Opinion

Commentary: A new view of racism in Cuba

Fifty and 60. Not just numbers. They capture the journey of 50 years in a crumbling island and a sea of change in perspective among 60 prestigious people to the north who opened their eyes and told the truth, exposing Cuba's dirty little secret.

Racism rules in Cuba, discrimination is a way of life. Whites have it tough, but blacks have it tougher still. Civil rights? Human rights?

I know, this is not new to us, to the exiles or the more recent arrivals or our American friends and neighbors who have to put up with our "whining," as I'm sometimes admonished. But something's changing. Big time.

The historic "Statement of Conscience by African Americans" released last week condemns "the Cuban regime's stepped-up harassment and apparent crackdown on the country's budding civil rights movement."

The star-studded 60, which includes former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami, film director Melvin Van Peebles, actress Ruby Dee Davis, Princeton professor Cornel West and -- gulp -- President Obama's firebrand former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., challenge the Castro brothers' regime for its "callous disregard" for the "most marginalized people on the island."

I saw the racial profiling first hand when I was in Cuba in 2002 on a reporting trip that took me from Havana to Santiago and points in between. It was rare to see an Afro-Cuban working at a hotel or shop for tourists. And when young black men congregated along the seaside Malecon in Havana too near to the European tourists, the cops would shoo them away.

But those are little indignities. The big ones you can see by looking at who's in charge in Cuba after the Big 5-0. The leadership is overwhelmingly white -- and at the upper echelons, gray and olive green. Old white men run things. College admissions, same thing.

Prompted by Brazil's black movement leader Abdias Nascimento's condemnation of "the unjust imprisonment by Cuban authorities of Dr. Darsi Ferrer," an Afro-Cuban civil rights leader, the group of 60 has taken a stand that every exile should welcome.

And yet I hear the complaints already. Too little, too late, some exiles are saying. Why didn't the 60 include Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a human-rights activist and anti-abortion doctor who's also in prison for taking on the Castro clan? How dare the 60 who signed the act of conscience focus on civil rights and pooh-pooh Cuba's courageous human-rights activists because they're predominantly white?

Sigh. This explains the 50 years. Some of us who are free to speak our minds have fallen into the culture of complaint. Either you're with us 100 percent or forget about it. Either you're with us from the very beginning or you'll be slammed as a suspected apologist for a dictatorship. Straight line, no wiggle room.

It gets so old. What we need now is new thinking -- an approach that does not back down on Cuba's decrepit reality but embraces all the disparate voices everywhere -- from 30-something white blogger Yoani Sánchez who speaks for her generation in Cuba to poor, drunk Pánfilo, the black Cuban who was sent to a mental hospital earlier this year to "detox" after he was captured on a YouTube video that went viral, complaining Cubans lack "jama," slang for a meal.

So thank you, thank you, thank you 60 times my fellow Americans. Welcome to the good fight for justice for all.

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