News and Facts about Cuba

Crackdown on Afro-Cubans destroys myth of racial equality

Posted on Wednesday, 05.15.13

Crackdown on Afro-Cubans destroys myth of racial equality

OSLO, Norway At the time of ’s takeover of Cuba in 1959,
“separate but equal” was the norm in much of the Western world. Castro
won plaudits from early supporters for banning the practice of separate
facilities on the island, promising a raceless, equal society under the
new regime. Today, the regime instead targets any Afro-Cuban who dares
challenge the historical fallacy that blacks on the island have fared
better under the Revolution.

Afro-Cuban fealty to the Castro regime after the fall of Batista was
certainly understandable. Fresh on their minds was the historical
remembrance of having been a significant contingent of the forces that
fought and defeated Spanish colonial rule, yet they were subsequently
denied the respect and dignity that should have followed. A fledgeling
1912 resistance movement was so brutally put down by the white-dominated
post-colonial ruling class that it served to drive the revolt
underground for a generation or more. That memory has persisted through
much of the Castro years, though it’s effect on their will to resist has
waned in recent years as the island’s most visible political prisoners,
and recent political martyrs, have been predominantly black.

The regime’s racially-focused crackdown received international attention
last month when Roberto Zumbrano was fired from his job as editor of a
publishing house in Havana after his New York Times article pointed out
the reality for Afro-Cubans in Cuba: “To question the extent of racial
progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act,” Zambrano wrote.
“This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is
alive and well.” About the same time, an overtly racist cartoon video,
made by paid propagandists of the Castro regime and uploaded to YouTube,
slandered Berta Soler, the head of the peaceful protest group Ladies in
White, portraying her as an orangutan.

Soler took the mantle as the head of the Ladies in White after its
former leader, Laura Pollán, died in mysterious circumstances after a
run-in with the regime’s enforcers last year. The group has come under
more aggressive attacks in the last year, enduring beatings while in the
act of leaving their Havana church to walk silently and carrying a
single flower in remembrance of their political husbands and
family members.

Soler is in Oslo this week to receive the Václav Havel Prize at the Oslo
Forum, an international event that brings
dissidents from throughout the world to a place where they can speak
freely, out from under the gaze of their oppressors.

I asked Soler about the claim by the Castro regime of “solidarity” with
the Afro-Cuban community in Cuba, and whether there was overt racism
practiced by the government. “Blacks in Cuba not only have fewer
relatives living and working abroad that can send money for and
other basics, but they are also excluded from having one of the few
profit-making small businesses in , or paladares (small,
privately-owned restaurants), or taxi services that others can access to
make a living and support their families. And those who control all of
this are the majority white bureaucracy that will tell you to your face
that, because your parents weren’t military or part of the government,
that you can’t be hired or open a small business,” Soler said.

Soler recounted the beatings which she and the other Ladies in White
have received for speaking out, and that the tactics of repression now
included being stuck with needles to induce fear that one could be
susceptible to infection and subsequently denied medical care, if the
regime so chooses.

International human rights conclaves such as this can serve, to some
extent, as an extra layer of protection for those courageous enough to
speak out, though it is a dangerous trade off. Crossing the threshold
from obscure voice against a violent oppressor to
internationally-recognized is the most perilous time for many
of those who are here to share the stage with Soler.

The Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based human rights organization
that puts on the conference, just published a harrowing tale of its
multi-year effort to extract internationally-renowned free speech
advocate Ali Abdulemam from Bahrain.

Though Abdulemam was given political asylum in the UK, his wife and
children remain in Bahrain, still in danger until they can hopefully
join him in London. To those like Soler, who will return to their home
country, the vigilance of these international human rights defenders
will be the only protection that they may have from a regime that has
become so indifferent to criticism it allegedly killed well-known
dissident recently by running his car off the road. The
speculation is that the senescence of the Castro brothers and their
potential loss of ’s petroleum lifeline following the death of
Hugo Chávez has spurred an increase in repression of the island’s
dissident voices.

Asked whether she would consider seeking asylum outside of Cuba, Soler
said defiantly, “I will always return to Cuba, no matter what they do to
me.” Perhaps sharing the stage with Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat and
North Korean democracy activist Park Sang Hak, both of whom will share
the Václav Havel Prize with the Ladies in White, will bring enough
pressure against the regime to stop, or at least diminish, the
racially-tinged repression that Soler and others have long struggled
against in Cuba.

Jon B. Perdue is the author of The War of All the People: The Nexus of
Latin American Radicalism and Middle Eastern Terrorism and directs the
Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C.

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