Racism in Cuba persists despite government efforts, prominent Afro-Cuban artist says
Cuba has a black vice president and a black president of the National Assembly, but that says little about the racial disparities and racist practices that persist in Cuban society and take the central stage in the work of Cuban visual artist Juan Roberto Diago.
“Cuba is a society that has tried to transform constantly, but racism has mutated to other subtle levels and remains in Cuban society,” despite government’s efforts, he said in an interview a few weeks after the opening of his exhibition “Diago: The pasts of this Afro-Cuban present” in late October at the Lowe Art Museum in Miami.
Diago is one of the most successful contemporary Cuban artists, whose work channels a different story of the Cuban nation, one told from the voice and history of the Afro-Cuban population, marked by the heritage of slavery.
Throughout his career, since the 1990s, he has also been an active member of “the anti-racist movement in Cuba,” professor Alejandro de la Fuente said. He is the director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University, and the curator of Diago’s exhibition.
“We are still a neglected population, the same in Cuba as in the U.S.,” the artist said, adding that this is very personal to him. “I am the one who gets asked for his ID on the streets, who they look at, and make racist gestures at.”
The artist also mentioned racial slurs used in everyday language in Cuba, such as “he had to be black” and “negro bembón” [roughly translated as a black person with big lips]. “I am the one who suffers all those daily expressions because I am black,” he said.
The faces in many of Diago’s paintings have no mouth, only big eyes that stare at the viewer.
“These are faces that look at you from the front, challenging you, without a mouth since they cannot speak because, over time, the word was taken away from us but not the thought,” he explained. “We express ourselves through music, spiritually, we don’t have the force of political discourse.”
After coming to power, Fidel Castro established policies for equal access to schools, jobs, and other services that led to the social mobility of the island’s black and mixed-race population.
More recently, under his brother, Raúl Castro, the government promoted Afro-Cubans to leadership positions in the National Assembly and the State Council. But Cuban authorities have been reluctant to implement affirmative policies. The government has also tried to limit the development of a grassroots Afro-Cuban movement.
And in the last two decades, the economic crisis and emigration patterns have exacerbated the social disadvantages that affect a large part of the Cuban black population.
“The government does not marginalize children or any population to attend a hospital or a school, but the inequalities continue, and those most affected by them are blacks,” Diago said. “It’s a fight, it is being debated, there are many government commissions to study the problem, but it still exists.”
Racial inequalities have different expressions on the island, the artist said, among them: blacks’ over-representation in the prison population, poor wages, little presence in the private sector, and lower access to remittances, as most Cuban émigrés are white.
“The majority of the opposition in Cuba today is of the black race, why?” Diago asked. “We are talking about a country with difficulties and deficiencies, but those difficulties are felt more by the peasant that is there in the mountains making coal to be able to eat, and the neglected black who lives in the city’s peripheral neighborhoods.”
Last week, Cuban Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas announced the creation of a “National Program against Racism and Racial Discrimination” and a government commission, headed by Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel, to implement it.
According to local press reports, the program aims at “identifying the causes that foster racial discrimination practices,” “diagnosing possible actions to be carried out by territory,” disseminating the African cultural legacy, and encouraging public debate.
In the past, the government has promoted similar initiatives with few concrete results, as activists have denounced.
Some activists have received the news of the new commission with some skepticism.
Cuban essayist and activist Roberto Zurbano welcomed the initiative on a post in Facebook but warned that the new commission “should not suffer the fate of the previous ones who finished their work too limited, silenced and without effect, with many ideas aborted.”
“That there is the political will to give this issue proper attention is an excellent first step,” de la Fuente said. “But for this commission to be really effective, it must initiate an honest and inclusive dialogue with Cuba’s anti-racist activists, who have different positions and ideas, all valuable.”
Diago said he prefers to focus on his art and set aside “sterile discussions. In the end, the creation is what remains, above any president or government of the day. What interests me is to leave my creative mark.”
Recently, the government also passed Decree 349, which legalizes the regulation and censorship of art. Diago called the decree “absurd.”
“The most absurd thing is to impose decrees on creation, it is stupid because creation is free,” he said. “When one is in front of a blank canvas, when I am looking for the materials to do my work, I am not thinking of decrees.”
The exhibition “Diago: the pasts of this Afro-Cuban present,” currently at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, will run through Jan. 19, 2020.
By: Nora Gámez Torre