What Cuba Can Teach America About Race

Color and African-ness are more complicated on that island than in our “land of the free.”

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Dear Barack: This is between you and me, brother to brother, though, truth be told, I’m publishing it on a well-visited website called The Daily Beast, so keep that in mind.

There is no country in the world that has a deeper, more soul-touching relationship with the United States of America than Cuba. No one in America who knows this wants to say it. Because the word Cuba has been verboten for half a century, many American are ignorant of it.

GALLERY: Obama Family Begins Historic Cuba Visit (PHOTOS)

But I know this and I know that you know it: Cuba has historical ties to the U.S. at least as strong as Puerto Rico does. The United States in 1898 went to war against Spain to help Cuba achieve its independence. Then America asserted itself into Cuba’s government and upper levels of society—so that by the mid-1900s Cuba was a Caribbean version of gangster New York or your home city Chicago. And back when Americans embraced baseball as their “favorite pastime,” Cubans effectively said, “Well, we are at least as American as you are.” Hell, Fidel Castro must have taken delight in the rumors (much disputed) that he tried out for the Washington Senators in the 1940s.

This much is true: One cannot understand the complexity of race in America without understanding Cuba. That’s the reason Cuba is so meaningful to me. And I know it’s up there for you also.

Cuban city dwellers and campesinos evidence more pride in you than black New Yorkers or even your Chicagoans do. I know this because I spent time in Cuba two months ago, when I visited there with a group of Stony Brook University students. We spoke with scores of Cubans in Havana and the countryside, with cigar makers and lawyers, athletes and hustlers, Communist Party members and new entrepreneurs. They smile at the mention of your name and in different ways suggest that you give them something that is also known to be meaningful to you: hope. Hope for a better economy, a better future for their children.

From what I have seen on the Net, you are already enjoying that island of sun and són. Són, as you likely know, is pronounced like “sound” and refers to the style of Afro music that blared from black regions of Cuba more than three-quarters of a century ago, spreading through the Latin Caribbean and the dancehalls of urban America.

Where the American blues was mournful and plaintive, són was defiant and menacing. Folks of color in America embraced it and grew. Ask Dizzy Gillespie. To fully embrace Cuban music, Barack, you’d have to spend a good bit of time in the eastern, and very black, part of the country known as the Oriente, especially in the almost mythical music city of Santiago. But the trip, one day in the future, will be worth it, brother.

Color and African-ness are more complicated on that seemingly simple island of Cuba than in the four thousand mile-wide “land of the free.” We in America had long defined being black as having a single drop of blood in our ancestry. With that single drop you could be kept out of restaurants, barred from water fountains, or, in worst-case scenarios, lynched.

Cuba also had what one might call a racial divide. Those of very dark hue worked tougher manual jobs and they walked in their own sections of the park in old Santa Clara. But race became more fluid in Cuba, with an overlapping quality that defined it.

There was the old Cuban joke about the proud parent who announced to a friend that his now-grown child would soon be getting married. Ah, the friend asked, “And is the lucky spouse-to-be blanco,” meaning white? Yes, the parent answered. “But no, I mean blanco, blanco?” the friend continued, curious. Yes, the parent replied without thinking. “I mean blanco, blanco, blanco,” said the friend, pushing it to the limit.

“Come on,” answered the parent, with finality. “Nobody in Cuba is blanco, blanco, blanco.”

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You know well about this white blood/black blood phenomenon, Barack, given your parentage. Other black Americans also have a feeling for it. Among themselves, African Americans (especially those from the American South as opposed to the Caribbean) often speak of the white and Native American ancestry that lies beneath their surface identities.

Now here’s the part that I have to tell you in a hushed voice. Fidel Castro has had a huge, hugely favorable impact on black people and race relations in Cuba.

Yes, in establishing rights for the agrarian poor and blacks, Fidel ran roughshod over human rights. No doubt, freedoms were sacrificed. Even today under Fidel’s brother, Raul, Cuba can be a spooky place for any American wanting to hear political debates. There is no freedom of debate in Cuba.

I know this from experience. In 1993 while in Cuba, I learned about a former Air Force colonel who had dared to criticize Fidel Castro in conversations with associates. Alvaro Prendes was stripped of his military decorations and his pension, harassed by police when he drove his car through Havana and forced to live in relative poverty. “At any time they will knock on my door, and they will arrest me, and that will be the end,” he wrote in a diary that he showed me.

After I wrote an article that appeared in Newsday, “Cuba War Hero's New Foe: Castro,” Prendes was finally allowed by Cuban authorities to leave the country. He died in Miami in 2004.

But I maintain that on race, Fidel Castro has been one of our hemisphere’s great, even historic leaders. He ended many of the blatant discriminatory practices that existed in pre-Revolutionary Cuba and he made a brand out of his rapport with militant black leaders in the United States. Perhaps the most famous manifestation of that is the photo of Fidel having a face-to-face exchange in Harlem with the militant black American leader Malcolm X, who would be assassinated four years later. Castro would go on to send troops to Angola in Africa, where they fought for years against a faction supported by the white racist government of South Africa.

Many today say the world, with U.S. complicity, have failed to recognize the positive role played by Communist Cuba in the end of racial apartheid in South Africa.

I do not expect to hear you say much about this, Barack, but we both know it was Fidel who granted asylum to Assata Shakur (born Joanne Chesimard) and Nehanda Abiodun (born Cheri Laverne Dalton), both wanted in the U.S. for incidents in which police officers were killed.

What I have heard from Cubans in the know is that Cuba under Raul, and likely under any of his agreed-upon successors, would never turn Shakur or Abiodun over to American authorities. Shakur, especially, is now living in great anxiety.

Former FBI official Kenneth P. Walton, who helped lead efforts to capture the black fugitives, once told me angrily that he “or somebody like me” will one day capture Shakur and bring her back to New Jersey, where that agent would take her to state police officials and say, “Are you looking for this girl?”

But that was decades ago. I imagine, Barack, that much of what happens depends on who succeeds you come January.

In the meantime, how wonderful it is that you can do what you’re doing now, free from crass concerns about a coming election battle in which you are personally invested. Who else would have done it? Who else could understand so well the issues at play?