Six-day event in Pittsburgh targets discrimination in Cuba

Fidel Castro declared it nonexistent, but racism is still pervasive in a country known more for its rich culture


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Think Cuba, and images of music, dance, cuisine and the 1959 revolution come to mind. But one of the most pervasive pictures has been hush-hush since Fidel Castro declared racism and all talk of it nonexistent by fiat.

Amid such denial and a lack of legal recourse, pervasive racism has been a silent scourge on 60 percent of the population considered black or mulatto.

A group of Cubans attending AfricAmericas, a six-day event being held here through today, told stories that most U.S. blacks would find familiar, "but it is not like here," said Manuel Cuesta Morua, who has been a tour guide, history teacher and a museum director whose political activism cost him his job. "In Cuba, we are all equal, but [blacks] can't be in the media. We have the same education, but we can't have that job.

"Here there are civic tools" and a justice system that can work, he said. "We have no political or symbolic representation, no access to the emerging economy" and no avenues to leadership positions.

Mr. Cuesta and four other members of Cuba's Citizens Committee for Racial Integration spoke Wednesday to a crowd of 60 at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh on the North Side.

AfricAmericas has featured conversation, film, poetry, photography and cultural exchange highlighting Cuba. A photo exhibition, "Crossing Havana," by Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna is on display from noon to 3 p.m. today at the Young Men and Women's African Heritage Association, 1205 Boyle St., Central North Side.

"It took heaven and earth to get these men here, and not just financially," said Kenya Dworkin, director of Coro Latinoamericano and a professor of Hispanic studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She organized the events in collaboration with the heritage association.

The fact that the Cuban government let black activists travel was historic, she said. The men described their humiliation at the Havana Airport, where they were the only blacks on their flight. Besides being stared at, they were relieved of cameras, CDs, thumb drives and information they were going to share at AfricAmericas.

Asked Wednesday by a woman in the audience if they are at risk, Leonardo Calvo Cardenas, a writer and historian, said, "The risk was there before we came and it will be there when we go back."

They have been arrested, followed and threatened. So far, there has been no physical violence, they said, adding that the government has sewn the fear of self-subjugation into most people.

Mr. Madrazo, coordinator of the Citizens Committee, said the committee is "a pressure group, like a lobby. Racism in Cuba is a political conflict" because of government rhetoric that it doesn't exist. "Now the government admits it but does not show evidence of a will to change the agenda.

"We are grateful for the ability to come here and share a difficult subject that puts Cuba's future in danger."

Two of the men now live in the United States.

Rafel Campoamor Sanchez, who has visited black communities throughout Latin America, was expelled from Cuba as he was trying to organize The Click Festival, an event intended to introduce the empowering possibilities of social media and technology. He is living with his brother in Texas.

"Of all the countries I have visited," he said, "Cuba has the most to overcome" in race relations. "But of 200 million black Latinos, almost all of them live at the base of the social pyramid."

Ms. Dworkin, a Cuban native, said black citizens there have access to education but few are allowed to make the most of it. Besides being segregated by housing, they are consigned to the worst of it.

The theme of "Crossing Havana" is that blacks live in "the other city" of Havana.

Juan Antonio Alvarado Ramos, the editor of ISLAS, a quarterly journal published in Spanish and English, left Cuba in 2000 and lives in Florida. ISLAS deals with racial issues in Cuba and is giving voice to more and more intellectuals.

"ISLAS really worries the Cuban government," Mr. Calvo said. "When the authorities get nervous, it means good things are happening. If people with their disquiet could connect, it would become an explosive island."

He told the crowd Wednesday night, "We feel very stimulated by your interest."

"If in the last few years the government has recognized there is racism, it's because of internal pressure and platforms like the Citizens Committee," said Mr. Alvarado, who is white. "Anti-racism forces are growing. Just the fact that this event is happening attests to that."

AfricAmericas events today: noon to 3 p.m., "Crossing Havana" photo exhibit, Young Men and Women's African Heritage Association, 1205 Boyle St., Central North Side; 4 to 5:30 p.m., Afro-Latin workshops, Frick Fine Arts building, Oakland; 7 to 9:30 p.m., AfricAmericas concert, Frick Fine Arts auditorium, Oakland.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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