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.