This past Sunday I wrote about my black Cuban friend Roberto. I referenced an article published in the NYTimes. In this morning’s times there is a follow-up article detailing the circumstances of how the journalist who wrote that article lost his job. According to the Times this AM, “The author, Roberto Zurbano, in an article published March 23, described a long history of racial discrimination against blacks on the island and said ‘racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it’.” He was later removed from his position as editor at publishing arm of the Casa de Las Americas Cultural Center.
Mr. Zurbano states that the NYTimes editorial staff changed the title of his article from “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Has Not Yet Finished” to “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” According to Mr Zurbano this change was made without his approval and makes a considerable difference in the intent and weight of the article. The Times defends its translation and says it is sorry for Mr. Zurbano’s troubles, but it feels that it did nothing wrong. That stance is not substantiated by the fall out on the Cuban side of the issue.
Support for Mr. Zurbano’s position can be found in a follow-up article in Havana Times by Esteban Morales, a leading thinker, writer, and scholar in Cuba considered one of the go-to authorities on matters of race relations. He opens his discussion with the article’s headline. Morales states “Claiming that “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” his (Zurbano’s) argument doesn’t hold up, not even within the complex reality of Cuba today.” On the website for UNEAC, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, there are at least eight essays and opinion pieces about the article and almost each one starts with the headline as being to extreme and absolutist.
Certainly there is no intentional harm done by the NYTimes. The point of this post is how carefully words must be chosen when writing about such sensitive topics. It is also the case that not understanding the situation the writer of the article was in can cause it to worsen. Again not an intentional fault, but a common one. Most of the world does not think like the US nor does it share our can do attitudes. I observed first hand how these differences worked when I took college students to Cuba and we would meet with Cuban students, artists, and photographers. The cultural differences can be substantial.