of Nuevo Leon and the Monterrey Institute of Technology (the MIT of Mexico).

    I’m really very impressed that you were able to ascertain that everyone, and I mean everyone, (except you) that frequented the bars and restaurants were ONLY white Mexicans. Considering that 95 percent of the Mexican population is either a Mestizo or Native American I’m not surprised that “all the help is brown. You may occasionally see a brown person as a customer, but you’ll never see a white person working there.”

    All these “brown people” as you called them, are ABLE to move anywhere they choose to within Mexico. They are able to USE and VISIT their NATIONAL parks, beaches, and museums. They can STAY in any hotel of their choice; VISIT any casino, theater and restaurant they desire; RENT a car etc. But most importantly, they can SEEK medical HELP in any HOSPITAL of their choice.

    In Cuba everything is for the TOURIST or for the government ELITE. Cuban nationals can’t do ANY of the above, even if they had the $$$$ to pay. IT’S JUST NOT ALLOWED.

    If it’s not APARTHEID what other word would you use for this?

  14. I think GFK’s point is that racism is not unique to cuba – it’s everywhere in Latin America. anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time down there will have noticed it.

    the thing about cuba is that they’ve made such a big deal about the afro-cuban revolution and other such shit, that to traditional racism is added a fine layer of hypocrisy.

    it’s not the aparthied, but neither is it any sort of supra-racial paradise.

    (by the way, I would ask the hard-core conservatives here denoucing cuban apartheid to search their hearts to see if they have, while at some point half drunk at a cocktail party, advocated racial profiling of arabs at airport security checks. what’s bad for the goose…)

  15. pkrupa- I’m not even going to bother responding to your inane comment other than to say that you, like GFK miss the point. I suggest you go back and read the post, and all the comments, especially firefly’s he nails it. If you still don’t get it, you know where the back button is.

  16. well ziva if you’re not going to respond, then… don’t.

    as for firefly’s comment, apartheid was separating the black citizens from the white citizens, and giving the white citizens more priviledges. as far as I can tell, both black and white cubans are in the same shitty situation, although it’s pretty clear that the black citizens get shit on measurably more. but strictly speaking, it’s not RACIAL apartheid.

    now, if you want to RE-DEFINE apartheid as forced separation of people with different PASSPORTS, go ahead, but that separation is not RACIAL. note that black tourists, although repeatedly stopped, are always let go with an apology because they have the right passport. while I agree the profiling is horrible and racist and all the rest, your post mixes and confuses RACIAL apartheid and PASSPORT apartheid in a very inconsistent way.

    please don’t take these comments as defending the cuban system, I’m just trying to point out that your use of the term apartheid is sloppy.

  17. pkrupa- I am not the one who selected the word apartheid in reference to Cuba. The word is applied to the situation in Cuba by Human Rights Watch, The State Department, and Amnesty International, just to name a few. My post was not questioning the use of the word vis-a-vis Cuba. I was questioning why the situation is tolerated when clearly it should not be, as the article so clearly illustrates.
    Here is the definition of “apartheid”
    An official policy of racial segregation formerly practiced in the Republic of South Africa, involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites.
    A policy or practice of separating or segregating groups.
    The condition of being separated from others; segregation.
    [Afrikaans : Dutch apart, separate (from French à part, apart; see apart) + Dutch -heid, -hood.]
    Based on that definition, I disagree that my use of the word is sloppy. In fact, I think it perfectly describes the situation in Cuba.

  18. “while at some point half drunk at a cocktail party, advocated racial profiling of arabs at airport security checks” [Technically, it’s Muslims. Not all Muslims are Arabs.]

    Heck, I’ll say it sober. Explain to me please, just who has been blowing up all the planes, throwing old men off ships, strapping bombs on themselves to kill civilians, kidnapping Americans, decapitating reporters and running trucks into barracks over the past 30 years?

    It hasn’t been the little old Norwegian, Chinese or Peruvian ladies, that’s for sure.

    Prejudice is judging someone based on the group to which he belongs. Profiling, on the other hand, is using information about past behavior to predict future behavior. There is a difference.

  19. right ziva, agreed that it’s appropriate for describing how cubans are treated versus how foreigners are treated. 100 percent with you on that one. all I’m saying is that apartheid in Cuba is not a racial apartheid… race in cuba is a separate (but also serious) problem. the racism of cuban cops (ie – stopping blacks because they assume they’re cuban criminals) just exposes the apartheid. maybe it’s an esoteric point, but I’m a fan of clarity.

  20. At first glance, Mr. Jacob Dlamini published article “South Africa: Overt Racism Gives Cuban Ideal a Sinister Hue” is based mainly on Cuba’s “racial profiling.” To a Cuban or someone of Cuban descent, Mr. Dlamini’s “petite histoire” of his “last day of what had been a wonderful holiday” is much more than that. When reading articles about Cuba, we’ve become quite adept in interpreting said articles. Following is my own interpretation:

    Mr. Dlamini spent three weeks in Cuba in which both he and his girlfriend “traveled around the south in Santiago de Cuba, taking in the island’s majestic tobacco fields and pub crawling through the capital Havana’s districts.” In other words, Mr. Dlamini and his girlfriend were out enjoying themselves STAYING in hotels, EATING in restaurants, VISITING tobacco fields, RIDDING in taxis, and FREQUENTING local pubs (from which Cubans are forbidden to do). Wow! it sure sounds like an incredible holiday! The fact is that for twenty days and twenty nights, Mr. Dlamini didn’t give “Jack Shit” about the Cuban people, apartheid or for that matter racial profiling. It wasn’t until he himself became a “victim” that he suddenly saw the light!

    Why Mr. Dlamini, a South African black, never mentioned the word apartheid in his article is anybody’s guess. Not even after he was “enlightened” thanks to the Cuban police that stopped him on five consecutive times! After all, it was racial profiling that started him “thinking about how all the prostitutes seemed to be young black women and men; how all the jobs in the tourism industry — from the state-owned taxis to the hotel receptions — seemed to be held by only white or very light-skinned Cubans; how on the few occasions that I managed to watch Cuban television, there were no black Cubans on TV.” Didn’t he recall similar circumstances during apartheid in his homeland?

    From his article it is quite evident that Mr. Dlamini is well aware there is tourism apartheid in Cuba, in fact, he states that on his last day (while staying in the small town of Guanabo) he decided to take “a long leisurely walk up and down the beach” which he admitted “were open to everyone, including ordinary Cubans.” Wow! imagine that! By his own admission… Cubans are barred from enjoying amenities open to tourists. Did he find this to be OK? Didn’t he consider an anomaly that Cuban nationals are not ALLOWED to enjoy the same amenities he did? Didn’t he recognize apartheid when it was staring him in the face? Or did he choose to IGNORE it and just call it racism instead?

    Mr. Dlamini, in my opinion, is a hypocrite. He believes that Cuba “helped liberate Southern Africa and offered, for a time, a way of looking at the current world and imagining a different one.” Because of this, he is willing to OVERLOOK the obvious; he is willing to ACCEPT for Cuba the same institution of APARTHEID that was abolished in South Africa in 1990, and the reason why he STILL recommends Cuba as a tourist destination.

    This is why the heading on this blog is: Why is Apartheid Acceptable in Cuba?
    It’s not about what Mr. Dlamini wrote… it’s about what he should have written!

  21. Firefly- you can bring a horse to the water, you can’t make him drink. The term useful “idiot” is taking on new meaning…sometimes people can’t see what’s right in front of them. You know, when it comes to Cuba it’s epidemic.

  22. Don’t want to “beat a dead horse” but I have to add one more set of comments after reviewing what pkrupa wrote, most of which I agree with.

    My initial point was to try to clarify that the initial situation that Mr. Dlamini spoke of, the ACT of him being stopped and questioned on the beach, was an excellent example of Cuba’s version of “institutional racism”. (aka Ticketed For Being Black, Stopped For Being Black, etc…)

    But (now hear me out…), the REASON that he was stopped and questioned on the beach was because that, YES, Cuba practices a form of Apartheid that I described in one of my earlier posts. Limiting the movement of all citizens, making an international passport a privilege of the few – not a right of all citizens, segregated restaurants and bars, and of course segregated public beaches are all examples of Cuba’s apartheid.

    Maybe I am being too “technical” but I felt that it was important to note to the readers of this post that there is a huge (and important in my book) difference between the ACT that Mr. Dlamini wrote about (e.g. he was stopped because he was black) and the REASON that he was stopped (e.g. Cuban citizens who are not part of castro’s “state and party apparatchiks” (Thanks Lucha Libre for this phrase, I loved it!) are not allowed to be on this public beach.) I don’t think anyone who reads this blog has one doubt that a “white” Cuban, wearing something that clearly identified themselves as a regular citizen, would have been questioned and kicked off of the beach also.

    I also think Ziva makes an excellent point questioning the fact that this person is more upset at the ACT (e.g. “How dare I be questioned and harassed simply because I am black!”) than he was of the REASON (e.g. “Hey! How come normal Cuban citizens are not allowed on this beach?”) he was stopped, especially taking into account the system of Apartheid that his country recently defeated, which was based on racial classifications. This is definitely of concern as you would think that one group of people who would understand the illegality and shame of an institutionally implemented system of separation (aka apartness … aka apartheid) would be South Africans!

    Also, I really enjoyed this post and reading everyone’s input. I hope you enjoyed reading my $0.02. 🙂

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