Afro-Cuban author who complained of racism demoted

A black Cuban author, Roberto Zurbano, whose scathing criticism of racism on the island was published in The New York Times last month, has been demoted from his top job at the government-controlled Casa de las Americas book publishers.

“To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act,” the dreadlocked Zurbano wrote. “This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.”

Zurbano’s case reflects the growing black-rights movement in Cuba, where 35 percent of its 11 million people are black or mestizo, at a time when its activists are complaining that Raúl Castro’s open-market economic reforms favor whites unfairly.

Maria Ileana Faguaga Iglesia, a Havana academic who specializes in black studies, said she was not surprised by Zurbano’s demotion — “it would have been news if he was NOT fired,” she said — because Castro’s reforms don’t extend to politics.

“This ratifies for me their lack of understanding and tolerance for diversity, for the range of all the problems that Cuba faces in all areas, racial, social, political and economic,” she told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana.

Faguaga said Zurbano, an acquaintance and neighbor in his early 50s, battled often at Casa de las Americas to publish more books on black issues and especially the works of Frantz Fanon, a black, Martinique-born Marxist and revolutionary.

Zurbano announced he had been “relieved” of his job as an editor and publisher, selecting books to be published, and transferred to a lesser job during a meeting of the Cuba chapter of the Regional Coordination of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean (ARAAC), according to a post Friday in the blog Havana Times.

The post included a statement from ARAAC which did not mention him but said it “resolutely supports the free expression of ideas by all its activists” and opposes any “repressive or obstructive measures against any participants in such polemics.”

ARAAC member Esteban Morales confirmed Zurbano, who also writes poetry and essays, had been demoted by Casa de las Americans but said he was not at the meeting and did not know whether the reassignment was linked to the New York Times column.

Zurbano “of course has the right to give his opinion,” Morales said. Casa de las Americas in any case has the right to reassign or dismiss any of its employees, he told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana.

“He’s not been kicked out of Casa. Casa has simply removed him from that job,” he added.

Morales, a well-known Havana economist, was himself kicked out of the Communist Party in 2010 after penning an Internet column in which he complained about Cuba’s burgeoning corruption. He was reinstated in 2011.

Zurbano’s 982-word column for the New York Times on March 23 argued that while the island still has a strong social safety net, Castro’s market reforms are providing better opportunities to the already better-off white Cubans.

Whites have better homes that they can turn into restaurants or bed & breakfasts, he wrote. Cash remittances arrive from the mostly white exile community. And blacks are still “woefully underrepresented” in tourism, the island’s most profitable sector.

Cuba now has two realities, he added, one “of white Cubans, who have leveraged their resources to enter the new market-driven economy … The other reality is that of the black plurality, which witnessed the demise of the socialist utopia from the island’s least comfortable quarters.”

Although Castro has brought more blacks into the legislative National Assembly of People’s Power, Zurbano noted, “much remains to be done to address the structural inequality and racial prejudice that continue to exclude Afro-Cubans.”

“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,” the column added.

A key first step would be to get an accurate count of Afro-Cubans, Zurbano argued, because the number of blacks on the streets belies census figures showing that 65 percent of the island’s population is white. Cubans mark their own race in the Census.

Faguaga said the ARAAC statement defending Zurbano’s right to express his opinions was itself surprising because members of the group tend to be “officials and semi-officials” of the ruling system who regularly toe the government line.

She attended one of its founding meetings in 2011 but was not invited to a follow up session last year because she was too independent, she said.

One of its documents from the 2012 gathering noted that among the group’s goals was to increase coordination in the “fight against racism and capitalism” and to consider “the advances made by the Cuban revolution in different political and social areas.”

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