Visitor Finds That Cuba and U.S. Act in the Same Revolting Manner Where Race Is Concerned

Just before I left to study in Havana, Cuba for three months, a Cuban friend of mine pulled me aside and whispered in my ear: “Any ideas you had about race are going to be totally blown out of the water.” I had no idea what she meant, and was skeptical considering Cuba’s high praise from the progressive left, but my friend turned out to be right.


From the first day at the airport in Miami and throughout the three months I lived there, it seemed race was all around me. In Miami almost every person boarding the Havana-bound plane (each with luggage packed with TV sets, electrical appliances, clothing and other commercial goods meant for their families) was white. As we drove from the José Martí Havana airport to the neighborhood where I would be living, we meandered through one predominately Afro-Cuban and mulatto neighborhood to the next until we reached Vedado, a historically white and upper-middle-class neighborhood.

As I explored outside of Vedado, I noticed that Afro-Cuban families occupied most of the inner-city apartments in Old and Central Havana, which were cramped, dirty and literally crumbling to the ground (often times onto people walking on the streets). I realized that professors at University of Havana and other educational institutions on the island were predominately white (during my time there I met only two Afro-Cuban professors). I watched as Afro-Cubans were ushered outside of hotel lobby rooms, denied entrance at certain clubs and bars, refused service at Internet cafes, and harassed on the street by local police.

When I visited upscale hotels for Internet use I didn’t see a single Afro-Cuban working in the public sectors of hotels and tourist hotspots. I had to explain myself to Cuban women when I told them that I (a light-skinned Latina) was attracted to black men. Later I struggled for words when a white Cuban mentor scolded me for socializing with an Afro-Cuban and recommended I stay clear of “those kinds of men”—only to later sarcastically comment that at least I knew where to find the source of “large penises” (which, she said, was the “only thing they’re good for”).

I had come to expect some highly visible racial disparities. I had done some extensive reading on Cuban history on the social, political and economic disparities on the island that included discussions on the white tourism industry and early immigration waves. But despite that, I did not expect to find that institutionalized racism was a major feature of Cuba’s internal migration policy — a policy I quickly learned had created an overwhelmingly black population of undocumented Cuban citizens in their own country.

Living scattered about Havana and along the city’s fringe, in makeshift houses made from reclaimed wood and metal is a population of Cuban migrants called palestinos – a term coined in the 1990s to capture the phenomenon of the thousands of Cubans leaving Oriente, the eastern side of the island, and arriving in Havana, completely unwelcome. These migrants continue to come to Havana looking for work and a better life.

The term palestino is rather telling, as it refers to those who are fleeing the persistent poverty of Cuba’s heavily black eastern provinces, areas that have historically been plagued by higher poverty, unemployment, deficiencies in water access and an overall lower standard of living compared to the urban areas of Havana and other western parts of the island. The term is also a reference to the war-torn conditions of Palestine, where people living in their homeland are squeezed into controlled territories by the Israeli government. Living among open sewers, hand-rigged pipes that deliver water and electricity pilfered from power lines, the term also alludes to their shantytown, nomadic way of life — poor Cubans without a fixed home.

The issue of race (and thus racism) is clearly associated with Cuba’s palestinos, who are predominately darker skinned compared to their Habanero (Cubans from Havana) counterparts. Hailing from Oriente, in particular Santiago de Cuba, “the capital of Cuba’s black belt,” many (though certainly not all) of those from Oriente, including palestinos, are of African descent. Over the years the word palestino has become almost synonymous with black.

What’s become particularly racial about this westward migration to Havana is the extreme hostility toward these migrants, as well as official policy that tries to prevent them from moving into Havana and makes an effort to force them out. This racially charged immigration policy began to emerge in the 1990s during the severe economic depression that swept the island. According to one estimate, some 50,000 people migrated to Havana in 1996. In the spring of 1997, 92,000 people attempted to legalize their residency in the city.

“Palestinos were coming to Havana during a time when black Cubans already living in Havana were having a really rough time plugging themselves into the economy,” Alejandro de la Fuente, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies at Harvard University, told me. “So their migration added a layer to an already racially tense situation, and it was in that context that traditional inequalities became immediately racialized.”

But it wasn’t until 1997, when Fidel Castro announced that a growing “social indiscipline” attributed to the unchecked migration of Orientales to the capital, that years of racial tensions (not solely attributed to palestinos) finally crystallized into official policy. The presence of internal migrants, Castro argued, had resulted in an increase in violence, prostitution, crime, unemployment and indecent living standards. Something had to be done, he said.

In came Decreto Ley 217, a set of strict regulations that allowed local authorities to evict, fine, deport and demolish the homes of any person not formally registered to live in Havana. Fidel Castro, in other words, had created an undocumented status, in which thousands of mostly Afro-Cuban migrants had no legal right to live in Havana despite their Cuban citizenship. While palestinos have access to healthcare and education, they are legally denied access to other governmental safety provisions like shelter and “la libreta” — the food-rationing book that for many Cubans is their main source of meals. Young palestino children are malnourished and babies don’t get the milk the Cuban government would otherwise provide for them if they were in Oriente.

Like so many of the undocumented migrants living in the U.S., palestinos no longer have a home to return to. Regardless of their undocumented status, Havana is their home, and for many newer migrants and their children, Havana is all they know. As a result, Cuba has found itself with a broken immigration system that—like the U.S.—deports thousands of migrants back to a place that is no longer home only to see them return to Havana soon after. Just like the U.S., Cuba fails to address the root causes of this “illegal” migration.

As I learned about these hostile policies directed at palestinos, it seemed obvious to me that the almost entirely white Cuban government had created a racialized scapegoat for unfavorable conditions on the island. In reaction they had created what de la Fuente called “official policy that comes dangerously close to being an explicitly racial, if not racist, policy.” Granted, it’s important to remember that there were extreme housing and food shortages in Havana during the 1990s (which are both still true). Additionally, as de la Fuente pointed out, white or mestizo palestinos are also deported (though he did say that these Cubans tend to be less visible than Afro-Cuban palestinos, and are targeted less frequently). 

Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel that the government’s claim that “palestinos are a threat to Havana’s social order and well-being” was indirectly ascribed to these migrants’ blackness, and therefore a strategic attempt to control the racial makeup of the capital. This racial profiling can perhaps be seen most clearly in the capital’s ID policy, which requires all Cubans to carry ID cards that display (among other things) nationality, registered city of origin and their home address at all times. Police officers on the island have full authority to ask anyone, regardless of whether or not they have committed a crime or been involved in questionable activity, to show their ID card. It goes without saying that Afro-Cubans are asked to show their IDs much more frequently than lighter-skinned Cubans; a reality that further facilitates the deportations of palestinos. When I witnessed this exchange take place, it reminded me of Arizona’s 2012 “show me your papers” law.

The most ironic (and disheartening) aspect of this situation is that Fidel Castro, a native of Oriente himself, and his swarms of revolutionaries who rose up in the Oriente mountains in 1959, declared that the revolution would forever end racism (and subsequently the concept of race) on the island.

When I returned to the States, I couldn’t help but see painfully similar reflections of Cuba around me. Twelve-thousand Latin American children arrived at our borders this summer looking to escape poverty and extreme violence only to be told they would be deported back to their home countries. There have already been estimates that these children will most likely try entering the States again, and that in the very near future there will be even more of them. Those who do make it past our highly policed and lethal borders will join the 11 million mostly Latino undocumented migrants already living in this country who—like the palestinos—are denied official access to food stamps, healthcare, jobs and shelter

In a short Cuban film titled Buscandote Habana ("Looking for Havana"), an Afro-Cuban palestino pulls at the heartstrings of Cuba’s broken internal migration system. “They say [Havana] is the capital of all Cubans,” he says as he sits inside his home made of metal, cardboard and wood. “They say, welcome to the capital of all Cubans. But I know now that this is not the capital of all Cubans. Because what they are telling us is that we are not Cubans. So I want to know, what are we?”

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