By DeWayne Wickham
HAVANA — Nancy Morejon says she doesn’t want to get into a war of words with Cornel West. While all-out combat might be avoidable, a bruising skirmish has already occurred.
In many ways, Morejon and West are kindred souls. One of Cuba’s best known contemporary writers, she champions the rights of women and blacks in this island nation. He’s a Princeton University professor and an irascible public intellectual whom President Obama once called “an oracle.” The two are at the center of a festering debate over racism in Cuba, a country that thought it long ago escaped the swamp of racial bigotry and discrimination.
“I don’t want to look arrogant, especially with Cornel West. But I believe he sat on the side of something he doesn’t actually know,” Morejon said of the open letter West and 59 other African Americans sent to Cuban President Raul Castro late last year. In it, they accused his government of mistreating civil rights activists and a “callous disregard” for its black population.
But underlying the American letter and the Cuban response is the more subtle question of the role racism and racial prejudice play in Cuba, a nation whose social mores once mirrored those of America’s Jim Crow era. Surprisingly, even as Cuban intellectuals dismiss the attempt of their African-American counterparts to stand up for them, they talk openly about Cuba’s racial problems — and the solutions that are needed.
Despite the Castro regime’s public pronouncements against racial discrimination, the signs of racial disadvantage, if not outright racial prejudice, are easy to find. The best jobs in Cuba’s growing tourism industry are overwhelmingly held by whites. Hotel doormen, chambermaids, tour guides, translators or restaurant waiters can earn more tips in a day than a doctor or government bureaucrat is paid in a month.
“Yes, there is racism in Cuba,” Tomas Fernandez Robaina, a prolific writer about the social condition of black Cubans, told me. The country “engaged in romanticism” when Castro ordered an end to racial discrimination nearly a half-century ago, Fernandez said. “Now we understand it will take more than goodwill to get rid of it, something Americans should know better than Cubans.”
That’s an amazing level of frankness in a country that its critics say has little tolerance for painful introspection. Out of this openness has come talk of a solution that sounds surprisingly like the affirmative action programs that continue to divide Americans. Cuba cannot simply give blacks new track shoes and expect them to compete with the nation’s most gifted runners, said Heriberto Feraudy Espino, president of the National Committee on Racial Discrimination and Racism. They will need some special help to catch up.
Cuba’s struggle for racial equality dates back more than a century. It is rooted in the changes wrought by the U.S. occupation of Cuba (1898-1902) and the brutal annihilation in 1912 of the leaders of a black movement for racial justice. It predates the Castro regime but has survived its condemnation.
Morejon said West should have spoken to some of Cuba’s leading blacks before signing a letter that mischaracterizes their struggle. “I believe that this dialogue that we haven’t had is necessary,” she said yearningly.
And I think it’s not too late for that conversation to take place.