While I expected right-wing television and bloggers to go bananas over Jay-Z and Beyoncé's trip to Cuba, nothing prepared me for the idea that somehow by traveling to Cuba, Beyonce and Jay Z had betrayed their race. That's right. Cuba is a "racist" nation and traveling there is to co-sign anti-black racism.
In my appearance on Fox News this was raised as well as claims of racism against Ché Guevara. Another portion of the argument rests upon the four or five black dissidents in Cuban prisons that includes at least one rapper. I don't spend much time in the right-wing echo chamber but the ridiculousness of these claims was in many ways beyond my comprehension. It needed research.
At least let me establish where I come from on this. I have been studying issues of race and racism in Latin America for approximately two decades. Many might cite my book Racial Politics In Post-Revolutionary Cuba as a stand out empirical exploration of the problem. I am one of a very small group of scholars to have taken the temperature of racial attitudes on the island in relation to racial policies.
The broad scholarly consensus is that Cuba through a combination of redistribution of wealth, improved education systems and open access to health care had moved the black population on the island closer to parity with whites than any other society in the world. Black life expectancy hovered in the 70s only a couple years shy of the white life expectancy. Infant mortality rates fell dramatically and Cuba all but eliminated illiteracy. Old attitudes never died and racism still exists on the island. Cuba proves you can almost reach parity in terms of social indicators but still not kill the attitudes that supported the enslavement of people of African descent.
With those attitudes still spoiling the water, the decline of Soviet support, tourism, and the rise of remittances from white relatives in Miami has meant racial inequality has been on the rise in Cuba. In spite of that, Cuba remains the one place where blacks are the most patriotic despite being perceived at the bottom of the pecking order and the more patriotic whites are the less they are likely to express racist beliefs about blacks. That looks like a successful anti-racist project to me. But, on the minus side Cuba eliminated black organizations that might work to lobby for black interests even in the context of a one party state. But the criticism of Cuba goes far beyond what the settled scholarly consensus is on the matter.
The most unbelievable commentary on Fox News, was that of Maria Anastasia O'Grady, argued that Cuba is state "Run by Old White Guys, and many of the people who are in jail are young black people." She then likens Cuba to South Africa of all places. Let's not forget Cuba fought South African supporters in Angola costing Cuban lives. Castro received the largest cheer at Nelson Mandela's inauguration because of the staunch support during the struggle to end apartheid. Let's not include the irony of O'Grady making this claim within the United States where one in 15 African-American men are in prison and one in three black men will expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Black women are also three times more likely to be imprisoned in the U.S. than white women. The "police state" Cuba as described by "O'Grady" does not imprison nearly as many people as a percentage of the population as the U.S. and certainly not similar proportions of blacks given population. But further, there is nothing similar to the U.S. embargo on Cuba and the boycott of South Africa. The South African boycott and divestment was requested by anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa not a distant exile community with few formal ties to the country.
But, the attack of racism goes even deeper. Another portion of it rests upon the claim that Ché Guevara was an unrepentant racist. I was unaware that Guevara had been leading Cuba in the last few decades but it warranted a closer look. I trolled around on blogs and saw right wingers tend to string together a series of quotes from across Che's life. The most racist of them is from when Ché was 24 years old. It reflects a Ché whose views evolved on the issue of race and who eventually saw black liberation as synonymous with ending oppression. The second in 1959 is taken horribly out of context. The quote goes, ""We're going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing." Ché is referring to the concept that he saw blacks as participating in the revolution not as blacks but as patriots. That is, the Revolution would be universal and color blind. Of course Ché also said when speaking at the University of Las Villas, "The University must paint itself black, mulato, worker and peasant." Of course, they also lift another quote out of context as Che struggles with attempts to train Congolese soldiers. The same kinds of concerns he expressed about peasants wherever he went to help foment revolution.
If Ché and the revolution were guilty of anything, it was a series of sins more consistent with American conservative's current thinking about race than not. The Revolution was by ideology more color blind than focused on fixing the problem of racial inequality. Further, while the current right in the U.S. does not want to outlaw all civic organizations, it's painfully obvious they feel America would be better off without groups like the NAACP who advocate for black interests and Senator Scott of South Carolina a black Republican, refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus.
So where does all the "Cuba is racist" talk come from? Why do we have white commentators accusing Jay Z and Beyonce of betraying their blackness on television? To understand this phenomena we have to turn to the back alleys of the Cuban exile community and its support of the blockade of the island. Over the years, their support of apartheid South Africa and a range of other policies alienated Afro-Cubans on the island and African-Americans who were open to Fidel Castro's friendship. In the early 2000's the Cuban members of Congress funded projects located at HBCU's for scholars under to contract to produce articles on racism in Cuba. Scholars visited Cuba but did no original research and largely summarized the works of scholars like myself without any of the necessary context and caveats. We were then invited to a conference at Howard University hosted by Ileana Ross-Lehtinen so they could report their "findings" on racism in Cuba and have the validation of top scholars in the field. As the conservative Miami Cubans have struggled to connect with blacks on the island they have seen talking about racism on the island as a possible entrée to Afro-Cubans.
Of course it is dishonest. These same Cubans defend the levels of racial inequality and practices of segregation in pre-Revolutionary Cuba by denying the practices out of existence. In their minds, the Revolutionary regime has been the only Cuban regime with racial problems. And unlike in South Africa where activists called upon the world to boycott the apartheid regime, the vast majority of Cuban dissidents see the U.S. blockade of the island as counterproductive.
So Jay-Z and Beyonce walked into a perfect storm. A right-wing media machine hell-bent on painting the president as a radical socialist. That machine and its allies also happen to have an increasingly distorted set of narratives about Cuba unhinged from historical or current social realities. And a new right-wing a la Senator Rand Paul at Howard, who having lost the black vote badly, now feel emboldened to explain to African-Americans our history and what we ought to believe if we just had their knowledge. The narrative is if Jay Z only knew Ché he would not visit Cuba. On my appearance on Fox News the host and guests who clearly know nothing about the island, suggest that Beyonce and Jay Z are dumb, knowing they should not visit Cuba. Clearly two individuals who have amassed hundred of millions as media moguls are not dumb and also are hardly spokespeople for the superiority of communism. Further, they dismiss what astute observers of all political persuasions note, the embargo is a relic of the Cold War and has outlived its usefulness. The fact is Americans like Jay Z and Beyonce visiting the island along with more American artists, athletes, students and even tourists is more likely to bring about political change and reform in Cuba than an embargo that has failed for more than 40 years.