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Apologias {The “Zurbano” Controversy} and Well-Meaning Defenders of the Cuban Socialist Revolution

By April 12, 2013September 6th, 2013No Comments

I write with dismay in response to the article and analysis in “The Zurbano Controversy”. The debate about racial identify, racism, and discrimination inside Socialist Cuba once again makes plain that so many of us for so many years in the U.S. solidarity movements with socialist Cuba have failed to recognize and/or failed to muster the courage and capability to defend Cuba’s right to self-determination and sovereignty and in that fundamental context of principle and commitment also publicly address the shortcomings and/or failings of the Revolution. This seems to be the case even when the Cuban people and their government representatives do so with their own self-critique for earlier failures in the context of broad national progress for all sectors of society.

The case of Cuba’s current self-critique of racism, racial discrimination, race-conditioned inequality, and progressive polices to overcome the legacy of racism inherited by the Revolution and the mistakes about racial identity and discrimination committed within the Revolution seems to escape the generally well informed awareness of some U.S. pro-socialist Cuba activists. The so called “Zurbano Controversy” is the most recent case in point where there is, in my opinion, a reactive rush to defend Cuban socialist policies and achievements against racism by over attention and critique on the messenger—Roberto Zurbano. Many inside and outside of Cuba, myself included, believe Zurbano’s decision to engage the New York Times under the conditions we have been informed of was ill-advised. Some of us, including me, conclude that the individual decision was not a conscious strategic move designed to advance the most progressive Cuban civil society and Cuban government perspectives and projects to make rapid, sustained progress on overcoming their own internal designations of the struggle against racism. However, Zurbano’s individual stance and the New York Times deployment of mendacious editorial control have combined to spur vigorous reflection and debate among Cuba’s leading anti-racism organizations and initiatives like the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers Jose Aponte Committee against Racism and Discrimination. His article has directed more attention to analytical and proscriptive writings of  Victor Fowler, Esteban Morales Dominguez, and many others, including prior critical commentary by Roberto Zurbano.

However, to focus on Zurbano (The Zurbano Controversy) is a major diversion from the far more important socio-cultural and political issue in the Cuban Revolution at a juncture that all agree (including, supporters, distracters, and enemies of the Revolution) is a transitional moment for Cuban citizens and their countries socialist direction. To categorize Zurbano’s individual feelings, analysis, and anti-racist prescriptions as “misleading” objectively avoids the centrality of the passionate, broad, social and culturally diverse internal Cuban debate (the New York Times aside) about racism. Is Zurbano’s take“Misleading” as in “intentional”, “deceptive”, “disingenuous” or as in not in conformity with my or Nelson Valdes’s analysis of racial identity, racism, racial discrimination and the factor of race in Cuban social and cultural equality?

Indeed, “a number of important critiques” have and are being written and debated inside Cuba and across Latin America, especially within the Articulacion Regional de Afrodescendiete; : (Read, for example: Dolor, alegría y resistencia by Víctor Fowler in Habana, Cuba). For Caribbean and Afro-Latin analysis and debate about race issues in Cuba, and about reaction and regional engagement, go to:; or Afrocubaweb.

Internal Cuban and Caribbean and Latin American regional analysis and political engagements about the nature and resolutions of racism in Cuba and Latin America are the “essential part of that discussion”, not my or outside solidarity activists— well-intentioned and/or illuminating views and analysis as we might offer at times. If we are not aware, dismiss, or under value the internal contradictions around race as reflected by the debates among Cubans themselves, or make external analysis and recommendations “essential”, or critical factors, we are engaging in misguided ideological defensive debate, not in a forthright manner with actual political negotiations among the Cuban people. And, we misinform progressive U.S. solidarity about the ideals, real achievements, and ongoing internal problems of social and economic development the Cuban people and their government are confronting by their own analysis, terminology, and projects.

We, outside of Cuba who stand in solidarity with socialist Cuba must do so with all the rigor of awareness and analysis we can muster. However, we must take care to not allow our ideological and political dispositions to obscure or displace the internal Cuban debate and political agenda as to “whether a segment of the Cuban population has done well or not after 1959”. Unquestionably, there is an internal debate about race with varying analysis, passions, and policy recommendations. And, inside or outside of Cuba, but especially among progressive and revolutionary supporters of Cuba’s right to sovereignty and self-determination, it should be easily deduced by deep historical or simple observation that “the economic opening of the economy in which the black population will not be able to compete in a leveled playing field” is a major policy matter, and should be an urgent matter for the solidarity movements to consider our active engagement, not passive observation, and certainly not a stance of historical inevitability of inequality. We tend to come late to matters of race in Cuba, and then all too reactive.

My disappointment with the article “The Zurbano Controversy” is amplified by the startling conclusion that “If anyone is to be blamed for an inaccurate portrayal of color in the island, it would be the “black” population itself.” In due respect to the analytical and political solidarity contributions of the author, this faulty analysis and conclusion as I read and feel it is an alarming indication that much of liberal and left-solidarity perspectives and projects are out of sync with contemporary socialist Cuba, and require closer attention to the issues and resolutions of problems Cubans are deliberating, and less attention to the personalities who debate and earnestly seek to make radical progress.


James Early

Institue for Policy Studies Board; Director Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.