What Happens when Truth is Spoken to Power in Cuba?


The editor of a publishing house in Cuba who wrote a critical article in The New York Times opinion section about persistent racial inequality on the island, something revolutionaries proudly say has lessened, has been removed from his post, associates said on Friday.

The author, Roberto Zurbano, in an article published March 23, described a long history of racial discrimination against blacks on the island and said “racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it.”

On Friday, The Havana Times blog reported that Mr. Zurbano had told a gathering of Afro-Cuban advocates that he had been dismissed from his post at the publishing house of the Casa de las Americas cultural center, leaving the implication that the dismissal was connected to the article. Other associates said Mr. Zurbano told them he had been removed but would continue working there.

Reached by telephone in Havana, Mr. Zurbano would not comment on his employment. “What is The New York Times going to do about it?” he asked. He angrily condemned the editors of the opinion section for a change in the headline that he felt had distorted his theme.

The article’s headline, which was translated from Spanish, was “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” but Mr. Zurbano said that in his version it had been “Not Yet Finished.”

“They changed the headline without consulting me,” he said. “It was a huge failure of ethics and of professionalism.”

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, said the editor stood by the article’s preparation.

I am left with little doubt that Zurbano was dismissed because he had the temerity to point out that racial equality had not been achieved by a long shot in Cuba, and that the promises of the Cuban revolution—ephemeral though they have been for anyone not named “Castro” or not allied with the Castro brothers—have certainly not been fulfilled for Afro-Cubans. But the issue of whether the article should have been titled “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” or whether it should have been titled “Not Yet Finished” is also an interesting one. Let’s consider it by consulting the article in question:

CHANGE is the latest news to come out of Cuba, though for Afro-Cubans like myself, this is more dream than reality. Over the last decade, scores of ridiculous prohibitions for Cubans living on the island have been eliminated, among them sleeping at a hotel, buying a cellphone, selling a house or car and traveling abroad. These gestures have been celebrated as signs of openness and reform, though they are really nothing more than efforts to make life more normal. And the reality is that in Cuba, your experience of these changes depends on your skin color.

The private sector in Cuba now enjoys a certain degree of economic liberation, but blacks are not well positioned to take advantage of it. We inherited more than three centuries of slavery during the Spanish colonial era. Racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it.

In the early 1990s, after the cold war ended, Fidel Castro embarked on economic reforms that his brother and successor, Raúl, continues to pursue. Cuba had lost its greatest benefactor, the Soviet Union, and plunged into a deep recession that came to be known as the “Special Period.” There were frequent blackouts. Public transportation hardly functioned. Food was scarce. To stem unrest, the government ordered the economy split into two sectors: one for private businesses and foreign-oriented enterprises, which were essentially permitted to trade in United States dollars, and the other, the continuation of the old socialist order, built on government jobs that pay an average of $20 a month.

It’s true that Cubans still have a strong safety net: most do not pay rent, and education and health care are free. But the economic divergence created two contrasting realities that persist today. The first is that of white Cubans, who have leveraged their resources to enter the new market-driven economy and reap the benefits of a supposedly more open socialism. The other reality is that of the black plurality, which witnessed the demise of the socialist utopia from the island’s least comfortable quarters.

Putting aside the ridiculous notion that there is anything about the quality of life in Cuba that is worth celebrating in any significant way—dissidents have pointed out that when it comes to claims about “free health care” in Cuba, those claims are overblown and even if they aren’t, they are not worth the tyranny and oppression that Cubans experience at the hands of the Castro regime—this passage certainly reads more like the revolution for Afro-Cubans has not begun, not that it has not yet finished, a conclusion reinforced by reading the following passage:

Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about. The government hasn’t allowed racial prejudice to be debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending instead as though it didn’t exist. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.

So, good call by the Times on the headline. The fact of the matter is that there is a massive amount of racism alive and well in Cuba, the government has done nothing whatsoever to combat it, and Roberto Zurbano was likely sacked for having pointed it out. I am pretty sure that the headline of the piece did not drive him from his post; rather, the content did. But to the extent that headlines matter, the Times chose the right one. I am glad to see that I agree with them on some things.

And yes, before anyone says anything, I think that the embargo against Cuba has proven to be stupid and pointless. We trade with the Chinese—who are still technically communists—and everyone trades with the Cubans, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t trade with the Cubans as well; it will give American industries access to markets, put more Cubans in touch with more Americans, and possibly engender changes in Cuban society and politics. I am all for dropping the embargo. But I am also for calling things by their proper names, and when it comes to Cuba’s treatment of its Afro-Cuban population, I am all for calling that treatment “racism.”

Nota Bene: Incidentally, is it just me or do others find it weird that the same people who demand that we boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its relations with the Palestinians simultaneously seem to have little problem with dropping the boycott against Cuba, despite the persistence of racism when it comes to dealings with the Afro-Cuban population? I am willing to drop the embargo because I don’t think that it serves American interests to continue it, but at least I am willing to acknowledge the presence of racism in Cuba, which is more than the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions-from/on Israel crowd is willing to do.