President Obama has loosened travel restrictions to Cuba. His critics accuse him of harboring socialist sentiments. And he is, of course, a member of the African American intelligentsia -- a group that has tended, for the last half-century, to have a soft spot for the Cuban revolution.
It sounds like the perfect atmosphere for the love affair between black American liberals and the regime of the Castros to fully flourish.
Except that it’s not.
A group of 60 African American artists and thinkers launched a rare -- and some say unprecedented -- attack on Cuba’s human rights record, with a particular focus on the treatment of black political dissidents.
In a statement issued in November, luminaries including Princeton professor Cornel West, actress Ruby Dee and director Melvin Van Peebles criticized the communist government for its “increased violations of civil and human rights for those black activists in Cuba who dare raise their voices against the island’s racial system.”
The statement, “Acting on Our Conscience,” was denounced by the Cuban government.
It was a far cry from those heady moments in 1960 and 1995 when Fidel Castro visited Harlem, receiving on both occasions a kind of hero’s welcome as liberator of the oppressed.
Over the decades many black intellectuals have spoken favorably about the regime’s ability to bring better healthcare and education to some of the island’s poorest residents. A number of prominent figures, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Danny Glover, have visited the island.
What has changed, some of the statement’s signers say, is a heightened understanding outside Cuba of the plight of the island’s large black population, which remains increasingly marginalized economically and underrepresented in the highest echelons of government.
But Obama may also be a factor. Suddenly, Cuba’s great enemy -- long denounced as hopelessly racist by the Castros -- has a black president, one who has toned down the U.S. rhetoric toward Cuba.
Some observers say that Obama’s rise has created a space for American liberals to take issue with Cuban policies.
Before Obama, “no human rights groups, which largely come from the left, wanted to be seen as lackeys for George W. Bush,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The “Conscience” statement comes as Havana and Washington continue to battle for the hearts and minds of citizens throughout Latin America.
In recent years, voters in some countries, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, have elected left-leaning governments that evince, to varying degrees, goals and rhetoric of the Cuban revolution. At the same time, questions of race have taken a larger role in public discourse as the region moves away from right-wing authoritarianism.
Sabatini said it was likely that Castro and his brother, Raul, who permanently took over as president in 2008, might think that Obama posed a threat to their moral standing -- and thus their persuasive power -- in the region.
Meanwhile, Obama has also had an effect on the Cuban streets, said Carlos Moore, a left-wing Afro-Cuban scholar and Castro critic.
With Obama’s election, “it’s not that black Cubans became pro-U.S. or pro-Washington, but they said, ‘A black man can become elected head of state in a country that we were always told was racist -- but here we are with [a majority] and we cannot come into power,’ ” said Moore, a Brazilian resident who supported, but did not sign, the Americans’ statement.
The CIA World Factbook says blacks are 35% of the Cuban population, but many observers say that figure is probably above 60%. (The discrepancies arise from the way the Cuban government counts and classifies race.) The ratio of people of color has grown since the Castros took power, as wealthier whites fled for Miami and elsewhere.
The remittances whites sent to families on the island have widened the income gap between Cuba’s blacks and whites, said Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor and Cuba expert who signed the document. So has a preference for hiring whites in a tourist industry that has become more important with the collapse of the government-regulated economy, he said.
The Castro government has long treated racism as an issue solved by the revolution, which promised equality for all. But despite the Castros’ early and overt denunciation of racism, it continues to be a pernicious presence in Cuban daily life. Sawyer offered one example, noting that kinky black hair is commonly referred to as pelo malo, or “bad hair.”
However, Sabatini said, civil rights-style groups have been cropping up on the island to address racial issues. A number of black Cubans have also been at the forefront of the broader social movements critical of the government.
The “Conscience” statement called for the release of one black activist in particular, Darsi Ferrer, a physician who the group contends is a political prisoner. The Miami-based anti-communist group Plantados said Ferrer was arrested last year on trumped-up charges of illegally possessing a few bags of concrete, and is awaiting trial in prison.
Sawyer and other signers of the statement said they acknowledged the advances the revolution brought to black Cubans. But they also believe the issue is more complicated.
“Racism in Cuba has been sort of under the radar screen for, what, 50 years? And many of us who have supported the revolution and the gains it has made have kind of kept quite about it,” said Ron Walters, a political scientist and campaign manager for Jackson’s 1980s presidential bids.
Black activists were long silent, Walters said, because they were worried that “those people who were opposed to the Cuban revolution, such as white Cubans in Miami and their organizations, would take advantage of it.”
The Castros’ Miami critics have indeed taken notice. In an interview, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) called the statement “critically important” for highlighting the “lie and the myth” of the egalitarian promises of the communist government.
To others on the right, the statement was a farce that only betrayed the black left’s fundamentally flawed thinking about the Castro government.
“Murderous totalitarians failing to provide affirmative action? Oh noooo,” wrote one anonymous commentator on the conservative website Free Republic. “They seemed so nice.”