South Africa: Overt Racism Gives Cuban Ideal a Sinister Hue
Jacob Dlamini. Business Day (Johannesburg). Posted September 24, 2006.
Johannesburg - I HAVE lived in the US on and off for the past three
years and have yet to experience racial profiling, or what people of
colour in America know as walking/driving/breathing while black. I spent
three weeks in Cuba in 2000, and was subjected to racial profiling five
times -- all in one day.
I am sure, then, that the Congress of South African Trade Unions
(Cosatu), the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African
Communist Party (SACP) -- who swear by Cuba and all it stands for --
will understand why a leftist like me is not as enthusiastic as they are
about that socialist island. I had my love of Cuba mugged out of me by
Racial profiling, for those who have not heard of it, is a phenomenon
whereby people get stopped by the police for looking, well, black and
therefore, in the minds of the police doing the profiling, suspicious.
You could be driving down a busy highway, walking through a shopping
mall, or just taking a walk through your neighbourhood. You only have to
be or look black to qualify for racial profiling.
My experience of racial profiling in Cuba came on the last day of what
had been a wonderful holiday in which my girlfriend and I had travelled
around the south in Santiago de Cuba, taking in the island's majestic
tobacco fields and pub crawling through the capital Havana's districts.
We had decided to take it easy for the last week, and had moved to a
small town just outside Havana called Guanabo. The town had better
beaches than Havana and, what's more, these were not the property of
some hotel chain, meaning they were open to everyone, including ordinary
My girlfriend was returning directly to SA and left early, while I was
flying back to school in the US, and had to take a midnight flight. With
nothing to do but eat, read and do some sightseeing (again) in a town I
had come to know fairly well, I decided to rather take a long leisurely
walk up and down the beach.
I had been walking for about 10 minutes when two policemen stationed at
the beach motioned for me to come over to them. Thinking they were being
friendly and wanted to chat with a tourist, I went over. The one who
looked as though he was in charge said something in Spanish. The only
word I caught out was documento. "It's at home," I said. They quickly
realised I wasn't local, and let me go. I continued with my walk.
It happened again about half-an-hour later, only with a different set of
policemen. Them: "Documento?" Me: a shrug and a point in the direction
of where I was staying. They let me go. I was bemused and, being in
holiday mode, slow on the uptake.
I was not amused the third time it happened. I was not the only tourist
on the beach, and there were enough of us to keep the cops busy. But I
was the only dark-skinned person there. I asked the third set why they
were stopping me and demanding to see my documento. One of them just
shrugged his shoulders and rubbed his left index finger against his
right arm as if to say it was just a colour thing. Nothing personal. I
By the fourth time, I was in a foul mood, said something about fascismo
and pointed at the two Italian men who happened to be walking past us
just then, asking why the police were not stopping them and demanding to
see their papers.
I did not even stop for the fifth set of cops and told them to their
faces to f**k off! By the way, the 10 or so policemen I dealt with that
day were either AfroCubans or Cubans of mixed descent.
Then I started thinking about how all the prostitutes seemed to be young
black women and men; how all the jobs in the tourism industry -- from
the state-owned taxis to the hotel receptions -- seemed to be held by
only white or very light-skinned Cubans; how on the few occasions that I
managed to watch Cuban television, there were no black Cubans on TV.
Except once, and he was only part of a band.
You might ask why anyone would want to visit an island that quarantines
people with HIV/AIDS, treats its gay and lesbian citizens like
criminals, and dishes out passports the same way a parent gives out
candy to an obedient child -- be nice and you will be handsomely
rewarded with a pack of sweets.
But Cuba is about more than just tourism for many of us. It helped
liberate southern Africa and offered, for a time, a way of looking at
the current world and imagining a different one. That is why South
Africans continue to visit it.
I have told this story numerous times over the past five years and
people always ask the inevitable question: would I recommend Cuba as a
tourist destination? My answer is always yes. Just don't go there
expecting a socialist haven where solidarity reigns supreme.
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