The Miami Herald
Tue, Dec. 1, 2009

Prominent black Americans condemn Cuba on racism


A group of prominent black Americans has for the first time publicly condemned Cuba's rights record, demanding Havana stop its "callous disregard'' for black Cubans and declaring that "racism in Cuba . . . must be confronted."

"We know first-hand the experiences and consequences of denying civil freedoms on the basis of race," the group said in a statement Monday. "For that reason, we are even more obligated to voice our opinion on what is happening to our Cuban brethren."

Among the 60 signers were Princeton professor Cornel West, actress Ruby Dee Davis, film director Melvin Van Peebles, former South Florida congresswoman Carrie Meek and Dr. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of President Barack Obama's church in Chicago.

The declaration could add powerful new voices to the chorus pushing for change on the island, where Afro-Cubans make up at least 62 percent of the 11.4 million people yet are only thinly represented in the top leadership, scientific, academic and other ranks.

"This is historic," said Enrique Patterson, an Afro-Cuban Miami author. Although predominantly white Cuban exiles "tried to approach these people before, they lacked credibility. Now they [black Americans] are listening."

A news release accompanying the statement acknowledged that "traditionally African Americans have sided with the Castro regime and condemned the United States' policies, which explicitly work to topple the Cuban government."

But recent changes in black Americans' perceptions of Cuba, the growth of racial activism on the island and the continuing complaints of racial discrimination there created a need for the statement, said U.S. and Cuban activists involved in the declaration.

More black Americans traveling to Cuba have been able "to see the situation for themselves," said David Covin, one of the statement's organizers and former president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

An increase in the numbers of Cubans identifying themselves as racial rights activists also has led more blacks to pay attention to the issue on the island, the California State University at Sacramento professor emeritus told El Nuevo Herald.

The twin developments helped to create "a critical mass of people who have bucked the tradition of support [for Cuba] in the black community," Covin added.

At the same time, Afro-Cuban activists have been casting their struggle more as an issue of civil rights than of human rights, said Victoria Ruiz-Labrit, Miami spokeswoman for the Cuba-based Citizens' Committee for Racial Integration.

"The human rights issue did not make a point of the race issue, and now we have an evolution," she added. "Cuban blacks moved closer to the term ‘civil rights' because those are the rights that the movement here in the U.S. made a point of -- the race issues."

Alberto González, spokesman for the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, said it was ‘‘absurd'' to accuse of racism a Cuban government that "has done more for black Cubans than any other in all areas, including health, education and welfare."

The black Americans' statement was "part of a campaign of subversion against Cuba," he added, designed to impact the administration of the first black president of the United States.

The four-page "Declaration of African-American support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba'' demands that Raúl Castro end "the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights."

"We cannot be silent in the face of increased violations of civil and human rights for those black activists in Cuba who dare raise their voices against the island's racial system," it added. "As of late, these isolated, courageous civil rights advocates have been subject to unprovoked violence, state intimidation and imprisonment."

The statement also demanded the immediate release of Darsi Ferrer, a well-known Afro-Cuban physician and activist jailed since July while under investigation on charges of illegal possession of two sacks of cement. It called Ferrer a political prisoner.

The black Americans added that while they support Cuba's right to sovereignty "and unhesitatingly repudiate any attempt at curtailing such a right," they "cannot sit idly by and allow for peaceful, dedicated civil rights activists in Cuba, and the black population as a whole, to be treated with callous disregard for their rights as citizens and as the most marginalized people on the island."

"Racism in Cuba, and anywhere else in the world, is unacceptable and must be confronted," their statement declared.

A "briefing sheet'' issued with the statement noted that Afro-Cubans make up 85 percent of the prison population and 60 of the 200 political prisoners, but only 20 percent of the Havana University professors and own only 2 percent of the land in private hands.

The statement was largely driven by Carlos Moore, a highly regarded Cuban author and black-rights activist living in Brazil who has long criticized racial discrimination in Cuba.

Moore persuaded Abdias Nascimiento, a founder of Brazil's black movement and longtime Castro supporter, to send Raúl Castro a letter earlier this year denouncing racism in Cuba, then appealed to friends and contacts in the black community to add their support.

"Without this historic figure, no one would have listened," said Patterson, who predicted that other high-profile black Americans will soon add their signatures to the statement.