HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s experiment with free-market reforms has unintentionally widened the communist-led island’s racial divide and allowed white Cubans to regain some of the economic advantages built up over centuries.
Under President Raul Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel Castro in 2008, Cuba has expanded its non-state workforce, loosened travel restrictions and promoted private cooperatives and small businesses.
As the communist government relinquishes its once near-total control of the economy, inequality has widened, undoing some of the progress seen since the 1959 revolution.
Much of the funding for new businesses such as restaurants, transportation services and bed-and-breakfast inns - targeted at tourists, diplomats and dollar-earners - comes from family members who emigrated to the United States over the last 50 years, especially Miami.
They sent almost $3 billion to relatives back in Cuba last year and, as they are mainly white, their investments put black and mixed-race Cubans at a disadvantage as they try to set up their own businesses.
Walter Echevarria, a 60-year-old black man, co-owns a humble cafeteria run out of a ground-floor Havana apartment belonging to one of his partners.
There is no seating, and the clients are mostly state workers who order pork sandwiches and juice or a coffee for about 15 Cuban pesos, or around $0.60.
“It’s usually the whites who have family abroad and send them money, and they can set up bigger businesses,” Echevarria said while customers lined up at the take-out window during the busy lunch hour.
With the additional economic freedom under Raul Castro’s reforms, there is also greater discrimination.
Armed with a substantial resume, Miguel Azcuy quit his job at a state-owned restaurant to go job-hunting in Cuba’s incipient private labor market two years ago, hoping to wait tables in the fast-growing restaurant sector.
The job offers never came. Azcuy, 39, had a degree from gastronomy school and 15 years of experience in state-owned restaurants.
He’s also black, and says his race closed opportunities that would be available to white Cubans. Researchers and analysts also say the market-oriented economic reforms under way have put poorer Afro-Cubans at a disadvantage
“I felt like the owners of many of these places looked at me with disdain,” said Azcuy, who has since managed to open a small cafeteria selling coffee and juice from his home near a major hospital in Havana.
“They didn’t trust me. They didn’t give me a chance. They probably figured that sooner or later the blacks will let you down. Here people say they are not racist but at the moment of truth their prejudices come out.”
Anecdotally, the divisions appear obvious in a society descended from Spanish colonists and African slaves.
Tato Quiñones, a researcher who heads a private group called Brotherhood of Blackness, says it is enough to observe the small number of Afro-Cubans who have relatively lucrative sources of income such as owning restaurants, driving taxis, or renting out rooms in their homes.
Shortly after Raul Castro took over as president in 2008, he allowed Cubans to visit resort hotels, previously reserved only for foreigners. Today, in the exclusive beach resort of Varadero, the Cuban clientele is almost all white.
Black construction workers largely built the hotels but client-facing staff are mostly white.
When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, it was mostly the privileged white elite that fled the country for Miami, not the largely black workforce of laborers, sugar cane cutters and domestic help.
Following changes in U.S. laws in 2009 and 2011, Cuban-Americans can now more easily travel to Cuba and send unlimited remittances to their families.
A study by the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group found Cuban-Americans sent a record $2.77 billion in remittances to Cuba in 2013. Of that total, 82 percent passed through white hands. Twelve percent was sent to mixed-race relatives, and 5.8 percent went to blacks.
By contrast, Cuba’s 2012 census showed that 64.1 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people are considered white, 9.3 percent black, and 26.6 percent of mixed race.
Besides financing the fledgling private sector, remittances contribute to a more general inequality in Cuba. The relatives of exiles and doctors who work overseas or commercially successful artists line up at hard-currency stores to buy luxury goods while most Cubans scrape by on $20-a-month government jobs.
Before Castro’s revolution, education was largely off limits to blacks and mestizos and they were shut out of universities and jobs that involved interacting with customers. Whites had their own social clubs, beaches and private parties.
As soon as he assumed power, Castro eliminated segregation and attempted to abolish inequality by giving all Cubans access to free education and health care. The government hails those as among the revolution’s greatest accomplishments.
Today Cuba is largely a mixed-race society, though one in which lighter skinned Cubans still enjoy advantages in all but sports and entertainment.
Many Cubans are of ambiguous racial heritage, and a panoply of names exist to people of various hues. The terms are more descriptive and not considered offensive.
Some Afro-Cubans say they have not experienced racism under the revolution, advancing in education and careers without impediment.
Echevarria, the sandwich shop co-owner, said he was content with his humble business and not too bothered by inequality. “Racism exists. Not like before, but it exists.”
But other black and mixed-race Cubans say they feel racism, and experts say whites still have better access to good jobs and higher education.
Those disadvantages grow more acute with major economic changes, such as when the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a deep recession in the 1990s and now as market forces have a bigger role.
“That’s what has dragged our people back and is being aggravated today,” Quiñones said.
In 2011, the ruling Communist Party sent a message on racial equality by raising the number of blacks or mixed-race Cubans on its 115-member Central Committee to 36, almost in line with the census data.
And the official Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) is working on proposals to counteract inequality, both in media representation and in society, such as harassment by police, a common complaint.
But Cuba does not publish demographic data such as income or crime by race and experts say it makes it very difficult to design economic, social and cultural policies to boost equality.
“In Cuba the statistics are color blind,” said Jesus Guanche, a frequent writer on matters of race. “If you want to enact measures to help disadvantaged people, you have to identify them.”
Editing by Kieran Murray