Sunday, November 30, 2008

Why Castro regime fears Obama administration

Posted on Sunday, 11.30.08
Why Castro regime fears Obama administration

Since Nov. 4, Cuba has been experiencing a bad case of the Obama Blues.
The election of the United States' first African-American president 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.'' 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.''

Although that off-handed 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 United States. 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!''

What is eating away at Cuba's leaders? Very little makes sense without
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
percent of the total Cuban population when Castro triumphed 50 years
ago. Four years later, the panicky flight of some 15-20 percent 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

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,'' paints a stark picture of the real situation
of blacks in Cuba 50 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

The old segregationist Cuba is gone, but the country's leadership
continues to be predominantly white (71 percent), 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 percent). A robust percentage of
able-bodied Cubans with jobs are white, whether male (66.9 percent) or
female (63.8 percent). In contrast, the employment rate of blacks who
are fit to work is startlingly low (34.2 percent). We are left to
conclude that most able-bodied black Cubans are unemployed (65.8
percent). The statistics show that a majority of the country's
scientists and technicians are white (72.7 percent), 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 percent) for these stark contrasts. An overwhelming
majority of Cubans of both races agreed that ''racial prejudice
continues to be current on the island'' (75 percent). Ironically, among
whites the disparities were attributed to blacks being ''less
intelligent than whites'' (58 percent) and ''devoid of decency'' (69

Mounting frustrations explain why a growing number of black Cubans
(currently estimated at 16 percent) 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 percent), 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 percent) of the Cuban-American community is
a political liability in a Cuba that is predominantly black.

Lifting the current ban on travel to Cuba and on sending of remittances
to the island would incite hundred of thousands of these moderate Cuban
Americans, as well as other U.S. 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 multi-racial 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. 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 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
U.S. prestige in the world. Cubans are less likely now than ever to
believe that the United States 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 commitments to doomed crusades on behalf of former
racial entitlements or the recovery of their grandparents' former luxury

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 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.

Carlos Moore, ethnologist and political scientist, wrote Pichón: Race
and Revolution in Castro's Cuba.

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