The politics of Blacks and Cuba
In late October 2009, Professor Abdias Nascimento, the grand old man of Brazilian civil and human rights activity—equivalent in Brazilian terms and, for many, to Dr. Martin L. King—wrote a public letter to Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz and to his own president, Luiz Lula Da Silva.
In that letter he excoriated Cuba for arresting, in July 2009, and badly treating Dr. Darsi Ferrer Ramirez, a physician who had been a repeated critic of Cuba’s disregard of its Black Cuban majority population. Dr. Ferrer had started his own medical clinics (some called them people’s clinics) in garages, private homes and apartments inside the poorest areas of Havana that he reported were being left out of the Cuban universal healthcare network.
Former Senator Nascimento strongly recommended Dr. Ferrer’s release, and urged the international community to assist in pressuring the Cuban government to take that action.
A few days after the release of Dr. Nascimento’s letter, in November, a “Declaration of A Statement of Conscience,” signed by at least 60 very prominent African Americans, joined Dr. Nascimento’s quest, but also took the opportunity to expand the field of protest. Over half of that “Statement of Conscience’ severely criticized Cuba for continuing a policy and practice of rampant, blatant racism against its Afro-Cuban population. The document unfavorably compared Cuban racial discrimination with American bigotry.
That ‘Statement of Conscience’ document ignited a firestorm of debate, countercharges and intense introspection among American Black intellectuals, some of their Cuban allies, and the anti-Cuban contingent that lives and works in the U.S.
Ruby Dee signed the ‘Conscience’ document. So did Professor Cornell West, Essence Magazine’s former editor- in- chief Susan Taylor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux , UCLA’s Vice Chancellor Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, former Black Panther attorney and current college professor Kathleen Cleaver, professor emeritus Ron Walters, film director Melvin van Peebles, Professor Molefi Asante, Gloria B. Roberts of the National Association of Social Workers, former Africana studies chair Acklyn Lynch, and Nzinga Heru of Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations to name a few.
This was no bunch of ill-starred crazies, but rather a prime group of W.E.B. Dubois’ talented 10th.
This was a very serious accusation being hurled by a high octane group of African American all-stars. Essentially, they said that, “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 … Racism in Cuba, and anywhere else in the world, is unacceptable and must be confronted.”
Not only did the Cuban government send out a very strong public response, reminding everyone of the great deeds it could rightly claim in support of African liberation and political independence (sending troops to Algeria in 1963, sending troops to Angola, and fighting side-by-side with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress soldiers against apartheid storm troopers in Namibia), its continuing free medical scholarship education program for African and African American students, its connection to the development of jazz music, etc., and how insulted it was to receive this public flogging by a group it had always considered its friends.
In December, a counter group of Black intellectuals ran a strong advertisement belittling the first letter’s contingent as politically naïve and misguided. The “We Stand With Cuba” letter was a tongue lashing of the first order, saying that the original group of signers had been hoodwinked by Carlos Moore, an Afro-Cuban American national who had been a relentless critic of the Castro regime in Cuba for the past 49 years.
This second smaller group of African American intellectuals (30 signees), which included Amiri and Amina Baraka, author Sam Anderson, James Early of the Smithsonian Institute and Transafrica, Herman and Iyaluua Ferguson of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, historian and author Gerald Horne, Tony Menelik van der Meer of UMass, Bill Sales of Seton Hall, renowned poet Askia TouAbduasre, attorney Michael Warren, and labor leader Brenda Stokely, among others, gave a summary history lesson in the legacy of Cuban good deeds towards African people, and how virulent Cuba’s enemies were.
To this second group of intellectuals, the first group, well-meaning though they may have been, gave undeserved aid and comfort to the anti-Cuba campaign of the American government at a time, when all of them should have been united in demanding the end to the 50-year Cuban embargo that was choking the economic life of all Cubans, Black, White, Mestizo, Mulatto or what have you. They said, “The criticisms about the presence of racism in Cuba are being addressed within the framework of the Cuban government and civil society. There are and have been fierce debates and policy changes inside these structures, when it comes to eradicating 500 years of racism in Cuba … when Africa called, Cuba answered. Unlike other friends of Africa, Cuba provided assistance to the people of Southern Africa, without brokering one deal for access to resources or anything else. Cuba’s solidarity with the people of Southern Africa in the 1987-88 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola was the decisive turning point in the defeat of apartheid. We remember and applaud Cuba’s provision of teachers, technicians, doctors and other medical personnel along with free medical training to the young people of Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.”
The argument is not yet over, either. In our recent trip to Cuba in June, we were questioned about why the African American middle class was attacking Cuba? Why were we joining the anti-Cuban rabble? We, in response, asked whether any of the accusations were true.
We got an outpouring of answers, all of which acknowledged that racism was indeed alive and probably growing in Cuba, despite Castro-era laws making racial discrimination illegal. Cuba was not, we were told, a Plessy vs. Ferguson situation—segregation was illegal, and blatant prejudice was illegal, etc. The problem was, as we were reminded, one cannot legislate a racial attitude.
Light Cubans still preferred light Cubans and still hired them before they hired, appointed, chose and placed dark Cubans. But great progress was certainly being made. The Cuban Chief Justice is Black, as is half of the national assembly, Cuban’s elected parliament. A large part of Cuba’s expanding cadre of doctors is Afro-Cuban.
This story and its permutations continue. The African American community in the U.S. is intimately tied to the fate of the Cuban population-Afro-Cubans and all—and we should not forget it. By the way, Dr. Ferrer was freed and placed on four months probation and house arrest five days after we left Cuba. He had been imprisoned for 11 months. He is alive and continuing his civil rights activities.
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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May brings us holidays from May 1 (May Day) through Memorial Day, May 27 (originally, Decoration Day), the preeminent celebration of loyalty and courage in America’s Civil War. In between May Day and Memorial Day, there is also Cinco de Mayo and the always adventurous Mother’s Day.
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