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Racism Remarks in the NYT Land Cuban Intellectual in Trouble

[All links are to Spanish-language pages except where otherwise indicated.]

Cuba's intellectual circles are buzzing over an incident that occurred a little more than a week ago when author and intellectual Roberto Zurbano denounced racism in Cuba in the opinion section of The New York Times [en]; his words apparently cost him his position as editor of the publishing house Casa de las Américas.

According to the article, Zurbano believes that:

el sector privado goza ahora en Cuba de cierto grado de liberalización económica, pero los negros no estamos en posición ventajosa para aprovecharnos de ello. Heredamos más de tres siglos de esclavitud durante la era colonial española.

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.

However, the most controversial element was, in fact, the headline The New York Times gave to the article: “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn't Begun.”

In a post published on the blog of the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera commented:

La Revolución Cubana no solo inició la lucha contra el racismo y la discriminación sino que puede decirse que nunca esa lucha había sido tan a fondo como en ese momento de nuestra historia.

The Cuban Revolution not only launched the struggle against racism and discrimination, it can be said that never has the struggle been as far-reaching as it was in this period of our history.

The controversy, which opened up public debate on racial discrimination on the island, soon moved away from the issue of racism and the truth or fallacy of the arguments, and

Roberto Zurbano. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños (Reproduced with the author's permission)

Roberto Zurbano. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños (Reproduced with the author's permission)

focused instead on what blogger Rogelio Díaz Moreno called the ”administrative and professional retaliation against a person whose work stems precisely from his ability to think.”

In a post dedicated to Beyoncé's visit to Havana, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, a journalism student, pointed out:

La semana pasada, un tanto más a la sombra, algún decisor liberó –esto es un eufemismo- a Roberto Zurbano de su cargo de Director del Fondo Editorial de Casa de las Américas, pues el New York Times publicó un artículo suyo sobre el racismo en Cuba. El artículo yerra en más de un punto, pero a Zurbano le asiste ese derecho.

Last week, with slightly less fanfare, an unknown ‘decider’ relieved—this is a euphemism—Roberto Zurbano of his duties as editor of the Casa de las Americas publishing house, after the New York Times published an article of his on racism in Cuba. Zurbano's article erred on more than one point, but that is his right.

In a post published on the blog Observatorio Crítico, the Cuban researcher and blogger Rosa Muñoz Kiel, based in Germany, commented:

Hace apenas dos días le comenté a un amigo en Facebook que “me gustaría, por la salud del debate, que Zurbano no sea removido de su puesto por atreverse a decir algo o dejar que NYT dijera algo que no ha gustado a muchos, es el tipo de consecuencias que estamos acostumbrados a ver, pero que no considero sanas, ojalá esta vez me equivoque y no suceda.

Barely two days ago, I commented to a friend on Facebook that “I would like, in the interest of healthy debate, for Zurbano not to be removed from his job for having dared to say something or for letting the NYT say something that a lot of people didn't like; these are the kinds of consequences we are used to seeing, but ones I do not consider healthy, hopefully this time I will be proven wrong and it won't happen.”

For his part, Rogelio Díaz Moreno elaborated on his position in his post entitled “The right to be wrong, is that also racist?:”

Se sabe lo ilustrativo que resultan las tomas de posición, y ahora están por verse unas cuantas. Ya sabemos que muchos intelectuales critican a Zurbano y ejercen con ello su propio y muy respetable derecho pero, ¿defenderán el principio del debate crítico constructivo, sin censuras humillantes ni represalias inicuas? ¿Nos percatamos todos, verdaderamente, cómo están en juego principios importantes, como el derecho de sostener la lucha contra las lacras de las discriminaciones; de trabajar por este fin ya sea de manera autónoma o integrada, y azuzar a las instituciones estatales cuando estas flaqueen en el cumplimiento de este deber?

Taking a position is indicative of many things, and we are only going to see more of that kind of thing. We already know that many intellectuals are critical of Zurbano and they have every right to be, but will they also defend the principle of constructive criticism without humiliating rebukes or unfair reprisals? Do we all truly appreciate that important principles are at stake, like the right to continue the fight against the scourge of discrimination, to work towards that end either independently or in concert with others, and to put pressure on government bodies when they fall short of their duty in this respect?

The Regional Network of Afrodescendants in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuban Chapter (ARAC), clearly stated its position [en] of strong support of ”free expression of ideas for all of its activists, as part of the fundamental liberty of expression in our society as a whole.”

Moreover it declared its opposition to “any institutional or individual process or method, of an obstructive or repressive character, against any participant involved in such controversies that has personally elected to express his or her opinion or reasoning.”

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