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Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

‘Palestinians’ in Cuba: The weight of a stigma

On the island, ‘Palestinian’ is used to refer to anyone born in the country’s eastern provinces. The term is often used to describe outsiders

Palestinos en Cuba
Demonstrators in Havana march in support of the Palestinian people; file photo.Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo (Getty Images)

For many years, nearly half of the Cuban population has been referred to in a derogatory manner as “Palestinians.” Several factors have contributed to this association in the minds of the Cuban people, but all stem from the stigmatization faced by the Palestinian community all over the world.

Stereotyping ethnicities, nationalities and origins is widespread. We often attribute certain traits to different groups like the Chinese, Germans, Americans, Spanish and Japanese. But what’s the stereotypical Palestinian? What’s the value of such stereotypes? What are the traits associated with these stereotypes? Lastly, what do the Cubans have to do with all of this?

Stereotypes, as defined by social psychology, are generalizations that simplify reality by focusing on one or a few traits. They can pertain to nations, religions, languages, as well as sexes and age groups. We are all prone to being categorized and stereotyped. For example, the French are romantic, women are intense, Muslims are terrorists, and the most proper Spanish is spoken in Spain. Stereotypes can be positive or negative, but they often lead to preconceived judgments in how we perceive others, and even ourselves. Ultimately, negative stereotypes can lead to harmful behaviors such as discrimination and stigma. Language, as a means of communication, carries and perpetuates judgments, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, context is often lost along the way. Consider the associations between blackness and marginalization, illegality and political incorrectness: black sheep, black market, blacklist and black humor. These associations are cultural implications that we have historically attached to the Black race.

Something similar has happened with the term “Palestinian” in Cuban Spanish. For the past few decades, its usage has expanded to refer to people from eastern Cuba. While no one can pinpoint its exact origins, the term has been widely used for at least 40 years. The 2000 edition of the Diccionario del Español de Cuba defines “Palestinian” as someone from the interior — especially eastern Cuba — who has moved to Havana. This dictionary definition reflects its initial usage in Cuba. But “Palestinian” now refers to anyone born in the country’s eastern provinces, from Las Tunas to Guantánamo, regardless of whether they have migrated west or not. The term is often used to describe outsiders, like immigrants or foreign invaders. This further marginalizes these people, placing them on the periphery of an unfamiliar urban environment. However, this meaning has also evolved. Being Palestinian in Cuba now lumps people from eastern Cuba and the Middle East all together.

Westward migration in Cuba is a complex issue that dates back to the 19th century, but the trend accelerated after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Since the 1960s, most migrants to Havana have come from the eastern provinces, with the highest rates in the 1990s. To regulate migration, the government took various measures such as requiring authorization to move to the capital, and implementing restrictions on hiring non-residents of Havana. Unfortunately, these laws legitimized discrimination and perpetuated the marginalization of migrants from the east. This led to illegal settlements on the outskirts of the capital, with poor living conditions and limited access to basic necessities. Ironically, the police force is mainly comprised of young people from the east brought to the capital. The police have the authority to request identification and detain anyone believed to be residing in Havana without authorization. Even today, Havana residents without government authorization for a change of address are constantly monitored and referred to as “illegals.”

The question remains — why do Cubans use the term “Palestinian” to refer to people from the eastern part of the country? Historically, there hasn’t been much close contact between (Middle Eastern) Palestinians and Cubans. However, Cuba has provided consistent support to the Palestinians, from Fidel Castro to President Miguel Díaz-Canel today. Cuban presidents have supported organizations like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), providing intelligence training and financial aid. Since 2005, Cuban universities have hosted Palestinian students, and 104 Palestinian doctors have graduated from Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. Today, 200 Palestinians are studying in Cuba, many of them from the Gaza Strip.

Besides news about the war in Gaza, Cubans don’t have many other connections with Palestinians. The associations that arise in Cuban minds are often related to displacement, war, refugees, Islamism and terrorism. These associations have become stronger due to the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It has led people everywhere, even from far-off places like Cuba, to use “Palestinian” as a derogatory term for a group seen as inferior, unwanted migrants from the east.

The condition of the Palestinian people, as a displaced and marginalized population, is compounded by factors such as race, language, culture, social status and economic power. “Palestinian” is now the insult used by one half of a people against the other. It’s a symbol of discrimination by Havana — the Gulf city in the west — towards the Caribbean people of the east. The Caribbean represents the others, the dark people, the uneducated ones who talk funny. It’s the mentality of “Cuba is Havana and everything else is just green space.” It’s a parody of a historical feud between the two Cuban capitals — Havana and Santiago. It reflects one of history’s most terrible conflicts transported to the “magical realism” of a Caribbean island. In this reality, instead of bombs and refugees, we have internal migration and laws that define superiority based on place of origin. Yet, the Cuban Palestinians, like the ones in the Middle East, are also refugees.

With the latest escalation of the conflict in the Middle East, President Díaz-Canel, a “Palestinian” from the eastern province of Holguín, has called for a pro-Palestinian march. This march clearly supports the Palestinians in another part of the world, not the ones at home. Discrimination against Palestinians in Cuba is an unfortunate part of their current reality, deeply ingrained and often unnoticed. It may be time for Cubans to empathize with Palestinians, both within and beyond the homeland. Perhaps it’s time to repent of these prejudices and seek forgiveness. This would be a small step toward the genuine apologies that Palestinians rightfully deserve from the global community.

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