Commentary: Who will Obama help to empower in Cuba?

Images of the first batch of Cuban-Americans arriving at Havana's international airport since the U.S. lifted restrictions on travel and remittances to the island were clear: teary-eyed, Spanish-speaking cousins, laden with gifts and money for their relatives in Cuba – all white!

Such a startling visual put a partial face on the challenge to U.S. policy shifts aimed at coaxing a recalcitrant Cuba to the negotiating table.

The spectacle of the Cuban returnees, however, revealed even more by highlighting what – or rather who – was missing: dark-skinned Cuban faces.

How does one explain such a dramatically white homecoming in a country that is 70% black; one where, besides their desire to dismantle the Castro dictatorship, black and white Cubans may have very little in common?

What do these two differing racial realities – largely unacknowledged inside and outside Cuba – portend for the United States' emerging Open Door policy?

How can the U.S. craft a sound, comprehensive Cuba strategy which has, as its core, a true concern for all Cubans, specifically the 8.5-million black Cubans struggling for freedom and justice on the island?

One thing astute American policymakers seem to understand no matter where they place themselves on the political spectrum: the U.S. government's Cuba policy can no longer be hamstrung by the vocal, right-wing Cuban-American community who, until now, have successfully blocked virtually every attempt to relax restrictions on trade, travel and remittances to Cuba. Even stalwart conservatives and others who long for Castro's overthrow admit that the U.S. policy on Cuba is marked by fifty years of failure.

To speak to the aspirations of all Cubans, U.S. policymakers must proceed fully aware of Cuba's current demographic realities. So armed, they will better understand entrenched inequities in Cuban society and will be less likely to craft measures that unintentionally make bad matters worse.

This is not as easy as it sounds when dealing with an island like Cuba that is desperately poor and 62-70% black; ruled internally by a virtually all-white cabal in service to a dictatorship; and where U.S. policy has been historically held hostage externally by the small, powerful, predominantly white (85%) group of Cuban-American anti-Castro "exiles" concentrated in South Florida.

Cuba has never been the race-free Nirvana that Castro has, for fifty years, claimed it was. Only now are Cuban leaders acknowledging their nation's widespread problem of racial inequality and historical pattern of discrimination.

The U.S. has never addressed racial oppression in Cuba, choosing instead to systematically disregard the growing black Cuban struggle for civil rights and power-sharing.

Yet, now that black Cubans constitute an overwhelming majority of the population, they can no longer be ignored.

Placing this new reality in the forefront of the U.S. government's Open Door Policy cannot help but enhance the wide-scale goodwill that Obama's presidency has already created inside Cuba.

The Castro regime will not go quietly. To this old hand at exploiting American initiatives, the new stepped-up flow of Cuban-American remittances to Cuba might well be sufficient incentive to kick into gear its divide-and-conquer strategy. Abrogating Bush-era imposed limitations could dump hard cash exports – variously estimated between $600M-$1.5B – directly into Cuba's coffers; all the more reason why the tax Havana levies on them (20%) ought to be halved.

The Cuban government could leverage Cuban-American remittances to grow Cuba's middle class sector of white entrepreneurs and land-holders on the one hand while, on the other, it could simultaneously foster the growth of a pro-regime black leadership that could be deployed to whip up sentiments against such "privileged whites."

Aggravating the racial divisions between white haves and black have-nots could lead to a permanently divided civil society, at war with itself. The Castro-controlled status quo would remain safely intact.

All Americans must be allowed to travel to Cuba freely. The economic embargo must be lifted and full diplomatic relations restored between both countries. Moreover, lifting the ban and allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba, could disrupt the existing order in a way that could benefit both the Cuban majority and U.S. interests.

The International Monetary Fund has calculated that 3.5 million Americans would flock to Cuba if existing travel restrictions were lifted. Cuba's white minority regime could face serious trouble if African-American visitors showed up not only with a shared history of racial injustice, but also with a sense of entitlement and a penchant for seeking justice.

Surely, the Fidel/Raul regime has looked down the road and seen that possibility. If so, the regime cannot help but devise an array of self-preservation schemes. The U.S. could easily become a pawn, however unwitting, if it fails to properly assess and take steps to avoid such predictable outcomes.

In 1961, Fidel Castro outlawed 526 black organizations called Colored People's Societies – the backbone of the Cuban version of a Civil Rights movement. Now, a budding black movement in Cuba is gaining momentum with more than thirty separate groups dedicated to ending racial discrimination in Cuba. Raul Castro seems to have taken notice and it is quite likely that the election of a black American president, whose popularity among Cubans is uncomfortably vast, may have drastically reduced Castro's room for maneuver.

It makes sense, then, that African-American civil society must now be encouraged to freely interact with its Cuban counterpart. Resources now reportedly being squandered on demonstrably ineffective pro-Cuba democracy programs that are dominated by white Cuban-Americans must be redirected to fund such efforts. Special grants must be envisioned for African-American private businesses, historically Black colleges, black churches, professional organizations and NGOs that specifically commit to help Civil Rights organizations inside Cuba.

The Black Congressional Caucus must be encouraged to carry out specific fact-finding missions, as it does elsewhere, lend an ear to Cuba's Civil Rights organizations, and otherwise assist the developmental and empowerment efforts of black civil society on the island.

The creation of a U.S.-based African-American/Afro-Cuban Foundation that would assist civil society in Cuba in overturning the deleterious effects of decades of compounded racial discrimination against the black population, in both pre and post-revolutionary Cuba, would resuscitate much goodwill inside of Cuba.

The tens of millions of taxpayer dollars now spent on programs to foster democracy in Cuba that have proven ineffective, could usefully be channeled into such an African-American/Afro-Cuban Foundation. All U.S. companies that trade with Cuba or invest on the island could fund these activities through a tariff designated specifically for these initiatives.

The U.S. could further spur changes inside and outside Cuba by using leverage from bilateral engagement. The U.S. could pressure Havana to allow the creation and legal incorporation of a National Afro-Cuban Foundation for Social and Economic Development, directed and controlled exclusively by Cubans of African descent with no regime affiliation.

At least half of the current 20% tax (which should be halved) levied on all Cuban-American remittances could be earmarked by the Cuban state to fund such foundation's activities. As annual remittances amount to some $1.5B, they would provide a steady fund for mitigating the disparities historically and currently suffered by the Black Cuban population. After all, these disparities are also carry-overs from pre-revolutionary days; therefore, white Cuban-Americans may not be exonerated entirely from responsibility for their present-day effects.

Fortunately, notwithstanding the reputed electoral swing-vote clout of Cuban-Americans, the Obama administration seems sufficiently sophisticated to understand that this predominately white community can no longer be the axis for the U.S. government's Cuba policy.

For president Obama to fulfill the pledge he made to the Cuban people during his presidential campaign, he must ensure that his new Open Door policy towards Cuba is not counterproductive to Cuba's majority population.

Cubans on the island and Cuban-Americans are as integral to Cuba's present and future as they are to U.S. policy domestically and in the region. Political realism demands a table big enough to seat us all.


Ethnologist and political scientist Carlos Moore is the author of the newly released, Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Moore is an honorary research fellow in the University off the West Indies School for Graduate Studies and Research in Kingston, Jamaica.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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