Cuba hit back Thursday at 60 prominent U.S. black leaders who challenged its race record, with island writers, artists and official journalists calling the criticism an attack on their country's national identity.
The five-page signed statement, distributed by Cuban government press officials in an e-mail, defended Cuba's progress in providing social and personal opportunities for blacks and people of mixed race.
But it focused more on Cuba's past than the racial inequalities of contemporary Cuban society that came under criticism from Americans such as Princeton University professor Cornel West; Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of President Barack Obama's Chicago church; and Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine.
Cuba's response said the country has proven its racial credentials by sending troops to Angola and Ethiopia during the 1970s and offering free education through exchange programs and medical schooling to youngsters from Africa. It also recycled past Fidel Castro comments on race and noted that the 1959 revolution his bearded rebels "dismantled the institutional and judicial bases of a racist society."
It also accused the signers of the U.S. statement, which was released Tuesday, of being unaware that Cuba offered to send medical assistance after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans _ a gesture the U.S. State Department turned down.
"To say that among us exists a 'callus disregard' for black Cubans, that their civil liberties are restricted 'for reasons of race,' and to demand an end to 'the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights' would seem a delusional farce," Cuba's response read.
It accused the U.S. black leaders of being part of a campaign "that is attempting to suffocate our sovereignty and national identity."
The reponse was signed by, among others, Miguel Barnet, a renowned author on race who heads the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists.
Many artists and leaders in the U.S. black community have traditionally supported Castro's government, but this week's statement said that "racism in Cuba ... must be confronted."
It also called for the release of Darsi Ferrer, a black physician and political opposition leader who is celebrated in the U.S. but virtually unknown on the island.
Ferrer was arrested in July for obtaining black-market building materials to repair his home in a country where the state controls nearly all construction. Human rights activists say officials prosecuted Ferrer for a crime they often overlook in order to silence him.
Government statistics put the island's black or mixed-race population at about 35 percent, though some U.S. academics believe it is far higher.
While blacks hold many seats in Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament, there is virtually no Afro-Cuban representation at the highest levels of the communist government.
The Cuban statement said the island is not a racist society, saying blacks have opportunities "like never before in our country."