Tourism and Neo-imperialism: Cuba and the U.S. Blockade

By: Chad Davis

March 16, 2018

If you ask most Cubans about racism, they will tell you it doesn’t exist in Cuba: “El color de piel, no me importa!” (Skin color doesn’t matter to me!). This was one of the goals of the revolution, after all, to abolish racism at every level, to achieve José Martí’s vision of a racially unified nation. They will admit that other forms of prejudice exist, such as homophobia and sexism, but racism, no way. However, during the two months I have spent here, the perceptions I have gathered during my trips in taxis, to various parts of the city, and to hotels, have revealed otherwise.

As a white man in Cuba, racism has not posed an obstacle to my own activities while on the island. I have the same color of skin as 80 percent of the tourists who come to Cuba. However, through conversations with my friends of color, and through conscious observations I have made in various parts of the city, the racist leftovers of pre-revolutionary Cuba still remain.

Today, the tourism industry represents the largest economic industry in Cuba. The industry helped lift Cuba out of the economic depression of the 1990s, which they refer to as the special period, and continues to sustain the socialist model of the country. Tourism also exists as the most racist industry in Cuba. Those who work in the tourist industry, whether as taxi drivers (only tourists can afford private taxis), or at hotels or resorts, are almost always white or mixed race. In all of the taxis I have taken while here, I can recall only one or two drivers being black. In hotels and tourist spots, tourism’s racist implications arise. Oftentimes when people of color, Cuban or not, attempt to enter a hotel or restaurant, they are either asked to leave, prove that they’re staying at the hotel, or refused a spot at an open dinner table. This happened to a friend of mine just a few weeks ago. She is a person of color, from the United States, and a part of the same program as me. One night after a concert, she needed to use the restroom at a hotel. Upon trying to enter, the doorman refused to let her in. Only after speaking in English and showing her passport did the doorman finally let my friend use the restroom.

Unfortunately, theses sort of instances are quite common. While it seems easy to blame this tourism culture on Cuba itself, I would rather seek to understand the circumstances that have led to racism within the industry. Prior to the triumph of the revolution in 1959, tourism to Cuba, particularly from the United States, was massive. After Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1896, the United States soon stepped in as the new imperial power. Thus, American tourists flocked to the island. As a result, the racist ideals of the United States and Cuba’s history of slavery led to a tourist industry dominated by white workers. Black and mixed Cubans existed solely in exoticized musical productions and the like.

When the revolution began in 1953, black Cubans were overwhelmingly the largest supporters. The revolutionary leaders promoted a unified racial society, like the one José Martí promoted in the war for independence. When the revolution triumphed, this seemed plausible. Black Cubans saw their literacy rates equal those of white Cubans due to new education policies. Black Cubans had access to jobs, such as those in the healthcare industry, that they’d never had access to before. The vision of a racially unified society seemed achievable. However, racism persisted in areas like housing. When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main supporter, fell in 1991 and Cuba entered the special period, the tourist industry of Cuba’s past represented the only plausible way out. Private industry was introduced for the first time since before the revolution, and those who had access to join (taxi drivers who had cars inherited from parents, those who lived in Havana or Varadero Beach, etc.), were mainly white Cubans. 

The perpetuation of this industry is the United States blockade, which has crippled Cuba’s economy, not only preventing the country from trading with the United States, but from receiving investment from any bank or company around the world (See: Helms-Burton Act). As a result, Cubans are forced to rely on tourism as a means of sustaining their revolutionary system. Tourism has come to exist as a means of U.S. neo-imperialism, where Cubans are at the will of Western tourists, and the racist history of tourism in Cuba has resurfaced.

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Tourism and Neo-imperialism: Cuba and the U.S. Blockade