By Kelly Jean Cogswell
After years of largely uncritical support for the Castro regime, the African American intelligentsia has finally been nudged into looking at the racial legacy of the revolution. The result is the "Declaration of African American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba."
Signed last week by sixty African Americans including Cornel West, Ruby Dee Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Jeremiah Wright, the Declaration asked the government for the release of Dr. Darsi Ferrer, an anti-racism advocate ostensibly jailed for the illegal possession of -- two sacks of cement. "[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."
About time. Black and mixed-race Cubans make up as much as 62 percent of the total population (11 million), but most of the country's civil leadership is white. At the top, the twenty-one member Political Bureau of Cuba's Communist Party has only four black faces, and the all important thirty-nine member Council of Ministers a mere two, the composition of which can be blamed neither on the U.S. embargo nor the CIA.
Additionally, seventy-three percent of scientists and technicians, and eighty percent of the professors at the University of Havana are white. In 2005, 65.8 percent of able-bodied black Cubans were unemployed, twice the rate of white unemployment (nearly 30 percent). Conversely, the prison population is now estimated to be 85 percent black, with prisoners averaging in age between 18 – 28 years.
Because eighty-five percent of Cuban immigrants are white, remittances sent back home to their families worsen financial disparities. It's worth noting, however, that while white Cubans may be relatively better off, they aren't doing particularly well either. The country is bankrupt, and food and housing shortages are acute.
Probably the only real racial parity on the island is in the area of dissent. Many of the Cuba's best known political prisoners have been people of color, like librarian Omar Pernet Hernández, mason Orlando Zapata Tamayo and physicians Darsi Ferrer, the inspiration for the Declaration, and Oscar Elias Biscet who was sentenced to 27 years for, among other things, organizing a seminar on Martin Luther King and forms of non-violent protest.
The only problem with the Declaration is that it implies that this "unprovoked violence, State intimidation and imprisonment" is somehow new for black activists.
You have to pick through the accompanying press release to find the acknowledgment that the roots of the problem were actually early in the revolution. While you, my queer reader, may have heard the regime sent a whole generation of fags and dykes into UMAP concentration camps, mental hospitals, and exile, the government was also busy hunting down advocates of "Black Power," and banning related organizations.
One of the most notable victims was Walterio Carbonell, a black intellectual and admirer of the French Negritude movement. Author of "Cómo surgió la cultura nacional" (How the National Culture Emerged) (1961), he exhumed the role of Afro-Cubans in the development of the Cuban nation, going far beyond a nod at musical contributions. He was silenced by his time in jail.
From the beginning, Afro-Cubans, like poor whites and peasants, were supposed to shut up and be grateful for what they'd gotten. The troublesome part of Black Power wasn't just the "Black," but the "Power," and a government determined not to share it.
For most of the dissidents I've cited earlier, race probably wasn't the determining factor in their arrest. Omar Pernet Hernández, released in 2008, wasn't even focused on anti-racism work. He was picked up with dozens of others in the March 2003 crackdown for opposing the regime and running an independent library from his house.
Anybody at all that opens their mouths, or steps outside the lines is liable for arrest in Cuba. White, working class blogger Yoani Sanchez (and her husband) have both been harassed, and beaten up. Jail is probably on the horizon. In August, cops stormed a meeting of the LGBT group Fundación Cuba that was trying to organize, not the overthrow of the government, but Mr. Gay Cuba. The event was planned for a public place to give some visibility to the LGBT community. For their trouble, the eleven were beaten, two were arrested and their computers seized.
Now, the regime seems to be preparing for another crackdown, warning the population that Obama plans to bomb or invade the island. A few weeks ago they ran a military exercise called "Bastion 2009" part of the "War of the Whole People" which included a practice run for rounding up dissidents and putting down riots.
It's increasingly obvious that you can't fight racism -- or homophobia, misogyny or poverty -- in Cuba, without fighting for basic civil rights, and that dirty word, democracy.