Author/Journalist Ann Louise Bardach

Called “the go-to journalist on all things Cuban and Miami,” the award-winning author and reporter gives her take on the changing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Known in journalistic circles as "the go-to journalist on all things Cuban and Miami," Ann Louise Bardach has written for virtually every major news media outlet in the U.S. and U.K., including the New York Times, the Washington PostPolitico, Newsweek/The Daily Beast as Writer-at-Large and Vanity Fair, where she was a reporter for a decade. Also an accomplished author, her most recent text, titled Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, landed on the Miami Herald's list of "Ten Best Books of 2009." She started the Global Journalism course at University of California at Santa Barbara and is on the board of UCSB's Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television and New Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: If and when Cuba is actually removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, U.S. banks will be free to do business with the island nation. However, because Cuban ex-patriots in the U.S. are mostly white, these lines of credit backed by their relatives in America will primarily benefit white Cubans on the island.

Afro-Cubans already marginalized despite their large numbers will continue, I suspect, to suffer from a lack of resources.

So joining us now to talk about the plight of Afro-Cubans is award-winning journalist and author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington”, Ann Louise Bardach. Good to have you back on the program.

Ann Louise Bardach: Thank you. My pleasure.

Tavis: Let me start by asking what your sense is of all of this activity that’s happening around Cuba, some of it obviously from the White House?

Bardach: Well, it’s a sea change. It’s almost as big as when Kissinger opened China. It’s a huge diplomatic coup for President Obama. I mean, 10 previous predecessors in the White House were unable to achieve this, and he’s done it.

And, frankly, he’s done a big favor for even Republicans who say they’re protesting it because it takes the hot potato off the table.

And in this age, especially with the removal from state-sponsored terrorism, it was kind of ridiculous in the age of ISIS and Islamic terrorist groups and all this going on. The island of Cuba [laugh] being on that list kind of made it meaningless and…

Tavis: But that’s a serious–and that’s a big comparison to compare this opening in Cuba to what Kissinger did in China. That’s a big…

Bardach: I said it’s not quite on that level.

Tavis: Okay, okay.

Bardach: I said but it is–remember, though, we have been closed to Cuba for 55 years.

Tavis: Right, right.

Bardach: So that’s very significant and it’s caused all kinds of problems for us that many of them were resolved at the Summit because it was finally off the table. Obama could go down there, deal with regional issues without having to be berated and beat up about Cuba, Cuba, Cuba. So it’s a tremendous sea change.

Yes, Cuba is not the same as China, the massive economy, but it’s a lot closer and it has always played a very important role in domestic politics and in presidential politics and will likely do again.

Tavis: So President Obama was not beat up and berated, to use your phrase, at the Summit, but he is being beat up and berated by many in Florida, certainly the Miami Cubans. What’s your sense of how politically this will redown to him?

Bardach: I think he’s playing it beautifully and, in fact, the polls in Miami show only it’s a generational issue. It’s older, whiter Cubans who are angry about it. They don’t think they got a great deal.

Pretty much, the U.S. just–we didn’t get them a great deal in the sense of exchanges, but we got rid of the problem. Everybody has Cuba fatigue. On the island, they have Fidel fatigue. Everybody is ready for a new page and he’s achieved that.

Now that said, this is not going to change Cuba completely. The primacy of the Cuban Communist Party will remain. Raul Castro has made that very important. The centrality of the Cuban Army as the central organ of government will remain.

They are not suddenly going to have a multiparty system and that’s not going to change. So in some way, people have to tamp down their expectations. That’s going to be a long time.

Tavis: So we’re turning the page here. I guess the question is, though, as I intimated at the top of this conversation, whether or not we’re turning the page specifically for Afro-Cubans.

Bardach: Well, that’s a really complex nuance situation here. Before the revolution, Cuban blacks–really, it’s much more nuance. It’s blacks and mulattos. They use different language than we use here–comprised one-third of Cuba’s population.

Today, because of all the white immigration, it is closer to two-thirds. Now, again, we talk about black and white here. In Cuba, they do not talk about President Obama’s being black.

He is a mulatto. This is mother and his family were white. In Cuba, it’s a far more somebody is a Negro, a mulatto, mestizo, even Amarillo, to discuss the Chinese population, or somebody might say mulatto escura, a dark mulatto.

So it’s more nuanced than we have here in the United States, but that is not to say there hasn’t always been some very serious race issues going back to slavery. Now having said that, we have George Washington as the father of the United States.

Well, in Cuba, really the most important person is Jose Marti and a smidgeon below with that is a man named Antonio Maceo. And Maceo was black, mulatta, as his mother was mulatta. And there are massive statues of the great Maceo who led the Cuban Army and just an irreplaceable figure in Cuban history.

You can find sculptures to him in Santiago and Havana. His mother, Mariana Grajales, who had 13 children, many of whom were killed in the independence wars, famously said, “I only regret I didn’t have another child to give for the freedom of Cuba.”

She is called, Mariana Grajales who was mulatto, she’s called the Mother of Cuba. So it’s as different culture. It’s called an Afro-Cuban culture for a good reason. The culture comes out of Spain and out of freed African slaves.

Tavis: But there is, to your point, though, I think, going to be, continue to be race and class issues…

Bardach: That’s right.

Tavis: That are going to have to be navigated inside of Cuba on the other side of whatever this relationship is going to be.

Bardach: That is exactly right. Look, before Fidel Castro took power, there were many,  many black social clubs. They were an important voting class. There were many in the middle class and, of course, many at the very, very bottom.

When Fidel Castro took power, he banned all social clubs, including those black social clubs which were very vital to black society because he didn’t want groups getting together. There was going to be the Communist Party. That was one of the reasons the church had to go.

The problem now is that the great migration has been mostly white. We did not really see blacks or mulattos, mestizos, whatever, leaving Cuba to Mariel. So that’s like 1980, and larger numbers. They just do not have the relatives in the exile community to send the money and they are really paying for this.

You can really see it dramatically when you’re in Cuba. You can see somebody–look, the average wage in Cuba is around $200, $250 a year. Well, if you’re getting $250 a month from family in Miami, you are going to have a car, an apartment, a house.

If you don’t, you may be still living in a bojeo or a slum in Havana that’s called El Fanguito, which I’m sorry to say is mostly dark-skinned blacks in Havana. You know, some of the places don’t have plumbing.

So it’s going to be a problem that needs to be addressed and I’d be curious to how we move forward and how they’re going to do something about it.

Tavis: Is there a role then that the U.S. can play or should play as we continue to advance this new relationship with Cuba that considers these lower classes of people, citizens, in Cuba? And how they’re going to fare as U.S. businesses just hightail it to Cuba and everybody starts making money?

Is there some way that we ought to in our policy make sure that we have some way of ensuring that everybody benefits from this?

Bardach: Well, one issue is human rights and the rights of dissidents. Most Americans are unaware of the fact that most dissidents today are black or mulatto. Guillermo Farinas is a black man. Several musical groups, some very, very prominent names, I would say most, very few are just white.

Laura Pollan who ran The Ladies in White, the various women involved there, are black or mulatta, and to continue recognition form the U.S. is something that they really would welcome and they’re concerned about.

A lot of the dissidents in Cuba who are more and more their ranks are black are concerned that they’re the ones who are going to, you know, fall out of the bottom here. And that is an area the State Department for now is saying, look, we’re paying attention to you, we’re meeting you.

The other thing is the Cuban Politburo. When Fidel Castro came to power, there was one guy named Juan Almeida. Juan Almeida was the token black man in the Cuban Politburo for years and then later there was a guy named Esteban Lazo who’s still there.

They have, to their credit, increased the numbers of minorities and also women. Women were not even there. You didn’t find women in the Politburo for years. But it’s still not representative of what the population is and that’s another area. So it’s complicated.

The other thing that happened is when the Castro government decided we’re going to bring tourism back in the 1990s because, you know, we’re desperate. The Russians have left us. We don’t have a patron. We need to do tourism.

Well, almost everybody who worked in tourism was white and that became a big race issue in the 90s that became amplified and people protested about it.

And even when they hired blacks in tourism facilities, they were invariably light-skinned and that has been an issue that they’ve made some progress on. Initially, no Cubans were allowed in the hotels. Now they are.

But it needs a lot of work. Fidel Castro, you know, came out of Oriente which is where, you know, the great former slave populations were, but his followers were primarily white and he had a trusted group. And with the exception of Juan Almeida, it was pretty tokenism.

Tavis: A lot of things to keep our eye on as this relationship continues to develop. Thank you for coming on, Ann Louise.

Bardach: You bet.

Tavis: Appreciate your insights.

Bardach: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight about what’s coming in the months and years ahead in Cuba. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: April 22, 2015 at 1:28 pm