Carlos Moore on race in Cuba
Nancy San Martin is an assistant world editor of The Miami Herald in charge of coverage from the Americas. She has written extensively about Cuba and elsewhere across Latin America. Among the award-winning Miami Herald projects she has been involved with are ''Children of the Americas'' and ``A Rising Voice: Afro-Latin Americans.''
She asked these questions of Carlos Moore, author of Pichón: A Memoir, Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba. (2008: Lawrence Hill Books, $26.95)
Question. In the 1990s, when you obtained surveillance files from the FBI documenting activities you carried out in New York as an idealistic young adult three decades earlier, were you taken aback by the description of yourself in those files? Were they an accurate portrayal of the young, black Cuban immigrant you were in 1960?
Answer: The description of me and the quotes of the things I was saying at the epoch were not inaccurate. However, some of the ''facts'' adduced by the FBI were indeed inaccurate. I sincerely believed in Socialism at the time, and I was resolutely opposed to what I perceived then as an imperial policy by the United States toward Cuba. The fact that I turned, eventually, against Communism and the Castro regime does not make the U.S. policy toward Cuba any less objectionable. Now, however, I do believe sincerely that the time has come to write a new page. America is changing profoundly, and so is Cuba. I am on the side of change.
Question: You left Cuba just a year before the revolution and returned in 1961 full of hope that under Fidel Castro, whom you had met in Harlem a year earlier, your homeland would be free of the racism you experienced as a child. Yet you were jailed within three months of arrival in Havana and later sent to a work camp on charges of ''racial subversion'' after complaining that racism was still prevalent in Cuba. Your jailer, revolutionary commander Ramiro Valdez, is again at the upper echelons of the Cuban government, now under Raúl Castro. What are your impressions of Ramiro Valdez then and now?
Answer: Back then, Ramiro Valdez was an inflexible, totalitarian and brutal person. He was the most feared man in Cuba. The repressive policies of the regime were crafted by him. Valdez struck fear into the hearts of Cubans (even revolutionary ones). Today, he apparently continues to be the same dogmatic, sectarian and brutal person he was at the height of his power, but he is no longer the powerful figure that he used to be. None is afraid of him anymore, in or outside the circles of government. He is no longer a decisive player in Cuban politics. He certainly does not belong to the Cuba that is in the making.
Question: When you came to teach in Miami in 1986, you again faced the wrath of Cuban anger -- this time from the exile community for some of your lectures at Florida International University in which you stated, among other things, that Cuban icons such as independence war hero José Martí and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, leader of an unsuccessful 1868 uprising against Spain, were racists or slave owners who exploited black nationalism for political or economic purposes and to ensure that blacks never took power. In your book, you describe your experience with Miami's ''anti-Castro establishment' ' as a ''no-win situation. . . It was the turf of the fanatical, crypto-racist white exiles.'' Now that you've returned to Miami, have your impressions changed?
Answer: Two decades ago, I was attacked and demonized by the Cuban-American community of Miami because I was saying a truth that few wanted to hear at that time or were prepared to hear. But in the meantime, what has changed is the Cuban-American community itself. A new, younger and more liberal generation is on the scene. I would not even be surprised if most of these young Cuban-Americans voted for Barack Obama in the presidential elections. This generation has been socialized in American values of racial fair play, affirmative action and multiethnic politics. That is the exact opposite of the socialization that their parents -- who arrived in South Florida from Cuba, in the '60s and '70s -- had received. Their parents were socialized in a thoroughly racist, authoritarian, chauvinistic, sexist and homophobic society; and it was with the latter people that I clashed in the 1980s when I taught at FIU. But two decades later, perhaps 50-60 percent of the Cuban Americans that I am bound to meet were born in the U.S., went to school at some point with blacks and with people of various national origins, and were exposed to an extensive bath of multiculturalism. As a consequence, these neo-Cuban-Americans -- if I may so call them -- espouse liberal and moderate social views. They are more interested in leading meaningful lives in America, than residing in the myths of a past that will never return, anyhow. I feel at ease with this neo-Cuban-American generation. I believe that this new crop of Cuban-Americans can contribute much to the new Cuba that is in the making.
Question: On your third visit to Cuba in 1999, you write that you were ''saddened to bear witness to the death of a revolution.' ' You also state that ''the architect of the Cuban Revolution was an authentic social reformer, a sincere nationalist, a man of courage, integrity and political talent. . . My critique of Fidel Castro's governing style, my bitter opposition to his regime's despotic policies had never made me overlook his political merits.'' Could you elaborate on this point: If Castro was an authentic social reformer -- and presumably completely in charge -- then who is to blame for the ''rampant prejudices of Cuban society'' you outline in your book?
Answer: I stand by my statements regarding Fidel Castro and his importance in Cuba's history. I have never demonized the Cuban leader, nor his opponents. I have a legitimate fight with the Cuban regime, but that does not blind me from seeing the merits of the revolution or the merits of the man who ushered that change in Cuban society. I have never made the mistake of blaming Fidel Castro for the rampant racism of Cuban society. He inherited that racism! What I do blame Fidel Castro and his regime for is for having obstructed the actions of those who sincerely wanted to rid Cuba of that form of consciousness. Anti-racist black Cubans were destroyed by the regime -- imprisoned, sent to hard labor camps, to insane asylums, or driven to a life of exile and banishment from their country. It is untrue, and very simplistic, or convenient, to affirm or imply that Fidel Castro ''invented'' Cuba's racism. Cuban society was founded on black enslavement and racism.
Racial slavery was the womb of Cuban idiosyncrasy and what is called ''Cuban culture.'' Cuban society was -- before Fidel Castro, and continues to be today -- a profoundly racist society. The problem I had with the revolutionary regime was that it pretended that this was not so, and that it declared, falsely, to the world that it had abolished racism in Cuba. Logically, all of those who said the contrary were simply denigrating the revolution and socialism and were ''agents of American imperialism. '' However, by denying the existence of racism in Cuba for 50 years, and by brutally preventing those who wanted to confront that reality from doing so, the revolutionary regime guaranteed a safe haven for the unfettered perpetuation and growth of a racist consciousness in Cuba. A great opportunity to at least disable that monstrosity of history was therefore lost. Fidel Castro did not invent racism; rather, his policies were a product of it.