Magazine article New Internationalist

Together but Not Scrambled: A Black English Man, Rotimi Ogedengbe, Visits Cuba and Discovers That the Island Is Not the Racism-Free Paradise It Claims to Be

Magazine article New Internationalist

Together but Not Scrambled: A Black English Man, Rotimi Ogedengbe, Visits Cuba and Discovers That the Island Is Not the Racism-Free Paradise It Claims to Be

Article excerpt

'All citizens have equal rights and are subject to equal duties. Discrimination because of race, colour, sex or national origin is forbidden and will be punished by law.' The Cuban Constitution, 1959.

I couldn't wait to get to Cuba. Like many a left-learning, independent traveller, I'd had a long-held ambition to get there 'before Castro dies and corporate America ushers in the age of McCuba'. But as a black English man what really drew me to Cuba was my perception of it as a model colour-blind society.

I had my first experience of Cuban officialdom at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. As a gesture of solidarity I wanted my passport stamped (due to the US embargo this only happens on request) but I chickened out when I caught sight of the surly, burly white-Cuban immigration official waiting for me in his booth. Dressed in immaculate military uniform, he was the kind of man who if he said it was Friday, it was Friday. He scrutinized my features for what seemed like an age, before finally letting me into his country.

I'd come to Cuba with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization who run language and culture exchanges. My plan was to do their four-week programme and then independently explore the island. I and the other (exclusively American) Global Exchangees were put up in the rather swanky Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana.

After our orientation meeting I took my first walk along Obispo, a narrow, car-free shopping street teeming with tourists and pulsing to the rhythm of live salsa music coming from the open-front bars and restaurants. Police officers, stylishly clad in dark bomber jackets and berets, were positioned at every junction. I noticed quite a few young black guys attaching themselves to tourists, using their routine opening gambits: 'Hello my friend... Americano? Ingles? Frances?...Cigar?... Cohiba?'

I caught the eye of a pint-sized, wiry white-Cuban police officer standing at the corner of the block. He beckoned me over. 'Identificacion,' he demanded. Assuming that he thought I was Cuban, I grinned, cheesily, and declared: 'Soy de Inglaterra.' (I'm from England.) 'Identificacion,' he repeated. Mildly amused, I handed him my driving licence. After a minute of po-faced scrutiny he handed it back. He then dismissed me with a contemptuous flick of the back of his hand. I trudged off, shaking my head.

Just to round off my walk, the commissionaire, a white-Cuban chap with the physical presence of an elephant, challenged me at the entrace to my hotel: 'Que quiere?' (What do you want?), he asked, bluntly. 'I'm not Cuban,' I announced, peevishly, in my best Queen's English. He smiled and explained, apologetically, that my face was very Cuban. This wasn't the last time that this would be said to me. As Franklin, a white-Cuban student whom I met at Havana University, explained, 'Man, you don't just look Cuban, you look like a serious Cuban up to no good.'

I was stopped six times by police during my first week in town and routinely challenged at the entrance to buildings. Franklin's take on it was that jineteros (street hustlers) needed to be kept away from tourists for the good of the economy: 'When a jinetero sells, for example, Cohiba cigars to a tourist for $25 the Government loses much money because in the shops this will cost, maybe, $250,' he explained. 'Which means less money for the Government to buy food and medicine for the people.'

After three weeks in Old Havana I began to get a little frustrated. As part of a group of predominantly white, middle-class Americans staying in a flash hotel, I felt like an honorary, bubble-wrapped fat cat. I got on well with the Americans - they were good company and had what I considered to be good politics - but the whole group thing was acting like a barrier between me and a more visceral experience of Cuba.

Things got a lot more real when Victor, a 30-year-old black-Cuban construction worker, struck up a conversation with me while I was sitting on a bench. …

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