Baltimore residents Myra Queen and her husband, Albert in Cuba. They spent a week there learning about cultural connections between Afro Cubans and African Americans. During the trip, Queen said she also noticed racism on the island. (Photo courtesy of Myra Queen)
Myra Queen, who knows what discrimination looks like having grown up in a segregated section of Baltimore during the 1950s and ‘60s, said she saw subtle patterns of racism play out during a recent trip to Cuba.
Queen, 66, said she noticed during her weeklong trip that most of the staff waiting on her in restaurants were White. So were the people behind the counter at her hotel, despite the island’s large Black population.
Jeffrey Smith of California who was also on the trip, observed that Afro Cubans are almost invisible on the island, saying they are seen, but not necessarily heard.
“It just harkens back to the ‘60s when we were cooking and cleaning in hotels and not given management positions,” Smith, 55, said.
Queen and Smith were part of a 23-member group that was in Cuba from June 4-11, thanks to a cultural exchange through Morgan State University. DeWayne Wickham, founding dean of the university’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, takes Black journalists, students and professionals to the island twice a year to learn about Afro Cubans and their connection to Black Americans.
Wickham, formerly a USA Today syndicated columnist, has arranged the trips through his Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies since 2000. He said the mainstream media wasn’t covering Afro Cubans and their issues to his satisfaction, so he took matters into his own hands.
“It’s important to take Black journalists to Cuba because the stories we find are the stories that too often seem to be ignored overlooked by White journalists when they get there,” Wickham said. “It’s not mean spirited, it’s that their life experiences don’t drive them toward those stories.”
Several members of the delegation talked about racism on the island with Esteban Morales Domínguez, a leading Afro-Cuban intellectual and Nancy Morejón, an Afro-Cuban poet, essayist and critic.
Morales, author of “Race in Cuba: Essays of the Revolution and Racial Equality,” called racism a cultural problem that many people deny exists.
He said he is trying to push the Cuban government to compile and release a list of employees in the island’s lucrative tourism industry by race and by job. Morales compiled a 2008 report for the Cuban government that showed between 62 percent and 72 percent of the island’s 11 million population was Black. But his report also revealed that the overwhelming majority of scientists, civic and public leaders and professors at the University of Havana were White.
Tourism is an important cash cow for Cuba. A record-setting 3.5 million tourists visited the island in 2015, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Growth from American visitors to the once-forbidden island is expected to keep growing as well. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved regularly scheduled flights for six U.S. airlines to several Cuban cities — routes to Havana will be announced later on this summer. The service, expected to begin this fall, follows policy changes President Barack Obama announced at the end of 2014 that ease travel and trade restrictions to the island.
Travel and tourism accounted for 494,500 jobs on the island or nearly 10 percent of total employment in 2014, a report from the World Travel and Tourism Council stated. However, Morales contends that Blacks in the tourism industry are relegated to jobs in the kitchen and in housekeeping—away from tourists. Management positions and other important jobs within that industry usually go to Whites, he said.
“We must erase this difficulty inside the population,” Morales said. “Blacks and Whites must have the same opportunity.”
Cuban officials did not respond to AFRO requests for comment.
Racial issues are very delicate subjects on the island, and the effects of centuries of colonialism and slavery still remain, Morejón said. However, Morejón takes exception to outsiders criticizing Cuba.
She singled out Cornel West, who with 59 other Black American intellectuals signed a statement in 2010 that was critical of the communist Cuban government. The group denounced what they said was the Cuban government’s increased civil and human rights violations against Black activists who speak out against racism.
Morejón dubbed West a “victim of a great campaign against the Cuban government.”
“Cuba is not a paradise at all,” Morejón added. “But Cuba is not hell.