Within weeks of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, its leadership, with the enthusiastic support of black and mestizo Cubans, took steps to dismantle the most visible forms of racial discrimination on the island. Within a couple of years the Revolution dismantled the economic underpinnings of racial oppression that had its roots in the African slave trade. Thus, the necessary conditions were instituted to carry out a struggle — clearly still in progress — for racial equality. African Americans and their supporters who were waging a fight to do the same within the U.S. were inspired by these developments. Thus, the very warm welcome residents of Harlem in New York City gave to Fidel Castro in 1960 when he decided to relocate to a hotel there for his visit to the United Nations. Not the least among those who welcomed him was Malcolm X. Other leading African American figures such as W.E. B. Du Bois, William Worthy and Robert F. Williams courageously countered the barrage of hysterical anti-Cuban propaganda at the time and spoke out forcefully in defense of Cuba.
It is therefore with grave concern that we, the undersigned, read “Acting on Our Conscience: A Declaration of African-American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba,” (afrocubaweb.com/actingonourconscience.htm) (“Declaration”) issued at the end of November. Its 59 signatories charge that “racism and racial discrimination in Cuba . . . has hitherto been ignored.” It calls for an end to “unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba who are defending their civil rights. . . . [We] cannot be silent in the face of increased violations of civil and human rights for those black activists in Cuba who dare raise their voices against the island’s racial system. . . . [W]e 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 for their rights as citizens and as the most marginalized people on the island. Racism in Cuba, and anywhere else in the world, is unacceptable and must be confronted!”
The stated basis for the charge of the 59 is “the unjust imprisonment by Cuban authorities of Dr. Darsi Ferrer, an internationally known Afro-Cuban civil rights leader.” However, no evidence, other than the assertion, is presented in their “Declaration” that his “unjust imprisonment” — if that was indeed the case — was due to either him being black or his supposed anti-racist activities. Neither can we attest to the claim of his international renown.
We stand in solidarity with the “Message from Cuba to Afro-American Intellectuals and Artists” (embacu.cubaminrex.cu/Default.aspx?tabid=15886) (“Message”) issued in Havana, on December 2, 2009. Signed by nine Cuban intellectuals and artists of various skin colors, it is a response to the “Declaration.”
What is irrefutable is the actual record of the Cuban Revolution in the anti-racist struggle, so instructively summarized in the “Message” of the nine, all of whom, unlike Ferrer, are well-known internationally as well as, more importantly, within Cuba for advancing the struggle for racial equality. If the claim of the 59 signers of the “Declaration” about Ferrer’s “unjust imprisonment” has merit, it could be reasonably assumed that other fighters for racial equality in Cuba have suffered a similar fate. The “Message” of the nine says otherwise.
They proudly and with justification point to the most noble moment in the international side of the Revolution’s anti-racist record, specifically, Cuba’s contribution to the overthrow of apartheid, arguably the decisive conquest of the global anti-racist struggle in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As Nelson Mandela so rightly put it about the Cuban victory in the decisive battle in Angola in 1988: “‘[it] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor . . . [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa. . . . Cuito Cuanavale [Angola] was the turning point for the liberation of our continent — and of my people — from the scourge of apartheid.” And then later as he detailed: “Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers. They have shared the same trenches with us in struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid. Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. . . . Today, in many different fields — in the health sector, in government, and in the army — there are many young professionals, contributing to the development of our country, who owe their skills to the generous training provided to them by Cuba.”
Closer to home is the example of the black Republic of Haiti where Cuban medical personnel are almost single-handedly providing access to medical care for the country’s severely impoverished working people. Are these the deeds of a government and a social system that ignore racial discrimination — in this case the international racial order that relegates Haiti to the bottom rung in this hemisphere — and has “callous disregard for the rights of the most marginalized”?
Also irrefutable is what the Revolution has been able to do for its “most marginalized people on the island.” Every objective assessment of the Revolution admits that the life chances of Cuba’s black and mestizo citizens are far more equal to those of its white compatriots than any time in the history of the country and certainly anywhere else — not only in countries with similar racial profiles in Latin America and the Caribbean but also its neighbor to the north. And, as the “Message” points out, the effort toward achieving racial equality has taken on a new urgency — a frank recognition of the unfinished business of the Revolution. Acknowledging the existence of “objective discrimination” even after fifty years of the Revolution, Raul Castro told the Cuban National Assembly on Dec. 20, 2009, that “I will exercise all of my influence so that these harmful prejudices continue losing ground until they are finally put to an end, and so that women and blacks are promoted to managerial posts at all levels because of merit and professional preparation.” As Professor Esteban Morales of the University of Havana, one of the signers of the “Message” and a member of the new permanent committee on racism and discrimination in the National Union of Artists and Writers and black, explained in a just published interview in the Cuban press: “Cuba is the only country in the world in which blacks and mestizos have the state and the government as their ally” (www.trabajadores.cu/news/2009/12/18/2018cuba-is-only-country-where-blacks-and-mestizos-have-government-as-their-ally2019).
Those of us who reside inside the U.S., the most resource endowed nation in history, should display some humility when it comes to charging any government with being racist. Though the writers of the “Message” would never do so, they could have rightly noted that blacks and mestizos in Cuba, since 1959, have better infant mortality and life expectancy rates than their cohorts to the north. They could have explicitly pointed out that African Americans in New Orleans and environs would have been the primary beneficiaries of Cuba’s offer of humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — an offer that was rejected by the U.S. government.
Since the official beginning of the current economic crisis at the end of 2007, African Americans have experienced what can only be called a Depression. In the past year, the crisis has deepened and with no end in sight — despite the racial identity of the present occupant of the White House. Though Cubans too are very much affected by the crisis, we can be assured, based on the history of the Revolution, that it will not have, as is true with the hurricanes of nature, the life and death consequences for its black and mestizo citizens as is unfortunately, but in fact, the case with their cohorts to the north.
The most important task for those of us in the U.S. who profess to speak for the interests of our black and mestizo sisters and brothers in Cuba is to demand that the hostile policies of Washington toward the island since 1959 cease and desist. Not the least important demand is the right to travel for all U.S. citizens — and especially African Americans — to see for themselves Cuba’s reality in order not to rely on hearsay oftentimes politically motivated. If the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, an African American, could travel recently to Havana to learn how the Cubans prepare for hurricanes, then certainly all U.S. citizens should have the same right.
For those who thought that with an African American in the White House a new era in U.S. foreign policy would be inaugurated, this is now the time to act on such hopes. It is in the U.S. where their energies can have the most positive impact. Free of Washington’s aggression, the Cuban people would have the necessary space to realize the full potential of what they fought to institute in 1959 — an example and outcome that would benefit not only black and mestizo Cubans but those subject to racial oppression anywhere in the world.
We urge any signers of the “Declaration” who have not already done so to withdraw their signatures and join with us in the demand for the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. In doing so, we also support and urge others to sign the petition entitled “We Stand With Cuba! Declaration of African American Activists, Intellectuals and Artists in Continued Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution” (www.petitiononline.com/withcuba/petition.html).
As a complement to the statement of the “African American Activists, Intellectuals and Artists” described above, we also urge all individuals and organizations who may not be part of that community to add their names to this petition.
Professor of Political Science and African and African American Studies
University of Minnesota
Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies
St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict
Casa de las Americas (New York City)
Cuba Solidarity New York
Minnesota Cuba Committee
December 25, 2009