In Cuba, racial inequality deepens with tourism boom
In Cuba, racial inequality deepens with tourism boom
By Chris Arsenault
HAVANA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As warming relations with the
United States bring new money and tourists to Havana, some black Cubans
like Miguel Campuzano Perez say racial inequalities are widening and
they are being left out of a potential capitalist boom.
Cuba’s economy grew by 4 percent in 2015 and more than 3.5 million
tourists visited the island in the year Washington and Havana restored
diplomatic ties, ending more than five decades of Cold War animosity.
New hotels and restaurants are opening around the capital famous for its
colonial architecture and 1950s American cars, and Cubans with money to
invest in businesses have seen living standards improve.
But with no access to capital, and no family living abroad to send back
money, 54-year-old Perez said he and other black Cubans are being
excluded from the benefits of economic liberalization.
“The black people don’t have powerful families, and that continues
generation to generation,” Perez, a musician and former soldier, told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The people benefiting from remittances are white; the landlords are white.”
As capitalism creeps into Cuba more than 60 years after a revolution
that promised social equality, local residents and analysts are
concerned about the gap between the haves and have nots and the ethnic
undertones of growing inequality on the island.
‘WHITE FLIGHT – TO MIAMI’
Just under 10 percent of Cubans identified themselves as black in the
country’s 2012 census. But statistics on Cuba’s racial makeup are
imprecise as more than a quarter of the population is a mix between
various ethnic groups.
Following Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the government of Fidel Castro,
brother of current president Raul, introduced laws on racial inclusion,
launched a literacy campaign, and universal public services in an
attempt to tackle entrenched inequality.
African slaves, primarily from West Africa, were brought to Cuba by
Spanish colonizers from the 1500s to work on the sugar plantations.
Slavery was formally abolished on the island in 1886 but blacks were
still banned from some high-end establishments and excluded from
well-paid, and most Afro-Cubans worked on plantations or as manual laborers.
Free education and healthcare programs from the communist government
helped made it possible for previously disadvantaged groups to get jobs
as teachers, doctors or government workers in the 1960s, residents said.
“Afro-Cubans have been the biggest reservoir of support for the
revolution and are those most affected by worsening inequality,” Paolo
Spadoni, a political scientist at Augusta University in the United
States told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Today, outright discrimination isn’t the main cause of the growing
wealth gap between blacks and whites, Havana residents said. Rather,
migration networks, remittances and broader economic changes are the
Much of the island’s predominately white business elite left following
the revolution with many settling in Miami, Florida, just 90 miles (150
km) from the Cuban coast.
“The vast majority who left to live abroad happened to be white Cubans,”
said Isaac Saney, a Canadian university professor who researchers ethnic
issues in Cuba.
“They are sending remittances home and their relatives can invest in
small businesses. This has led to an increase in racial inequality,” he
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner,
ravaged the island’s economy, making life particularly difficult for
residents who didn’t have family members abroad.
The average salary for a government worker, about $25 per month, has
lost three quarters of its purchasing power since 1989, Spadoni said.
While poorly paid, many state workers continue to receive other perks
like subsidized food, and accommodation.
Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban peso which is paid to state
employees and is worth about $0.04 and the Convertible Peso, which is
worth one US dollar.
In the pursuit of foreign currency, professors left university jobs to
work as hotel waiters and doctors took to driving taxis.
Some black Cubans say they have trouble getting comparatively lucrative
jobs in hotels, because of discrimination.
“You need to be white to get good work,” said Daniel Alberto Suarez, 42,
an informal tour-guide, while drinking rum with two female European clients.
“Hotel and bar owners are making good money, but for regular people life
is hard. I have no family abroad to send me money.”
A raft of economic reforms beginning in 2008 made it easier for Cubans
to open private businesses, intensifying the importance of remittances
as start-up capital.
Miguel Hernandez, who has light skin, manages a restaurant popular with
foreigners in old Havana earning $100 per day, a large salary by local
“There is a lot of inequality between my friends who work for the state,
and me who works in tourism,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“People will study to be a doctor, hang the title on the wall, then go
work in a restaurant.”
‘PRESERVING THE REVOLUTION’
While many young people, black and white, said they’re positive about
Cuba’s new direction, some older Cubans are concerned about what they
could lose and what it could mean for the island’s society.
“We need keep the ideas of the revolution: free education, healthcare,
taking care of the elderly and racial equality,” Maria Luz Fernandez,
52, a primary school administrator, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Earning $40 per month, Fernandez, who is of mixed race ancestry, is well
aware she earns less than young waiters from her neighborhood who walk
by the school wearing flashy cloths and knock-off designer watches.
Young people want big houses and cars, but “the revolution can’t afford
to provide that for everyone,” she said, her long, gold fingernail
extensions tapping the table.
With more foreign money coming into the economy, she hopes the benefits
will trickle down, and teachers and other state employees will
eventually see higher salaries.
“When the Americans come, (there will be less) equality,” she said, as
children wearing school uniforms and carrying pink Barbie backpacks wait
for their parents.
“The government needs to share the new wealth with the people.”
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Ros Russell please add:;
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Source: In Cuba, racial inequality deepens with tourism boom – Yahoo