‘We Cannot Dissent’: Black Cubans Denounce Racism Under Communist Rule

Members of the 'Ladies in White' dissident group march in Havana, March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

A coalition of black civil society leaders listed the many challenges that black Cubans face as a product of the institutional racism of the Communist Party government on the island to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission this week.

The speakers, members of the Citizen’s Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) in Cuba, among other organizations, took turns detailing the struggles of black Cubans on the island.

“The Revolution thinks that we have to be appreciative to them for treating us as people,” CIR spokesman Juan Antonio Madrazo explained, noting that communist leaders deny the existence of racism entirely and appear to retaliate with especial cruelty towards black Cubans who object to the human rights violations they are subject to under the Castro regime.

Although Fidel Castro’s predecessor Fulgencio Batista was of mixed racial heritage, communist leaders claim that no racism exists in Marxist societies. As the highest authority in Cuba, the communist government also claims to be the source of all Cuban citizen’s self-worth.

CIR representatives added that black Cubans are more likely to suffer violations of their right to assembly and expression, although no Cubans enjoy full freedom of speech.

The communist government also does little to fight discriminatory policies in restaurants and the few private businesses allowed to operate, particularly in the luxury areas of Havana reserved for foreign tourists. All Cubans are barred from these areas – either officially or due to their lack of access to the Cuban “convertible” peso, a currency meant only for tourists – and their presence outside may also often be unwelcome.

On a technical front, the speakers decried the lack of institutional representation for black people in Cuba. The Cuban census does not count citizens of mixed racial descent as black, for example, which results in a skewed picture of the actual racial makeup of the Cuban population.

CIR member Marthadela Tamayo told the Spain-based Diario de Cuba following her testimony that the lack of initiative on the part of the government to improve the lives of black people – who remain disproportionately poor and underrepresented, despite the promises of economic equality in 1959 – is due to “the fear to hear discussion of racism in Cuba in public, discussion of repression of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and activists generally – but especially all Afro-Cubans.”

The full testimony as delivered Tuesday is below (in Spanish):

The Cuban Revolution has a tainted racial history, from the writings of Castro’s butcher Ernesto “Che” Guevara (“the indolent and dreaming negro spends his few cents on frivolity and drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving that… pushes him towards progress”) to the weekly beatings of the Ladies in White dissident group today.

In documenting his time as a prisoner of conscience, Cuban dissident Jorge Valls noted that black political prisoners were subject to more gruesome torture and humiliation: “How could you rebel against a revolution that is making you people into human beings?” he recalled a guard telling a black dissident.

Today, much of the Cuban dissident movement is led by Afro-Cubans. Among them: Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and her husband Ángel Moya; serial hunger striker and peace advocate Guillermo Fariñas; former prisoner of conscience Jorge Luis García and his wife Yris Tamara Pérez Aguilera. Miguel Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience who died during a hunger strike in 2010, was Afro-Cuban. So was Hamell Santiago Maz Hernández, who died in early March awaiting trial for charges of government “disrespect” in mysterious circumstances.

When ESPN’s Bob Ley was interrupted on a live broadcast from Havana by a dissident demanding human rights for his family, that man was Afro-Cuban: Yasser Rivero Boni, the son of a Lady in White protester and himself a peaceful dissident who lost his eyesight after a particularly vicious beating from Cuban state police.

In a feature on racism in 2014, Martí Noticias estimated the Cuban prison population to be about 80 percent black. Cuban police can imprison dissidents for crimes such as “desacato” (“disrespect”) at any time. In contrast, the Cuban Communist leadership is largely white – most notably, the white Castro family – with no prominent officials of color in Havana.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.