Commentary: Is black America's honeymoon with the Castros over?

Special to McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2009 

In a landmark "Statement of Conscience by African-Americans," 60 prominent black American scholars, artists and professionals have condemned the Cuban regime's apparent crackdown on the country's budding civil rights movement. "Racism in Cuba, and anywhere else in the world, is unacceptable and must be confronted," said the document, which also called for the "immediate release" of Dr. Darsi Ferrer, a black civil rights leader imprisoned in July.

The U.S. State Department estimates Afro-Cubans make up 62 percent of the Cuban population, with many informed observers saying the figure is closer to 70 percent.

Traditionally, African-Americans have sided with the Castro regime and unilaterally condemned the U.S. which, in the past, explicitly sought to topple the Cuban government. But this first public rebuke of Castro's racial policies may very well indicate a tide change and a more balanced attitude.

  Representing a wide spectrum of political opinion, the document was signed by Princeton University scholar Cornel West; famed actress Ruby Dee; former Essence magazine editor and current president of the National CARES Mentoring Movement Susan Taylor; Bennett College President Julienne Malvaux; UCLA Vice Chancellor Claudia Mitchell-Kernan; Chicago's Trinity Church Emeritus pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; retired Congresswoman Carrie Meek; former Black Panther activist Kathleen Cleaver; former Jesse Jackson presidential campaign manager and current director of the African-American Leadership Institute Ron Walters; movie director Melvin Van Peebles; and former Miami-Dade County Commissioner, Betty Ferguson.

What could have caused that reversal? 

Changing demographics in America and the election of a black U.S. president, seem to have spurred African-American curiosity about the fate of Afro-Latins south of the border. Through that process, many U.S. blacks have realized that Castro, once admired for thumbing his nose at America, is now an 82-year-old dictator, struggling to prolong five decades of absolute power through terror and policies that deepen racial inequalities in Cuba.

Victoria Ruiz, U.S. representative of the island-wide civil rights group, Citizens Committee for Racial Integration, says Cuba's black movement — vigorously suppressed in the 1960s, at the early stage of the revolution — resurrected in the 1990s. She complains that young, black Cubans suffer aggressive racial profiling by police. She claims that about 70 percent of Afro-Cubans are believed to be unemployed, a staggering figure by any standard.  And 85 percent of Cuba's jail population is estimated to be black, Ruiz reports.

  Representing 25-odd different groups, black dissidents in Cuba argue that racial disparities on the island are worsened by the Obama administration's recent decision to allow Cuban-Americans to freely send remittances (worth an estimated $1.5 billion yearly) to their relatives.  More than 85 percent of Cuban-Americans are white, they say, so the beneficiaries in Cuba of the new remittances policy will also be white.  

"These remittances could morph into start-up investment capital for its recipients, thus creating a de facto new race-class inside of Cuba," says Enrique Patterson, U.S. spokesman for the Progressive Circle Party, a major multiracial, black-led dissident group.

  Clearly, Cuba's black-led, multiracial opposition movement is an open embarrassment to the Castro regime. But it is also a disquieting development for the traditionally right-wing, anti-Castro organizations around the world that have long claimed to be the heralds of the battle for "freedom and democracy" in Cuba. Taken by surprise by this new and apparently growing opposition force in the island, many white exiles are exhibiting confusion and frustration. When not openly hostile, the right-wing representatives of the predominantly white Cuban-American exile community seem unsure how to respond.

Cuba's new opposition has made no moves to elicit their support either, said Ruiz, whose Citizens Committee for Racial Integration,  a multiracial organization led by the moderate black intellectual Juan Madrazo Luna. The Progressive Circle Party, another large dissident movement, led by Afro-Cuban academic Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a self-identified Social Democrat, has shown no inclinations it desires such support either.

  Patterson believes that it may very well be the absence of right-wing exile support for these social-democratic oriented and multiracial movements, that now spurs African-Americans to rush to their defense. "Therefore, the time has come for Washington to directly engage the island's majority about matters that will affect bilateral relations in the future," he said.  

ABOUT THE WRITER   Carlos Moore is an ethnologist and political scientist. He is the author of the newly released, Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). He can be reached by e-mail at carlosmoore2000@gmail.com.      

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