Commentary: Why Castro fears Obama administration

Special to McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 19, 2008 

Since Nov. 4, Cuba has been experiencing a bad case of the "Obama Blues." The election of the first African-American president of the United States was conspicuously downplayed by the Cuban media. President-elect Barack Obama's victory went unheralded in Granma, the official mouthpiece of both the government and the ruling Communist party; it was relegated to the back pages. On the streets, however, ordinary Cubans were reported to be exultant. All of a sudden, the Cuban people no longer hated the "enemy."

This shunning of an event of such global impact may surprise people accustomed to Havana's outspokenness regarding American leaders. In my view, Havana's silence betrays more than uncertainty about Obama's future policies. Cuba, I am inclined to believe, is nervous about the impact that a black president in the White House could have upon its own black population.

On Nov. 15, Fidel Castro, referring to Obama in passing and refraining from mentioning his name, spoke of "a simple change of leadership in the empire." [1] He sneered at those "who entertain illusions about a possible change in the system." However, his uneasiness was already apparent on the eve of the presidential election, when he rather clumsily wrote that, "Obama, the democratic candidate, is part African, and the color black and other physical traits of that race predominate in him…. He is no doubt more intelligent, educated, and level headed than his Republican rival." [2]

Although that offhanded comment may seem trivial, reports from inside Cuba have reinforced my suspicion that, contrary to the sentiments of the streets, the Cuban regime is experiencing great discomfort with the turn of events in the US. Anthropologist Maria Ileana Faguagua Iglesias reports a racist outburst toward Obama by a Communist Party official and former military officer. "He will be the worst ever American president," said this apparatchik, "because he is a Negro, and they are worse than the Whites!"[3]

What is eating away at Cuba's leaders?

Very little makes sense without the knowledge of Cuba's demographic metamorphosis from a white to a black majority in the space of half a century. The black population was 35-45% of the total Cuban population when Castro triumphed fifty years ago. Four years later, the panicky flight of some 15-20% of the island's white population, fearing the new regime's sweeping socialist reforms, left Castro at the head of a country with a de facto black majority. For the next five decades, the darkening shade of Cubans would increase steadily and create unanticipated problems for the social reformers who launched the Revolution.

Cuba has maintained that the Revolution eradicated racism, abolished discrimination, and established a unique "racial democracy." However, in 1994, in the overwhelmingly black area along the seafront in Central Havana, angry, rock-throwing crowds took to the streets, shattered windows, and attacked the police. The regime shuddered; this was the closest thing to a race riot Cuba had seen since the Revolution. Only Castro's arrival at the scene kept the violence from escalating out of control. Cuba reacted to this explosion by allowing a mini-exodus of more than 32,000 predominantly black rafters to leave for South Florida, thereby presenting the Clinton administration with a near-crisis.

In the absence of the charismatic Castro and with the presence of a widely admired black president in the White House, might the occurrence of another such racially charged event spin out of control? Judging from signals coming out of Cuba, the leadership fears so and may be wary of Obama's proposed open-door policy.

Cuba does have reason to fear. Brought to light in 2008, the first official document addressing the issue of race in Cuba under the Revolution, The Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba, [4] paints a stark picture of the real situation of blacks in Cuba fifty years after the Revolution. Although Cuba's downtrodden benefited from the social benefits in education and health that the Revolution introduced, this graphic, 385-page document, supported by a bounty of hitherto unpublicized statistics, speaks of neglect, denial, and the powerful resurgence of racism in Cuba under Communism. The old segregationist Cuba is gone, but the country's leadership continues to be predominantly white (71%), according to this document.

The publication shows a growing impoverishment of the population as a whole, but it emphasizes that black Cubans are disproportionately affected. In the countryside, the land is almost totally in the hands of whites (98%). A robust percentage of able-bodied Cubans with jobs are white, whether male (66.9%) or female (63.8%). In contrast, the employment rate of blacks who are fit to work is startlingly low (34.2%). We are left to conclude that most able-bodied black Cubans are unemployed (65.8%). The statistics show that a majority of the country's scientists and technicians are white (72.7%), even though both races have equal rates of education.

What has caused such racial disparities after five decades of radical change? Blacks overwhelmingly blamed "racial discrimination" in hiring and promotion (60.8%) for these stark contrasts. An overwhelming majority of Cubans of both races agreed that "racial prejudice continues to be current on the island" (75%). Ironically, among whites the disparities were attributed to blacks being "less intelligent than whites" (58%) and "devoid of decency" (69%). Mounting frustrations explain why a growing number of black Cubans (presently estimated at 16%) favor the creation of specifically black political parties to achieve equality.

The 1.5 million strong Cuban-American community, of which a significant portion in South Florida voted for Barack Obama (35%), is watching things closely. Many, especially the younger generation, have forsaken the racial bigotry of their parents and evinced a growing awareness that the predominantly white face (85%) of the Cuban-American community is a political liability in a Cuba that is predominately black. Lifting the current ban on travel to Cuba and on the sending of remittances to the island would incite hundred of thousands of these moderate Cuban-Americans, as well as other US tourists, to travel to the island and spread the news about a changing America where whites will be a dwindling minority in the coming decades, where democracy works, and where minorities are making healthy strides toward gaining power and wealth while creating the basis for a truly multiracial society.

Such circumstances would place unbearable strain on the regime's ideological armor. Many analysts believe that the Castro regime is not prepared for that Brave New World and may find it threatening. An open-door policy toward the island and the lifting of the embargo—measures that President-elect Obama has promised—would ultimately discredit and potentially destabilize the regime. Simply put, an Obama administration would dissolve the anti-American posture that has united Cubans around their government for the past fifty years.

Cuba's race question is bound to become a core Civil Rights issue in Cuban-American relations. Not without reason, the post-Fidel leadership has already begun to warn of what it calls a possible "new form of ideological confrontation" and fret over the possibility of what it calls "racial subversion" waged by the United States. [5] I believe the post-Fidel managerial elites fully understand that the only way for them to hang on to power is to consolidate support among the majority population, which implies broadening black participation in the political leadership, the economy, the media, and the cultural institutions. In the current circumstances, to continue disregarding the racial aspirations of the black majority, as has been done in the past, would be tantamount to suicide.

The bottom line is that racism is Cuba's most intractable problem. Only an arrangement implying effective power sharing between the island's two dominant groups can prepare the ground for a reversal of Cuba's socio-racial conundrum. This would call for an entirely new institutional framework that includes the reinvigoration of civil society, the implementation of robust racial affirmative action policies in all spheres, the revival of independent cultural and social institutions, an independent media and free press, and the existence of autonomous political movements, associations and parties. None of this is possible without a profound revamping of society, the establishment of the rule of law by an impartial judiciary that enforces respect for internationally accepted norms of civil and human rights, the holding of a national referendum whereby Cubans may freely determine the sort of society under which they wish to live, and the holding of national multi-party elections for all elective offices.

Paradoxically, the example set by the once-considered arch-rival United States has become attractive to Cuba's have-nots and may now act as further incentive to press for democratic changes. Cubans evince a growing interest in the Civil Rights movement that paved the way for what many call the "Obama miracle." As black Cubans draw a balance sheet of their gains and losses under the Revolution, comparing them with the steady strides of African-Americans in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, they may find many reasons to feel cheated. Cuba's leaders may, therefore, have cause to fret over a reinvigorated American democracy and the restoration of US prestige in the world.

Cubans are less likely now than ever to believe that the US is bent on invading them or restoring the hated white rulers of old. The latter, too, have been visited by change, as the aging, die-hard and ultra-right anti-Castro militants give way to liberal-minded Cuban-Americans more concerned about success in America as citizens than committed to doomed crusades on behalf of former racial entitlements or the recovery of their grandparents' former luxury mansions.

A black American president whose moderate and humane views have garnered worldwide sympathy and support sharply undercuts the legitimacy of a 50-year old confrontational policy that relied heavily on mass black support. The unfreezing of American-Cuban relations, which President-elect Obama has also promised, may indeed prove threatening to a leadership that may be looking at the future through the barrel of its own gun. Suddenly, all of the claims the Castro regime has made over the years to buttress its resistance to change seem to be unraveling. A black man in the White House may predictably accelerate the ticking of Cuba's social reform clock. So, does Cuba have an Obama problem? The answer is a resounding yes—it does.

About the Author Ethnologist and political scientist Carlos Moore is the author of the newly released, Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Moore is an honorary research fellow in the University off the West Indies School for Graduate Studies and Research in Kingston, Jamaica.

Resources
[1] Fidel Casto, Reflections by Comrade Fidel: The Washington Meeting, Granma, Nov. 15, 2008.
[2] Fidel Castro, Reflections by Comrade Fidel: The November 4 Elections, Granma, Nov. 4, 2008.
[3] Maria Ileana Faguagua Iglesias, Barack Obama: Desafío en Washington y La Habana, Nov. 11, 2008, sent by e-mail from Cuba.
[4] Esteban Morales Domínguez, Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba, La Habana: Fundación Fernando Ortiz, 2007.
[5] See: Esteban Morales Dominguez, "Anti-Cuban subversion: the race issue" ("El tema racial y la subversión anticubana"), La Jiribilla, 8-14 September 2007. Source: http://www.walterlippmann.com/docs1516.html and http://www.lajiribilla.co.cu/2007/n331_09/331_18.html Accessed: April 13, 2008.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service