Havana: If President Barack Obama comes here sometime next year, as he has hinted he will, he’ll be under great pressure to meet with Cubans who are widely seen in anti-Castro circles within the United States as the legitimate voices of dissent inside this communist nation.
In fact, Obama has already made such meetings a condition for Air Force One to bring him—and the massive media attention that follows the president abroad—to this island nation of 11.2 million people that has spent over half a century in the crosshairs of American foreign policy.
“If I go on a visit [to Cuba], then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody … we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba,” Obama said during a recent interview with Yahoo! News.
At the top of that list, most likely, will be Yoani Sanchez, a blogger whose writings are the bane of this island’s rulers, and members of the Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents whose weekly demonstrations have garnered worldwide attention.
It’s understandable that Obama would want to hear from these pro-democracy advocates. But the push for democracy has many manifestations in this country in which democracy, American-style, never had a firm foothold. From the United States’ first occupation of Cuba in 1898 through a secession of plutocratic governments that ended in 1959 with the fall of President Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was a pigmentocracy in which people of African descent were the victims of widespread discrimination.
Obama won’t learn this truth from talks with dissidents—most of whom are culled from the ranks of white Cubans. To learn this truth, the president needs to talk to people like Esteban Morales. A member of Cuba’s Communist Party, Morales is more of a “race man” than a socialist ideologue. He is one of this country’s leading black intellectuals and a man who doesn’t hold his tongue.
In 2010 Morales was kicked out of the Communist Party after writing an article in which he said Cuba was threatened more by corrupt government officials than by the country’s relatively small number of dissidents. A year later, he was reinstated. Now he leads a national commission that pushes the highest levels of Cuba’s government to address this nation’s race problems.
During a recent meeting, Morales told me that blacks are largely at the bottom of Cuba’s economic system. “Eighty-five percent of Cubans are homeowners, but the [homes] in the worst conditions, disproportionately, are owned by blacks,” he said. Unemployment, too, Morales said, has a disparate impact on blacks.
“It’s not enough to say that only 3 percent of people are unemployed,” he said. “I want to know the color of those in that 3 percent.”
As the Communist government opens up more opportunities for privately owned businesses—most of them owned by white Cubans and funded by their relatives in Florida—blacks find it hard to get jobs in this growing sector of Cuba’s economy, Morales complained. This is especially true, he said, in privately owned restaurants where tips earned in a day can surpass the monthly wages of a worker in the government-run workplaces.
In raising these issues, Morales speaks for a broad swath of Cubans who support the Castro government but lag far behind white Cubans economically. Obama should find time during his Cuba trip to hear what Morales says are the causes of, and solutions for, these problems.
The president also ought to put Gloria Rolando on his list of “must-see” people in Cuba. She’s a documentary filmmaker who won’t let her nation forget the contributions blacks have made to Cuba—or the pains they have suffered in this country.
“My work is basically around storytelling and the voices of the people … that sometimes don’t appear in the official history,” Rolando, a winner of the Federico Fellini Medal, told me. In one of her films, Reshipment, she tells the largely ignored story of the thousands of Haitian workers in Cuba’s sugar fields who were forcibly returned to their country after the stock market crashed in the 1930s.
Rolando tells an even more gut-wrenching story in 1912, Breaking the Silence, her account of the events that led to the 1912 massacre of thousands of members of the Independent Party of Color, an all-black political party. That slaughter deepened the racial division in this country—a gap that didn’t begin to close until Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
When Obama presented the 2013 National Humanities Medal to Stanley Nelson, a gifted American documentary filmmaker, he said that by telling “well-known and lesser-known narratives, Mr. Nelson has exposed injustices and highlighted triumphs, revealing new depths of our nation’s history.”
Rolando has done no less in her native Cuba—an accomplishment that has brought a new awakening about the role of blacks in this country. By meeting with Rolando, Obama can make even more people aware of the injustices and triumphs that combined to make black Cubans the most loyal supporters of the communist state Fidel Castro created.
In May 2014, a senior aide to the president asked me: “How do you think the Cuban people would react if President Obama visited Cuba?” It was a question that signaled to me—seven months before Obama and Raúl Castro announced the resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba—that Obama is intent upon visiting Cuba before he leaves office in January 2017.
Barack Obama should not make that historic trip across the Florida Straits without putting Morales and Rolando at the top of his list of people to meet for mojitos or a bottle of Cristal—and a truly revealing conversation about black life in Cuba.
DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist, as well as a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He is also dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.