Mr. and Mrs. Carter celebrated their fifth anniversary this week, but it’s their vacation to Havana, Cuba that has rubbed some the wrong way.
While the pair dined at one of Cuba’s famed tourists spots, La Guarida, which has been visited by several American celebs including Jack Nicholson, Jodie Foster, Danny Glover, and Will Smith, a vocal group of Cuban-Americans have begun to voice their displeasure with the power couple’s choice to visit Castro’s Cuba.
Popular Spanish-language radio personality Ninoska Perez Castellon remarked:
“It’s sad to see the callous side of these individuals who vacation in a country where there is no respect for human rights and huge discrimination against blacks,” Perez added, “Current U.S. law bans U.S. tourism to Cuba; I hope Beyoncè and Jay-Z are not above the law.”
Despite declaring the end to the age of racism and discrimination when he ascended to power in the now-infamous 1959 coup, Fidel Castro has since acknowledged there is more work to be done. And as Roberto Zurbano recently pointed out in his New York Times piece, black Cubans are still forced to live on the margins and are unable to fully participate in Cuba’s most lucrative sector—tourism.
That type of blatant racism has become less socially acceptable, but blacks are still woefully underrepresented in tourism — probably the economy’s most lucrative sector — and are far less likely than whites to own their own businesses. Raúl Castro has recognized the persistence of racism and has been successful in some areas (there are more black teachers and representatives in the National Assembly), but much remains to be done to address the structural inequality and racial prejudice that continue to exclude Afro-Cubans from the benefits of liberalization.
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. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.
In spite of its challenges, Cuba has long since opened its doors to outspoken black political figures like Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and several others.
But never mind all that. Should the Carter’s be held to a higher standard than any other visitor to Cuba simply because they are famous or American or black?
Some Cuban-Americans feel like the couple’s visit to the nation is merely the distraction the government needs in light of the reaming it has been getting by outspoken, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez’s current multi-national tour. Sanchez, who still lives in Cuba and was granted permission to travel, has been extremely candid about the oppressiveness of the Castro regime and has managed put a face to the criticisms Cubans have about their government.
Jose Cabanas, a top Cuban diplomat in the U.S., told participants at a meeting:
“Too much attention has been devoted to this lady, taking a lot of attention from the most important … news that has been happening these days in regards to Cuba,” he added, “Including the presence of Beyoncé, the singer, who is today in Havana, enjoying a lot of attention from the public, but it’s not covered by the media – incredible.”
America’s relationship to Cuba is complex, but according to some, needs updating. We are largely alone in restricting access to Cuba (European, Canadian, and Caribbean residents, for example, can travel to the island freely), and many are calling for the government to lift the embargo on Cuba all together.
Despite the reaction of some Cuban-Americans to Jay and Bey’s visit to the island, I can’t help but wonder if they’d hold the same sentiment had the couple chosen to vacation in China—another Communist nation with a horrible track record of human rights violations.