Black Cubans still struggle against discrimination


WASHINGTON – “More than half a century ago, Fidel decreed the elimination of racism,” said Leonardo Calvo Cardenas. But “this just made the problem deeper and more complex.” Calvo Cardenas is an Afro-Cuban — a group that makes up roughly half of Cuba’s population but that is greatly under-represented in its political leadership, media and nascent business class. Calvo Cardenas hasn’t always been on the outside looking in. “I was the director of the Lenin Museum,” he told me during a visit to Washington this month.
But Calvo Cardenas’ days in the Lenin stacks came to an abrupt end in 1991, when he and his friend Manuel Cuesta Morua, a historian at Havana’s Casa de Africa Museum, lost their jobs after publicly criticizing the Castro regime’s lack of democracy. The two went on to form a democratic socialist organization that the regime routinely harasses but, atypically, hasn’t stamped out.
“We were the first alternative political movement that publicly opposed the U.S. embargo,” said Cuesta Morua, who accompanied Calvo Cardenas on his visit. “That makes it more difficult for the Cuban government to give us the kind of treatment that other dissidents have gotten.”
In 2008, the two joined other activists to form the Citizens Committee for Racial Integration — an organization whose very name is an indictment of their beleaguered workers’ paradise. “The Afro-Cuban population is stagnant, at the bottom of the social pyramid,” Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna, the committee’s national coordinator, said during the recent trip. As in virtually every other nation in the Western hemisphere, Calvo Cardenas added, “Cuba has traditionally had a racially stratified workforce. And despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the government, African descendants remain excluded from the most promising jobs.”
None of the committee representatives accused the Castros of harboring racial bias. The problem that the Castros and the Communist Party have with the committee is that an independent movement for racial equality is a living, breathing refutation of the idea that, after more than 50 years in power, communism has delivered equality. Another problem for the party is that any independent movement is inherently not under its control. For Afro-Cubans, the road to equality is blocked by the party’s suppression of civil society.

In recent years, Cuba’s economic travails have made the nation’s racial rifts more visible. Still, “the government hasn’t waged a public anti-racism campaign,” Madrazo said, as doing so would have required acknowledging the persistence of racism under Cuban communism.
So the Afro-Cuban activists formed the committee themselves. The group promotes not only racial equality but also has a gay and lesbian chapter and presents annual awards to human rights advocates and champions of pluralism.
In a more repressive period, of course, the committee’s leaders would be languishing in jail and its activities would be conducted underground, if at all. Today, the Communists are encouraging a modest wave of small-scale entrepreneurialism, though a movement to a more market-oriented economy is no guarantee of democratization, as the examples of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and China today make abundantly clear. Nonetheless, a little political space not occupied by the party has opened up in Cuba, and the committee is one of a handful of groups that, not without risk, seek to expand it.
“When we hold public forums at the community level, we’re often arrested,” said Cuesta Morua. “But then they let us go. The tactics of repression have changed. Long prison sentences didn’t weaken the human rights movement; they strengthened it.”
The committee leaders entertain no illusions that the regime’s fall and the institution of a democratic government would in themselves eliminate Cuba’s racial stratification. “The existence of multiple political parties guarantees the democratization of the state,” said Cuesta Morua. “It doesn’t guarantee the democratization of society.”
Nevertheless, the committee leaders are emphatic that Cuba can’t become more egalitarian until it becomes radically more democratic. Cuesta Morua marveled that there are still some in the American left who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. or identify with him today yet support a Cuban regime that would never permit a similar march in its own country.
“We have a message for the American left, especially the African American left,” he said. “There are forgotten Cubans, invisible Cubans, many of them Afro-Cubans, many of them not. They do not live in the utopia that some Americans still imagine. They live in Cuba.”
Esteban Morales    May 22, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — Many black people and persons of mixed racial background in Cuba believe that a change in the country’s political system is needed to improve the lives of this non-white sector of the population, which today continues to endure stereotypes, discrimination and racism.
For more than three centuries, Cuba’s black and mixed race population suffered the onslaught of racial stereotypes, discrimination and racism. No government of the republican period (post 1902), save Fulgencio Batista’s, which demagogically opened the doors of the country’s armed forces to this sector of the population, did absolutely anything for them.
The reason was not that these governments were unaware of the problem. During his presidential campaign, Carlos Prio Socarras made the cause of black people his own in a speech delivered at Havana’s Club Atenas, but did nothing once in office.
Before the “war” of 1912, black people and mixed race persons had patiently waited for each new government to bring some measure of improvement to their situation on the island.
But, even though this sector already represented over 30% of Cuba’s voting population at the time, nothing was ever done: once the presidential campaigns were over, as I’ve written many times, all of their demands were put “on the backburner”.
The revolutionary government, which came to power in 1959, was the first to seriously address the problems faced by black and mixed race peoples and the poor in general.
So, when I hear black people say that a change in Cuba’s current political system would benefit this sector of the population, I can only feel sorry for them for their historical ignorance.
What do people mean when they speak of a change in Cuba’s current political system? Does it mean, among other things, that those biding their time in Miami should return and take power in Cuba, bringing back the racism that prevailed on the island before 1959 and is today openly practiced in their Miami community?
Even Carlos Moore, a supporter of the idea that a regime change in Cuba is needed, has spoken against this on numerous occasions, incurring the deep animosity of Miami’s white Cuban Americans. This is because he knows that the immense majority of the members of this community are consummate racists.
Where in this hemisphere which includes the United States, the country with the world’s most powerful black middle class, are black people best off in terms of what they have gained historically, if not in today’s Cuba?
On the basis of what model, drawn from any system in today’s world, can we be justified in saying that the lives of black people could improve through a change in Cuba’s political system? When, before the revolution, did black people have the right to employment, equal salaries, and free education and healthcare, to name a few of the things they enjoy in Cuba today? Where in the world today is this a widespread phenomenon among non-whites?
It is true that Cuba’s current political system is still fraught with deficiencies and imperfections, that wealth hasn’t yet been distributed as we’d hoped, that access to employment opportunities is still not the same for blacks and whites (see my recent article for Havana Times).
These facts, which suggest that racial discrimination and racism still exist in Cuba, are not part of a historical burden the country still shoulders, but the result of these imperfections, which Cuban society has not yet managed to eradicate.
Acknowledging that pending agenda is one thing while another is saying that this means that these imperfections will be eliminated by renouncing socialism, a system which, in spite of its problems, continues to be the only one that has secured for black people, on a massive scale, what no other has yet offered them anywhere in the world.
It is a question of perfecting and expanding the system through which our social situation has improved, not of eliminating it. The latter would be a fool’s solution to our problems.
Suffice is to observe the struggle of the nearly 140 million African descendants scattered across Latin America. For nearly all of them, the achievements Cuba can boast of continue to be unreached goals, rights that Cuba has already secured for blacks and that today only struggles to preserve and broaden in scope.
In their alleged struggle against racism in Cuba, these critics, whom I am tempted to call the “racial Right”, often wear a “mask” to conceal their real objective, which is nothing other than deploying the issue of race as part of the subversive political campaign aimed at a “regime change” in Cuba which the United States supports.
The truth is, these black people are not engaged in a struggle against racism and racial discrimination in Cuba; they are, rather, the “blacklegs”, the “fifth column” of the United States’ current Cuba policy.
The chief commitment of these individuals is not the struggle against racism and racial discrimination in Cuba, but the United States’ anti-Cuba policies. They merely use racial issues as a kind of “umbrella” or cover for their actions.
I believe these individuals are also smart enough to have realized that their thesis that Cuba’s racial problems could be solved through a “regime change” cannot be defended, neither historically or politically.
The immense majority of black people in Cuba know this well and won’t be seduced by the “siren-songs” of the counterrevolutionary racial Right.
The racial Right would have us believe that black people who have been imprisoned in Cuba for common crimes are activists engaged in a civil rights struggle. Its members are also allies of the Ladies in White and establish political parties and organizations to oppose the Cuban government.
They identify with the interests of U.S. policy in order to get their hands on USAID money and enjoy the privileges afforded by the US Interests Section in Cuba.
They must lay their cards on the table, once and for all, and reveal their true political affinities and intentions, and not use the issue of race as a standard and cover, to pretend to be engaged in a struggle which isn’t theirs, for they are ultimately mere defenders of the idea that capitalism, that same system which never did anything for black and mixed race people in Cuba, ought to return to the island.
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