Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- A group of prominent African-Americans has challenged Cuba's race record, accusing the island nation of harassing its black citizens and cracking down on civil rights activists.
Sixty intellectuals and artists, including Princeton University professor Cornel West, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and actress Ruby Dee, have signed a declaration of protest.
"We cannot sit idly by and allow for decent, peaceful and dedicated civil rights activists in Cuba, and the black population as a whole, to be treated with callous disregard," the declaration says.
The declaration also calls for the release of Darsi Ferrer, a jailed mixed-race dissident who organized human rights marches.
Cuba has struck back with a letter written by its intellectuals and distributed by the government.
"To say that there is a 'callous disregard' among us for black Cubans, that civil liberties are repressed for reasons of race and to demand an end to 'the unnecessary and brutal harassment of black Cubans who defend human rights' would seem to be a delusional farce," they respond.
Cubans are proud of their racial mix, but racism is often an uncomfortable topic.
When a group of men in Havana's Central Park were recently asked about it, most of them turned away.
"No, no, we just talk about baseball," one man said of the national sport.
Others said Cuba is no different from any other country.
"There's racism everywhere in the world," another man said.
Slavery and discrimination are part of Cuba's history, as in much of the Americas.
Until 1959, Cuba had beaches, clubs and barbershops reserved for whites. One of the first things Fidel Castro did after his socialist revolution triumphed was declare racial discrimination illegal.
The revolution did deal an institutional blow to racism, but also incorrectly declared a centuries-old problem solved with just a decree or a law, said Cuban dissident Dimas Castellano.
Police still stop blacks more frequently than whites, for example, he said.
Cubans come in many shades of black, brown and white, as described by words such as mulatto, negro, mestizo, blanco, trigeno and jabao. According to the latest census, 35 percent of Cubans are of African descent. But the most visible are concentrated in sports and music, critics say, while few Afro-Cubans are in top government posts or on state television.
Cuban intellectuals defend their country in their letter, saying it has a long history of helping Africans and Afro-Cubans.
Cuba sent 350,000 troops to Angola, Ethiopia and other countries in Africa, to support their fights for independence, the intellectuals said. It also has provided free education to students from across Africa, they added.
"If today's Cuba felt this contempt for blacks, more than 35,000 young Africans wouldn't have been educated in our schools during the last 40 years," they wrote.
Education and family -- not dueling documents -- are key to combating racism, even most of those at Havana's Central Park agreed.
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