Cien Horas Con Fidel
(One Hundred Hours with Fidel):
Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet
(Conversations with Ignacio Ramonet)

[Excerpts from Chapter 10, the Second Edition of the book [2006]

Translated by August Nimtz.

Was it also still necessary to struggle against discrimination against blacks in the bosom of the revolution itself?

Subjective discrimination didn’t exist. Because every revolutionary knew that among the cruelest sufferings that affect human society was that of racial discrimination. Slavery, imposed by blood and fire against men and women torn from Africa, reined for many centuries in this hemisphere including Cuba. In our homeland it was abolished, although formally, 120 years ago, in 1886. The men and women subjected to this abominable system continued to live for almost more than three-fourths of a century as workers, apparently free in rural and urban shacks and barracks, where many families had to make use of a single room, without schools or teachers, having the worst paid jobs until the triumph of the Revolution. You can’t imagine, when on a radio program in which I spoke against racial discrimination I had to say it three times. . . . . when I spoke for the first time on the radio about racial discrimination I had to do two times more. Clearly from the first moments we applied revolutionary means and the clubs, schools and every institution were closed that did not allow the entry of black skinned people or even mulattos, although we applied them as carefully as possible.

Were there hotels that didn’t allow blacks to enter?

Yes, all of them; and beaches, that for the most part were private and they were off limits to blacks and often times to poor whites. Schools also, one of which I studied in here, Belén College. There were a thousand students and they did not admit blacks and mulattos. At Belén there was an adjoining school in which some were admitted. When Pope John Paul II was here in January 1998 I told him about the catholic schools that didn’t admit blacks and explained to him some of the aspects of racial discrimination. After the victory [in January 1959] we were really ignorant about the phenomena of racial discrimination because we though it was enough to establish equality before the law and we did so without a discussion. In a television program I had to deal with all of the hateful lies and rumors that came afterwards just like, as I told you, the ones about us sending children to Russia. And some of lies constantly repeated had an effect. . . . With regard to racial discrimination, among the very many lies, after my appearance on television, they said that we were going to make different ethnic groups marry one another, whites and blacks and things like this. And not just a few were frightened with that falsehood which stirred up prejudices, colliding with atavistic fears and conceited superiority on the part of some. . . . . . . . For those of us who are revolutionaries to struggle against racial discrimination is a sacred principle. But, as I was saying to you when I first took up the question it created all kinds of opinions and uneasiness in part of the population; I spoke again, three times, on the struggle against discrimination, that I was not obliging anyone to get together with anyone else, but that discrimination, injustice, inequalities in the workplace, in recreation and education were being ended. At that time we were considerably naïve in thinking that the establishment of total and absolute equality before the law would put an end to discrimination. Because there are two kinds of discrimination, one, that is subjective and the other, objective.

Are you satisfied today with the situation of the black population in Cuba?
Or do you think that it still could be improved?

No. It would be vain, conceited and chauvinistic of us if we said we are satisfied. Even in societies like Cuba where a radical social revolution has led to full legal equality and a level of revolutionary education that has ended a large part of the subjective component of discrimination, it still exists in another form. I call it objective discrimination, a phenomena associated with poverty and a historic monopoly of knowledge. The Revolution, beyond the rights and guarantees achieved for all citizens of whatever origin ethnic, has not had the same success in the struggle against the elimination of differences in the social and economic status of the black population of the country. Blacks do not live in the best houses, they still have the hardest and least compensated jobs, and they receive less family remittances from abroad than their white country men. But I’m satisfied with what we’re doing to discover the causes that if not struggled resolutely against tend to prolong the marginalization of successive generations. What are their origins? What breeds the prisons and why?

The social causes.

Why is there marginalization? Slavery had been long ended before the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 which occurred 73 years after the end of slavery in Cuba in 1886. It’s been 120 years since then. We have discovered the inverse relationship between knowledge, culture and crime; for example, more knowledge, culture and access to the university, less crime. In a country of 800,000 professionals and intellectuals, looking at the data, investigating prisons in twenty locations, we are discovering the laws of this relationship.

Less culture, more marginalization, more delinquency and more discrimination, no?

Yes, for us this is very important. To help the poorest, the children of those who did not have a university career, to have access to the best schools where one enters on the basis of academic record and exams. It would amaze you if you analyzed how many youth between 20 and 30 years of age—and we are still investigating this—are in prisons where, in spite of the now enormous number of professionals and intellectuals in the country, only 2 percent of those in prison are the children of professionals and intellectuals. When you go to the prisons you discover that many of [the inmates] come from marginal neighborhoods, are the children of those whose families live in one room in these neglected neighborhoods.

The Revolution has not been able to end such misfortune?

At the beginning, we got rid of some of the marginal neighborhoods. But now there exists a culture of marginality: although you construct new houses, the phenomena that exists in the place tends to persist, except that a new culture emerges that . . . Professionals pay attention to their children, teach them, check on them. In general their children are in a better position to attend the best schools. How many has the Revolution educated? Well, it has educated millions. I think that the Revolution currently counts for, at least, more than three professionals or intellectuals—doctors, engineers and others—of a higher level for every citizen that had a six grade level in 1959. Because today teachers are a large number and almost all of them are of university level. Among the nurses there are also a large number of them at this level. The culture of marginality and all of its consequences tend to reproduce themselves. What do positive [affirmative?] actions mean?

In some countries a lot of positive discrimination has increased.

Yes, but for us this is not a question of laws or something similar. We believed it was a matter of justice and political judgment and here, in fact, subjective discrimination ended. At times, in a television program about the effectiveness of such and such police unit, a number of black and mulatto delinquents appeared. . . . Besides, there are two types of theft: the ordinary kind that irritates a lot, and the theft that comes in a neck tie [or suits] committed by those that are administrating this or that. . . Those who have robbed society but nobody knows that; much more is known about the robber who breaks into a house, steals an article, a piece of jewelry, some product, breaks something—those are the crimes committed by the poorest. I reached a moment in which I said to those who produce such television programs about the activities of crime fighting bodies--because they truly wanted to instill confidence in the effectiveness of the police—and I said to them: “I don’t want to see another program about this.” . . . because those who appear as delinquents, are above all black and mulatto boys—some whites, but in general less common. What purpose does this serve to associate the most irritating crime with a particular ethnic group in the population? But we have achieved a lot, through ideological education, through the conduct of the black population, through its adherence to the Revolution. It was the poorest sectors that supported the Revolution the most.

Do they continue to be discriminated against in a different form?

Well, many have taken advantage of the new opportunities but they were not in the same position as the others who enter the universities, the select schools, on the basis of academic record and exams. The story of the repasadores is tremendous. They could criticize us for having been late in discovering this but we have. One day I gave a very critical speech [about this] because all of these problems also have to be dealt with and I, as I told you, I had had my experiences [with them]. What remains is very much below the surface, really a bit of subjective discrimination, in people who are cultured, who have lived for many years under the Revolution and have seen enormous achievements. But this discrimination is still reflected in the society; I want you to know that.

Amongst the highest level state cadres there are still few blacks.

Yes. You see that in some of the administrative offices because we are still reaping the results of the smaller proportion of black and mulatto youth who reached university levels. Military service was for three years. And we adopted measures to encourage study. When they all had become high school graduates, and had a good conduct record, they could spend two years in the service instead of three. We lowered the time and many youth in the military have now become high school graduates. We placed them for a year as interns in schools to study an intense course in order to refresh them with knowledge to make it possible for them to get into the University. A good number have entered by this route; thus, the poorest have entered who would not have been able to enter in the schools of those who are selected by means of exams coming from the highest social and cultural levels. In fact, I’m very satisfied with the 106 programs of the Battle of Ideas that have been instituted, many of them are educational, and the first thing I ask about them is the ethnic composition, a term not used since it appeared to be discriminatory.

Do you give special attention to ethnic composition?

Yes, in all of the new schools for the emergency teachers and professors, for the social workers, in the cultural and artistic programs. We are training art instructors: 15 training schools exist, one in each province, and we’re looking in the next ten years [to have] 30 thousand art instructors, selected on the basis of talent to impart their knowledge in educational centers and communities because there is a tremendous demand. The ethnic composition is different for each province. There are provinces in which 70 percent of the population is black.

In the Eastern Province [Oriente] I would imagine.

Yes. And in others it is the reverse. In Holguín Province, for example, the white population is clearly the majority, descendents of farmers of the Canary Islands and other provinces of Spain. In zones where there were slave plantations, as in Guantánamo, and [where there existed] other historical realities of the country, the composition of blacks, whites and mulattos is different. In the art schools, the plastic arts—painting and sculpture—they have to study music, dance and dramatic arts and specialize in one of these artistic expressions and have basic knowledge of the rest in order that they can teach in school and give classes in other disciplines also. There is an explosion of vocations and students are being trained—some 16 thousand youth—that take into account ethnic composition and talent. It gives us a lot of satisfaction to see, in all of these careers with major social importance and that offer the right to study in the University almost as a job, the ethnic compositions. I tell you that I still pay attention to it and I ask: “Let’s see, how many cadre of such ethnicity? It is the same thing that you’re asking about. In some institutions there are more than in others.

Do you also pay attention to the percentage of women?

To struggle against the discrimination of women was a difficult task; until we succeeded in proclaiming a moral character code, the Family Code—the obligation for men to share with women the household tasks, such as in the kitchen and childcare. Much was advanced in this terrain. The vast majority of those entering the universities were women because in the secondary and pre-university years they were more studious and had better grades and that’s how, on the basis of their record, they were admitted. We sent doctors to many countries in the world. There are some countries in which the local culture makes it difficult for a woman to work as a doctor but when you called females and males to study medicine for every three of them girls would have the better grades. With regard to careers sometimes one would say, “Well, we are very much in demand,” and in those cases the males were excused, including for military service but of every three selected on the basis of the academic record two were women. We had to assign a quota, let’s say, 45 percent of men and 55 percent of women because the immense majority of those who met the requirements were women. This process, for the reasons mentioned, lead to an increase in the female technical work force and today 65 percent of the technical work force of the country are women.

Spectacular progress.

Women, furthermore, give birth, something natural for them. When that happens they are granted a year’s leave in order to raise the children, not for more births, but because the best thing that a child can get in entering the world is the milk and influence of the mother. Other plans exist for so-called non-formal ways for teaching children. Fathers have to be educated. It’s much better when it is the mother. For example, the break up of the nuclear family is more influential in the abandonment of studies and for those boys that go to prison. But when one of the two parents is a professional, although they are divorced—since in general the children remain with the mother and if she is a professional the negative effect is reduced considerably.

In effect, the material of marginalization, of delinquency?

In 71 percent of the cases of juvenile delinquents, 19 percent were neither with the father or the mother. Thus, with the presence of the mother or the father that a child has—in general it’s usually the mother—if they have a better cultural level, you don’t see the negative effect that usually comes with divorce, the separation of the nuclear family; if both of them, especially the mother, look after the children, there is hardly any difference. We strive to have women reach the highest professional and technical level possible for the welfare of the family and society. Before they were terribly discriminated against and they were only able to get the most humble jobs; today women are a decisive and prestigious segment of society that make up, as I’ve already said, 65 percent of the technical and scientific work force of the country. Women have opened a way for themselves, they are an amazing force. Perhaps what we’ll need in the future is a Federation of Cuban Men.

In order to defend themselves!

Exactly! Because wherever you look women are moving up and they have not reached the top but 46 years of the Revolution has not passed in vain.

Many women participated in the struggle against [Fulgencio] Batista. You yourself have mentioned Haydée Santamaria and Melba Hernández who were involved in the attack at Moncada and we could cite other revolutionary celebrities like Celia Sánchez or Vilma Espín. I would like to ask you: Were there women combatants in the Sierra [i.e. guerrilla army]?

Yes. I organized a unit of women in the Sierra, the Marianas. We showed that women could be as good soldiers as men. I had to struggle against the machismo then because we reserved a group of light arms for them and some of the men said: How are we going to give a woman an M-1 rifle—this was after the last offensive of Batista—and not give one to me? I had a response for some of them which I’m going to tell you. I used to say to them: “Look, you know why? I’m going to explain to you: it is because they are better soldiers than you? I myself trained the first units of women combatants and they carried themselves well, better than the average man. They were in combat not in offices or something similar. It has nothing to do with a justification, it was a reality.

Do you think Cuba is no longer a macho country?

Today we could say that we are the least macho country, I’m not going to say in the world but at least in this hemisphere. We have created a culture of equality and respect, something you know that in our societies does not exist. I’m not about to make [invidious] comparisons because machismo was inherited and we know very well how this was done and how it was cultivated in capitalist society. It’s a legacy and we very ignorant. My feelings were different—I’ve already spoken of the women’s platoon in the Sierra; I had other views; I harbored a feeling of solidarity because I saw and suffered with the way in which women were discriminated against in that exploitative society. But, well, we are ready to listen, including everything related to this. I would not say that machismo is totally overcome but there is an enormous difference with what existed in those first years to which you referred and I have told you with all frankness how it was; we assume the responsibility and let’s hope we could have had sufficient culture or circumstances that would have impeded forms of discrimination that are unjust and hurtful. In brief, this is what I can say in reply to the question.


(A note supplied by Katia de Llano
professor at the University of Havana
8 April 2007.)

With the commencement of the Battle of Ideas and the opening of the educational TV channels, the repaso courses [the equivalent of SAT - Scholastic Aptitude Test - prep courses in the U.S.] began on television. At the same time a review course that prepares students planning to take the university entrance exam was instituted in schools for students finishing the first semester of the 12th grade, that is, the last year of pre-university study. This is still in place. The repasadores are retired professors or teachers that work for themselves or privately. They can continue doing this work but what has happened is that they are no longer as needed because the schools and television programs are responsible for doing this. But it is possible that some parents still hire a repasador if they want to increase the chances for their children. There is another thing that has made the repasadores less in demand and it is that now everyone who goes into pre-university study can enter the university if they want to. After the first round of entrance exams the places are distributed for the different careers to study, depending on the grades of the student. A second distribution of places is done for those who didn’t get places in the first round. Such is the way that everyone can study at the university. This is possible because of the municipalization of the university which has opened up more opportunities. [As part of the Battle of Ideas program, branches of the University of Havana have opened in every municipality in Cuba, that is, 169 locations.] But in order to enroll in the most desired careers, that are not offered in the municipalities and of which a limited number of places are available, a student must have a good record and good results on the entrance exams. Some of these careers are in the humanities and related to arts and letters, literature and foreign languages.