Reverse images: The acrimonious debate on race in Cuba

by Jean Damu

Raul-Castro-Barbara-Lee-at-5-hr-meeting-040809-by-Juvenal-Balan-Neyra-AFP-Getty-Images, Reverse images: The acrimonious debate on race in Cuba, World News & Views Recently the cold war against Cuba was ratcheted up when an acrimonious debate broke out over the issue of racism in Cuba and for the first time the issue of Brazil was thrown into the mix.

The brouhaha began when scores of prominent African Americans, many of whom should have known better, put their names to a petition calling upon the Cuban government to release from prison a doctor who they say is a leader of a “civil rights movement” in Cuba.

The petition, labeled, “Acting on Our Conscience: A Declaration of African American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba,” refers to Dr. Darsi Ferrer as an “internationally known Afro-Cuban civil rights leader … who has placed at risk his life to draw attention to the conditions of racism and racial discrimination in Cuba that has hitherto been ignored.”

The petition signers say they support the position of Dr. Abdias Nascimento, the historical leader of Brazil’s Black Movement, in calling upon the Cubans to release Ferrer.

Several days later a “Message from Cuba to African American Intellectuals and Artists” arrived from several prominent Afro-Cubans. Understandably, the Cubans expressed dismay and hurt that so many prominent African Americans would breech the long- standing solidarity between Black America and Cuba.

US-med-school-graduates-in-Cuba-0707-by-AP, Reverse images: The acrimonious debate on race in Cuba, World News & Views The Cubans recounted their long and proud record of fighting racism at home and abroad. They cited Cuba’s offer to send medical personnel to New Orleans after the Katrina disaster, an offer rejected out of hand by the Bush administration. Surprisingly, the Cubans didn’t mention the ongoing program of training African American youths, free of charge, as doctors at their Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. The first class is scheduled to graduate this spring.

And even more recently a petition is currently being circulated countering the original petition.

These are the general boundaries of the debate. But the original petition begs numerous questions including, who wrote the original petition? who is Dr. Ferrer? is there really a civil rights movement in Cuba or is the petition merely a grandiloquent expression of Afrogringoism? And finally, what is the relationship of Brazil to the discussion of race in Cuba?

To begin with and in the interest of honesty, it must be acknowledged the author of the petition is not an African American but rather the long time Cuban exile Carlos Moore. Moore, an ethnologist, has spent the vast majority of his adult life, nearly five decades, in exile from Cuba and consistently has used his considerable skills attacking the Cuban revolution on issues of race in formats designed to attract the attention of English speaking populations in the Western Hemisphere in general and the U.S. audience specifically.

The significance of Moore shaping his attacks to specifically English speaking audiences will be discussed below in comments relating to Brazil.

Moore laid the groundwork for his petition campaign during his book tour in early 2009 promoting the publication of his latest work, “Pichon: Race and Revolution in Cuba: a Memoir.” In this book Moore moves a considerable distance in temperament from an earlier book, “Castro, the Blacks and Africa,” wherein he writes angrily of Cuban policy towards Blacks and Africa in general, to, in his current work, “expressions of confessed hatred … to cover most of Cuba’s territory, culture and history.” Or in Moore’s own words, “(L)et me start by telling the story of the conditions that led me to despise my own country to the point I idealized America.”

One has to wonder how many of those who signed his petition had read Carlos Moore’s autobiography?

The relationship between “Pichon” and the petition campaign is important because the memoir invokes the names of numerous personalities in his introduction as a backhanded form of endorsement. He lists them as “spiritual co-authors,” as if each and every one would agree with his many wild and inaccurate assessments of Cuban life and culture.

One “spiritual co-author” who would have asked to have his name removed from “Pichon” was Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael).

In the late 1990s while he was in Cuba being treated for cancer (free of charge), Ture had long conversations with this writer about his feelings and impressions of Cuba. When informed that Cuba had been ripped off by the Angolans with a shipload of rotten coffee that eventually had to be burned in exchange for military equipment used in the war against Unita and South Africa, Ture railed with rage at the incomprehensible act of ingratitude on the part of some Angolan officials. During his lifetime, Ture was a great supporter and defender of Cuba.

The same can’t be said for Maya Angelou. In her most head scratching endorsement since her approval of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, Angelou wrote the foreword to “Pichon.”

But though it’s too much to expect that many of the petition signers would have read Moore’s autobiography, they can’t be excused for not knowing who he is or what he stands for and that he is an active ingredient in our government’s long, long campaign against Cuba.

That’s who Carlos Moore is. But who is Dr. Darsi Ferrer?

That Dr. Ferrer is an internationally known Cuban civil rights leader there is no doubt. For those who do doubt, rest assured the internationally known and respected defenders of human rights, the Wall Street Journal and Miami Herald, say it is so.

There is only one problem: There is no civil rights movement in Cuba. This is not to say there shouldn’t be – but more on that below.

What there is, of course, is a dissidents’ movement, a movement of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who want Cuba to return to capitalism, to return to a government that would make a Black civil rights movement not only necessary but urgent.

Today that is not necessarily the case.

Dr. Ferrer’s primary issue with Cuba appears to be that the medical care system there has deteriorated somewhat. So he established what he calls a clinic and human rights center and dispenses some medical care to those he says are marginalized, i.e., Blacks, and those he says have diminished access to medical care.

This issue also raises many questions. Dr. Ferrer is Black. If Cuba is the racist state he and Moore claim it to be, how did he become a doctor without paying one centavo in student tuition fees?

Cuban-youth-Havana-seawall-the-Malecon-by-Flako-web, Reverse images: The acrimonious debate on race in Cuba, World News & Views Second, 15 years ago Cuba entered what is euphemistically called “the special period.” That is when the former Soviet Union dismantled itself, re-instituted capitalism, and 30 percent of the Cuban economy evaporated overnight. Under those circumstances how could the medical care system not deteriorate? That’s the understandable reality, but today if you walk into any one of the thousands of hospitals and medical clinics that dot the islands’ landscape you will see that most of the medical technicians there are Black.

Moving on, readers need to ask themselves another question. How in a state like Cuba do you go about setting up a medical clinic outside the national system? There is only one way. You do what so many other dissidents have done. In Havana you go to the U.S. Interest Section that acts as the U.S. Embassy in a country in which no formal diplomatic relations exist and agree to cooperate with the enemy, which is what Dr. Ferrer did.

At the U.S. Interest Section, Dr. Ferrer agreed to become a Black cog in the long running campaign to create dissatisfaction and unrest there and in return was given supplies for his clinic and a CIA related email address to go with his computer. In addition, U.S. personnel in Havana made phone calls to key contacts overseas and in Miami to aid in the publicizing of Dr. Ferrer’s “movement.”

Carlos Moore answered the phone. The Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal editorialized about the deplorable state of Blacks in Cuba. Long time recipients of National Endowment for Democracy payments jumped into action to protest Cuba’s alleged mistreatment of Blacks. And as we’ve already seen, 60 prominent African Americans leaped into formation and signed the cold war inspired petition.

So what is real and what is not real?

After having said all that has been said and after paying tribute to everything Cuba has done to counter worldwide racism, not least of all its construction of 26 schools in Cuba to educate 35,000 mostly African youth (free of charge) and after acknowledging Fidel Castro’s wonderful and heartfelt comments to the International Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, the truth of the matter is, and the Cubans will be the first to admit it, racism exists in Cuba, just as it does in every other country on the planet, particularly the United States.

Over the last decade and a half Cuba has rebounded economically to a large degree, but key aspects of socialism that alleviated many of the social and economic tensions that caused racism have been removed. Since then some visible aspects of racism can be seen.

For instance, racial profiling is on the rise. Blacks are stopped for driving infractions or other slight social transgressions far more than whites. White females or light skinned Black women are allowed to engage in “jinaterismo” (quasi-prostitution) inside the tourist hotels far more than dark skinned women. Black caricatured dolls and figurines featuring Black women with big lips, hips and a rag tied around their head are commonly sold in the tourist centers. Cubans lamely explain that tourists expect to buy these things.

State television programming regularly schedule racist inspired novellas from Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico, in addition to the ones created in Cuba.

Furthermore, especially since the onset of the special period, the marginalization of Afro-Cubans has intensified primarily because those who left Cuba and send remittances to their relatives were overwhelmingly white in number. Most Afro-Cubans do not have access to resources available to white Cubans. Increased access to remittances on the part of whites continues to this day, even though the negative aspects of the special period have diminished.

So despite Cuba’s massive efforts to eliminate racism – last year’s elections to the National Assembly saw the number of Black electors rise to 35 percent, about equal to the percentage of Blacks overall – it needs to do more.

Which brings us finally to the issue of Brazil.

One of the most interesting conversations on race in Cuba took place in the late 1990s between a delegation of African Americans led by Randall Robinson, the former director of TransAfrica, and Johnetta Cole, the former president of Spelman College, and Cuban President Fidel Castro. During that conversation, carried out under extremely friendly conditions, the idea of an affirmative action program for Afro-Cubans was put forward by the African Americans. Fidel allowed that he had often been stymied in how to advance the social conditions of Blacks. Everything that had been implemented only worked to a degree. He was not against the idea of affirmative action. Clearly more needed to be done.

Here is where the situation gets dicey and here is why Carlos Moore’s pitch to Afrogringoism, a term first applied to several African Americans at the Durban Conference Against Racism to describe their attempts to monopolize discussions on race, is essentially dishonest.

In the former Latin colonies, those of Spain and Portugal, slavery developed and was administered vastly differently from the former British colonies. To one degree or another, in all the Latin colonies, because the colonists freely intermarried and/or cohabited with African and Indian females, the fiction of racial democracy developed.

In the former British colonies, especially the United States, no such fiction ever developed. And even though racial intermarriage existed far more than usually conceded, racial separation was, and to a large extent continues to be, the order of the day.

In the spring of 2008, the Brazilian Supreme Court entertained arguments why government sponsored quotas insuring that a certain number of Afro Brazilians be enrolled in the national college system be thrown out.

By and large this case was the same as the 2002 reverse discrimination case at the University of Michigan, where social conservatives argued that affirmative action was discrimination against whites.

In Brazil, however, it is the political left and numerous Black organizations that oppose racial quotas. One hundred thirteen organizations and individuals signed an “Open Letter” of protest to the Supreme Court arguing against the government’s affirmative action program. Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute could have written much of the letter.

The letter makes extensive references to the University of Michigan case and Chief Justice John Roberts opinion that says, “(T)he path towards the abolition of racially based discrimination is to end racially based discrimination.”

And “Of course there is racial discrimination in Brazil. Still Brazil is not a racist society. Since the abolition of slavery, instead of opting for the ‘one drop rule,’ Brazilians have worked out a collective system of identity based on the anti-racist notion of mixing, which has produced laws that criminalize racism. In 70 years, the Republic has not witnessed a single organized racist movement or any significant expression of racial hatred. Race prejudice is so shameful that it has hidden itself in a series of oblique and ashamed expressions that fear to come out into the open.”

It is clear from reading this letter and numerous other documents and writings relating to race in Brazil that in general terms there is a vast ocean of consciousness between many Afro descendants in the former Latin colonies and those in the U.S. and others, most notably Jamaica.

The Brazilians’ comment about the “one drop rule” is fatuous and inspired the title of this essay. Brazil did adopt a one drop rule, but it is the exact reverse of the U.S. rule. In Brazil if you have one drop of white blood you’re (historically anyway) considered white; and that is the basis of the racial democracy fiction that in decidedly racist terms was labeled “Lusotropicalism” in an earlier time.

Obviously thinking about race in Cuba and Brazil is not identical, but they are interconnected and one gives insight into the other. They both reside on the same side of the vast gulf of thinking on race that exists between Cuba and the U.S.

Carlos Moore is aware of these differences in thinking and perceptions and that is why all of his protests about racism in Cuba are directed toward English speaking audiences because he knows the development of Black political movements in the former Latin colonies remains low and virtually non-existent in Cuba.

If Moore were honest, he’d promote dialogue to break the information blockade that prevents African Americans from knowing what truly is happening in Cuba. He’d promote a hemispheric Black Consciousness Movement, a movement that took the form of the Black Power Movement in the U.S., to energize a movement to help dispel the centuries old fiction of racial democracy in the former Latin colonies. He’d address a need for a hemispheric reparations movement.

Instead of promoting racial solidarity and political progressiveness in the West, Carlos Moore has spent the last 50 years fighting communism and spitting on the only country in the Western Hemisphere to have spilled blood in the last 100 years fighting for the rights of Africa and Black people.

To sign the petition opposing Carlos Moore’s petition, go to

Jean Damu can be reached at