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IFAJS Cuba trips provide opportunity, enlightenment for black journalists

By Courtland Milloy
The Washington Post

When you get a telephone call from DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today and director of the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T University, you never know what adventure lies ahead.

He might ask if you'd like to accompany him to the White House for a meeting with President Obama; get a briefing from the president's national security adviser; participate in a conference call with the nation's top civil rights leaders.

Or, in my case recently, go to Cuba with him and a group of black journalists on an assignment sponsored by the IFAJS, which he founded in 2002.

At newspapers throughout the country, the ranks of foreign and national correspondents contain few journalists of color. That means many of us rarely get to practice our craft at the highest levels.

Wickham's Institute, along with his soon to be established Center for Global Journalism at NCA&T, are the only writing and editing programs in the nation seriously aimed at rectifying that problem.

And African-American journalists aren't the only beneficiaries.

“Black journalists can bring a perspective to the news that provides readers with a better understanding of the issues,” Wickham told me.

My week of journalism studies in Cuba this May was a case in point.
In the minds of many U.S. citizens, Cuba is but a caricature of a country, a place synonymous with Fidel Castro and communism.

Wickham, who made the first many visit to Cuba back in 1999, knew there was more to the story. Of course, he never told us what the rest of that story was or ought to be. He just wanted to give black journalists an opportunity to see for themselves and come to our own conclusions.

Johana Tablada, deputy director for North America in theCuban Foreign Ministry.

Here's what I wrote about the trip in my column for The Washington Post:

By Courtland Milloy, Published: June 7


HAVANA — While the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was in the District recently, I happened to be pirouetting around this town with a group of journalists from the United States. Not exactly a fair cultural exchange, but the Cuban people were gracious hosts nonetheless.

We got to dine at the homes of community activists and engage in frank talk about Cuba’s social inequities. We also met Johana Tablada, deputy director for North American Affairs in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who offered tea and a critique of the high life she experienced while staying with friends in well-to-do Chevy Chase.

“I say, listen, maybe you have the 10 brands of cereal. Maybe you have the 100 options of clothing, which I like,” Tablada said. “But I don’t miss it when I’m here. I will go over at lunchtime and see my mom. Up in Washington, people do not stop; they do not look around. There is always something for you to consume, that consumes your life without you.”

More remarkable than Tablada’s take was the extent to which her country’s brand of socialism seems to terrify the U.S. government. An ongoing, half-century-long economic embargo aims to bring Cuba to her knees while a spurious designation of the country as a “state sponsor of terrorism” leaves the door open for regime change by force.

In April, The Washington Post reported that the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), told a filmmaker in 2006 that she would welcome the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

And yet, here we were for a week of eyeballing in the forbidden land, the trip sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T University. Meanwhile, up at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, the Cuban ballet was performing “Don Quixote.”
What a weird diplomatic dance.

During a visit to one home on the outskirts of the city, some of us watched a taped documentary that had run on Cuban television in 2008. It was called “Raza,” about the persistence of racism. In it, a white Cuban ballet instructor claimed that the reason blacks don’t make good ballerinas was that their “glutes” were too big and their feet “too inflexible.”

Now suppose Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe in New York could freely travel and give lie to such a notion — if only for the sake of those Afro Cuban girls who might have heard such discouraging words?
There are so many ways our countries could help one another. Instead, American arrogance and Cuban pride shortchange us all.

Heriberto Feraudy of the Cuban Artists and Writers Association, was one of the people that Milloy got to meet during his recent visit to Cuba.

Heriberto Feraudy of the Cuban Artists and Writers Association told us that he liked the American people but not the U.S. policy towards Cuba. I asked what the difference is. After all, the United States is us.

“The American people don’t run the country,” Feraudy said through an interpreter. “President Obama doesn’t run the country.”

Asked who does, he said he didn’t know. All he knew was that polls show more than 70 percent of Americans favored lifting the embargo and restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba — Obama, too. And still the embargo remains.
The Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says the embargo “has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free.”

The Cubans we met were not enslaved commie automatons. Many were intrigued by Cuba’s transitioning from guaranteed government jobs to opportunities for self-employment. Just not at any cost.

“In the past, people were losing their values over tourism, doing anything for the green paper,” said Abel Contreras, our guide from the state-owned Havanatours. “This is my own opinion. One of the best things this government has done is to give us the possibility of being ourselves, of having self-respect and not being treated like a brothel of the United States.”

That said, he noted how much the people of both countries have in common.
“You like baseball; we like baseball,” Contreras said. “We like jazz; you like jazz. You want universal health care and a good education for all; so do we. Both countries are struggling to find solutions to those problems.”

And don’t forget the food. Contreras likes black beans and rice; I like red beans and rice. Hold the political hot sauce, and our tastes are not so different after all.

Wickham had put in an enormous amount of work to pull off this trip; not to mention the dozens of others he has organized for black journalists throughout South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Going to Cuba was most remarkable because it is perhaps the most difficult one for an American to enter. Because of antiquated U.S. policies towards Cuba, it takes as much diplomatic skill as journalistic ability to get there. To help raise money for the educational effort, Wickham goes so far as to sponsor a celebrity golf tournament in Orlando each summer. (Another project that requires incredibly hard work)

Clearly, Wickham is committed to educating the next generation of journalists while at the same time giving us old hands some professional experiences we wouldn't have otherwise.

A few days after my column ran, this letter to the editor was published in The Post. It was written by James Symington, a former congressman from Missouri and expert of U.S. foreign relations:

“Courtland Milloy’s reflections on Cuba echo the sentiments of a bipartisan team of former members of Congress (which I was a part of) presented to and ignored by Congress and the Clinton administration 18 years ago. The wheels of sane policy grind exceedingly slowly.”

Indeed, the same could be said about the wheels of racial equality in journalism. But thanks to Wickham, it's a steady grind on both fronts.

Index of IFAJS Special Report: Cuba in Black and White

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