Three years ago, Heriberto Espino, the Afro-Cuban president of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation in Havana, talked to me and a group of black journalists about realities in Cuba.
Racism, he said, is a problem. But, he said, Cubans want to fix the problem themselves.
“We want to change it,” Espino said. “And we want you [black Americans] to help us.”
Notice Espino said help. Not isolate. And in his view help means more black Americans like hip-hop artist Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, coming to see and connect with Cubans on the island.
The kind of help they don’t want, he said, is from people whose main goal it is to use their struggles to usurp their system.
By that Espino meant they don’t want help from Castro-obsessed Cuban-American lawmakers like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans from Florida, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
They don’t want help from those who have insisted on maintaining a decades-old economic embargo and travel ban that has done more to ratchet up misery among the mostly-black population and little to topple Fidel Castro’s regime.
So it was especially bizarre to see those lawmakers, as well as a few other Cuban-Americans, proclaim to be on the side of Cubans such as Espino in lambasting Jay-Z and Beyonce for visiting the island to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary earlier this month.
It was bizarre because in criticizing the superstar couple, their own racism and condescension shone through, with Ros-Lehtinen implying that Jay-Z and Beyonce lacked common sense for spending money that will go into the regime’s coffers, and Rubio saying that Jay-Z needed to get educated.
And Cuban-American film director Phil Lord penned a letter basically saying that Jay-Z was too ignorant to understand the damage his visit did.
First of all, Jay-Z is not ignorant. He’s a guy who rose from selling drugs on the streets to become a multi-millionaire.
On top of that, he’s obviously intelligent enough to go see a place, especially one that is filled with people who look like him, and share a common history with him, for himself – and not take the word of people who care more about Cold War politics than Cubans on the island.
Besides that, the Carters aren’t the only U.S. celebrities who have visited Cuba in recent years. Robert Redford showed the film, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” on the life of revolutionary icon Che Guevara, in Havana in 2009. Leonardo DeCaprio has visited. So has Sean Penn.
Yet none of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s anti-Castro detractors implied that these white celebrities lacked common sense, or needed to be educated, or were ignorant.
And let’s talk common sense, shall we?
Ros-Lehtinen blasted Jay-Z and Beyonce` for spending money in Cuba. Well guess what? According to the Havana Consulting Group, whose data was recently quoted in a USA Today column by my colleague, DeWayne Wickham, Cuban-Americans sent nearly $2.3 billion in remittances to their relatives in 2011.
Call me naïve, but I’m guessing that’s much more than what Jay-Z and Beyonce spent in a week to keep the Castro brothers rolling in dough. On top of that, where does Ros-Lehtinen think Cubans spent those billions?
At Walt Disney World?
In trying to say that Jay-Z doesn’t get it, what critics of the Carters’ visit really reveal is how much they don’t get it.
They don’t get the fact that Cubans, most of whom are black or mixed race, want engagement, not isolation.
Most of all, they don’t get that the same kind of paternalistic attitudes that they have been directing toward Jay-Z and Beyonce` for visiting the island is the same kind of paternalism that turns black Cubans like Espino off; the attitude that says they know what black Cubans need without talking to them, or by vilifying anyone who visits the island and talks to them.
So I hope Jay-Z and more black celebrities, artists, educators and others travel to Cuba. Just as our interaction as black journalists did, their interaction can help black Cubans garner ideas about how to deal with racism and how to forge a future that will largely be in their hands once the Castro regime ends.
Without being forced to accept a future imposed by condescending outsiders that will surely take them back to a past that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t work for them.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.