INTERVIEW: Afro-Cuban writer PEDRO-PEREZ SARDUY explains how the lot of Cuba‘s black population has changed in recent years.
PEDRO-PEREZ Sarduy remembers the day in 1959 when Che Guevara came to the central square of his home town Santa Clara.
“The square was packed,” he relates. “We were all excited and avid to see and hear this hero of the revolution. At the front of the crowd were the white Cubans, behind them were the mixed race people and the blacks stood at the back. That’s the way things were.”
At the time, Sarduy was just a young boy. Today, he is a leading Afro-Cuban poet, writer and journalist whose most recent book The Maids of Havana tackles the experience of growing up black in Cuba. …
While, in 1959, the Afro-Cubans still had to stand at the back to catch a glimpse of Che, almost all blacks were supporters of the revolution, as it represented their liberation too.
Today, racial issues and discrimination are not as clear cut in Cuba as in the US or Europe. There are leading figures in government and party who are black, but there are hardly any black TV presenters.
“In the past,” says Sarduy, “black history had been given expression in films such as Ultima Cena, but we called them ‘negro metraje’ or blaxploitation films, because they only looked at the slave period, ignoring contemporary race issues.”
Only a recent a film El Benny, about renowned Afro-Cuban musician Benny More, addressed these problems. Renny Arozarena, who played More, won best actor at the Locarno Film Festival. …
“Cuba was long in denial about the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. As throughout the socialist world, it was asserted that a socialist country, by definition, could not be discriminatory and thus the issue was swept under the red carpet.”
One incident in particular backs up this claim.
When, moved and shocked by the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the great contemporary Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a heartfelt paean to his memory. In it, with inadvertent but embarrassing racial stereotyping, he alluded to King’s soul being ‘white as a driven snow’.”
Incensed, black Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen answered with a scathing poem describing Martin Luther King’s soul as being “black as the coal ripped out of the Earth’s entrails.”
Both poets were committed communists, but the sharp exchange underlined the oft-present misguided and dangerous assumption that, under socialism, we all automatically lose our cultural prejudices and references and separate traditions and identities simply disappear or become irrelevant.
“Of course, life improved tremendously for black Cubans after the 1959 revolution, but race is still a card that favours light skin and gets played every day,” says Sarduy. “Played, but not discussed openly, until recently.
“Young black people, especially through the medium of rap music or reggaeton, are saying things openly that would never have been voiced before.”
So, does Sarduy believe that black Cubans still support the revolution?
“Yes, I believe so,” he replies. “The history of Cuba from the wars of independence and the slave uprisings in the 16th and 17th centuries attest to the involvement of black Cubans in all those struggles. …
“It is amazing how Cuba has changed since the 1990s,” Sarduy says. “After the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba was forced to confront its own reality. It now stood alone and it had to forge a new unity among the people.”
The Communist Party opened its ranks to those with religious convictions and there was an acknowledgement that Cuba had a mixed cultural background.
Black people began find to a new pride in their colour and culture.
Increasingly, in the Cuban arts scene, you can see people returning to their cultural roots. Cuban universities are beginning to teach African studies for the first time.
Even issues such as sexual discrimination have been shifted up the agenda. Raul Castro’s late wife Vilma Espin was a vociferous campaigner for women’s and gay rights and now their daughter Mariela Castro Espin is continuing that campaign, demanding that Cuba recognises gay marriage, which would be a Latin American first.
The long-term future of Cuba, which stands on the threshold of the historic 50th anniversary of the revolution and is coming to terms with the mortality of a great revolutionary leader, is as yet uncertain.
But Sarduy is sure that, whatever happens to Castro, Afro-Cubans will be among the staunchest defenders of its achievements and most passionate advocates of its continuity.
“They will hold on to that island for the sake of their ancestors, who fought for this country,” he says. “It was not given to them. It was not a handout. They fought for it.”
Gloria Rolando has been revealing hidden chapters of Cuban history since the 2010 premiere of the first part of her documentary series “1912: Breaking the Silence,” about the virtually unknown story about the only legal political party to promote racial equality in this country: here.
Prominent gay and transgender rights activist Mariela Castro called on US citizens on Thursday to press their government to “remove the economic and social blockades” on Cuba: here.