HAVANA (AP) – A leading Cuban cultural official said Friday that he has been demoted nearly two weeks after he published an opinion piece in the New York Times that criticized “blatant racism” on the island. In a phone interview with The Associated Press in Havana, Roberto Zurbano refused to speculate on whether his demotion from publishing director at the influential, government-run Casa de las Americas cultural institute to a lesser role as an analyst was directly linked to the newspaper article, which was harshly criticized by official media.
Zurbano told AP he was angry over his interactions with the Times and accused the paper of “manipulations” of his copy, “inaccuracies in translation” and “ethical violations.”
Specifically he complained about the title of the March 23 op-ed: “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” Zurbano said his proposed title suggested rather that the revolution “has not finished.”
He said there were other problems with the editing of his piece, but did not give specific instances. And he nonetheless insisted that there was nothing in the article that he wished to retract.
“I continue to think the same ideas. There is still much to discuss about racism,” Zurbano said. “That is and will continue to be my battle within and outside of the Casa de las Americas, but always within the revolution.”
The last part of that statement echoed Fidel Castro’s long-ago admonition on what constitutes acceptable criticism: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.”
Contacted by AP, the Times stood by its handling of the article.
“As is the case with all essays we run, we worked very hard to ensure that the wording in the piece was translated properly and accurately reflected the writer’s point of view,” spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a statement. “There were numerous versions of the piece sent back and forth and in the end, Mr. Zurbano, and our contact for him (who speaks fluent English), signed off on the final version.
“We knew that Mr. Zurbano was in a sensitive situation and we are saddened if he has indeed been fired or otherwise faced persecution because of this essay, but we stand by our translation and editing, which was entirely along normal channels,” it concluded.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the Times essay, Zurbano had harsh words for island authorities’ record on race and said that since Afro-Cubans continue to occupy the lower strata of Cuban society, they are least likely to benefit from social and economic reforms being pushed by President Raul Castro.
That surely touched a nerve in the Communist-run government, for which eliminating racism has long been a central tenet. Suggestions of racial inequality are highly sensitive, even if officials up to the president himself have acknowledged that problems remain.
“Raul 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,” Zurbano wrote in his article.
In February, the National Assembly, or parliament, elected an Afro-Cuban president for the first time ever in Esteban Lazo, and officials point to a significant increase in the number of women and Afro-Cubans in leadership positions.
Zurbano told AP that his essay had been attacked by many and touched off “a discussion” about racism in Cuba and the piece itself.
La Jiribilla, Cuba’s leading online cultural publication, published a series of critical pieces including one in which historian Silvio Castro accused Zurbano of being misinformed about race relations before the 1959 Cuban Revolution and said his essay appeared “in the wrong publication and with the wrong language.”
Others defended Zurbano.
Noted singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez for one, called for “an airing of ideas” without “ganging up” on the author.
*Pictured above is Roberto Zurbano.