In Obama, Afro-Cuban sees a revolution he can believe in
BY JACK CHANG
For more than five decades, Carlos Moore, a Cuban-Jamaican writer who's considered one of the world's leading experts on the history of racism, has been at the heart of his era's most dramatic moments.
Shortly after Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Moore returned to Cuba to support Castro's budding communist state. Years later, after Moore fell out of favor with Cuba's leadership and fled, he worked with African independence movements fighting to break countries around that continent from colonial rule.
With that record behind him, the 66-year-old knew he wanted to be in the U.S. for what he considered one of the greatest turning points of recent history: the election of Barack Obama.
Moore left his home in Salvador, Brazil, to spend the last months of Obama's presidential campaign in the eastern U.S., where he was promoting his new memoir, Pichon.
Election Day fell on Moore's birthday, and he watched in Miami as Obama declared victory.
For Moore, Obama's election was a landmark moment in a story that began thousands of years ago when racism and slavery made their first ugly appearances in North Africa, India and elsewhere.
As a black man who grew up in the poorest areas of Cuba, Moore said seeing a fellow black man rule the world's most powerful country was nothing short of revolutionary.
Moore said he was particularly impressed that Obama won with the support of tens of millions of white Americans.
''Now, those generations of whites are joining the generation of blacks,'' Moore said. ``There is no question this is a step forward for the whole world. It's not just a step forward in America.''
Moore is also speaking out about his native Cuba, as that country celebrates the 50th anniversary of its fabled revolution amid political and economic pressures.
Moore wrote a widely publicized letter in December appealing to Cuban leader Raul Castro to attack institutional racism on the island or risk being overwhelmed by the country's black majority.
''Power in Cuba is white,'' Moore wrote. ``Racial discrimination against black Cubans is strengthening day by day and becoming more pervasive.''
While speaking recently in Washington, Moore said that Obama's election presents a new threat to the Cuban government.
``In Cuba, they're saying if Obama can become president in a country where blacks are 13 percent of the population, why can't (blacks) become president in a country where 70 percent of the population is black?''
Moore grew up in the poor town of Lugareno in the Cuban hinterlands before moving with his father and siblings to New York as a teenager. That's where he became politically active and met black luminaries such as poet Maya Angelou and jazz drummer Max Roach.
It's also where he became an ardent supporter of the Cuban revolution. Moore's Cuban ties, however, were strained in 1961 when he returned home only to have the government he loved so much imprison him for denouncing what he said was its attempts to ignore racism on the island.
Moore fled Cuba two years later and didn't stop running. The island's communist government denounced and pursued him for more than three decades around the world. In Pichon, Moore even tells of an apparent attempt by Cuban officials to kidnap him in Tanzania.
Moore writes that he only returned to Cuba in 1997 after the regime dropped its pursuit and gave him back his Cuban passport. The Cuban interests section in Washington didn't respond to requests to talk about Moore's accounts.
Moore's wife, Ayeola, said her husband is still recovering emotionally from those dangerous decades.
''Everything he did, he did it like the end was near because of Castro or the Cuban government,'' she said. ``Once, he said he even wanted to kill himself.''
With those dark days behind him, Carlos Moore now writes and reads in his sunny Salvador house in between book tours and research trips. The evocative strains of salsa music fill the house, as do piles of books and art he's picked up around the world.
Moore has long angered people across the political spectrum by speaking his mind and denouncing injustice wherever he saw it, be it in the U.S. or in Cuba. That outspokenness has turned Moore into one of the most original and influential black scholars. His appearances draw crowds in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and New York alike.
''He came out of a country like Cuba where this idea of racial democracy and harmony was so strong and he criticized the revolution's treatment of the issue because he saw through that mask,'' said Brazil-based race scholar Elisa Larkin Nascimento, who's known Moore for more than three decades. ``He paid the price for that.''
He hasn't stopped stirring controversy. At a book reading he gave in Washington, several protesters angrily heckled him before being forced by the bookstore's employees to leave.
People have also turned up at other public events on Moore's book tour to shout him down or even physically threaten him over his comments about Cuba's government.
Moore said he's faced worse, and he decided long ago to never stop speaking truth, no matter the consequences.
``If I had made a decision to shut up, I would have stayed in Cuba. My whole life has been one in which I've resisted the government. I've denounced and resisted and I've paid the price. I knew the price could be my life, and I accepted that.''