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FEATURE - In Cuba, racial inequality deepens with tourism boom

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | @chrisarsenaul | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 February 2016 14:00 GMT

Some black Cubans say racial inequalities are widening and they are being left out of a potential capitalist boom

By Chris Arsenault

HAVANA, Feb 2 (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.


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 labourers.

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 driving factors.

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 standards.

"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."


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 neighbourhood 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:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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