By Guest Contributor Rozzmery Palenzuela
Opinion: Why Cubans on both sides of the political spectrum have united in opposition of Black Lives Matters Statement on current protests on the island
For the last year, the Cuban people have been forced to withstand the harsh realities of Cuba’s plummeting economy in addition to the depletion in resources and loss of lives caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era relaxation policies towards the island mirrors the Clinton administration’s tightening grip over the island’s economic affairs in the 1990’s and has made it more difficult for Cubans in the diaspora to travel to the island or send remittances to their friends and families. The demonstrations that we are seeing today did not occur in a vacuum. It was brought on by decades of censorship, neglectful distribution of food and resources, failure to invest in infrastructure by the Cuban government and plummeting diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington that has further divided the people on the island from the diaspora. On Thursday, July 15th, the Black Lives Matter organization released an official statement about the protests that are currently ongoing in Cuba. The statement itself began by denouncing the United States’ federal government for their inhumane acts towards the Cuban people and goes on to make very direct and uninformed assumptions about Cubans, Cuban history, and Cuban foreign policy.
While the 1962 embargo has been––and continues to be–– one of the biggest foreign policy failures in U.S. history, placing sole blame of the current social unrest on the island on the United States’ foreign policy not only deflects blame from the revolutionary government in Cuba, but it outright supports one if it’s most central grand narratives.
For good reason, the statement made by the Black Lives Matter organization has received an enormous amount of backlash from Cubans and scholars of Cuba for taking a very clear side in this argument. While they paid particular attention to word choice and made sure to use “Cuba” and “Cubans” and not, directly, the “Cuban government,” their statement has angered Cubans on both sides of the political spectrum for its refusal to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.
To go further, the statement goes on to justify themselves by citing examples of the Cuban government’s support of black liberation movements across the world. It reads, “Cuba has historically demonstrated solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent, from protecting Black revolutionaries like Assata Shakur through granting her asylum, to supporting Black liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and South Africa.”
To pull apart each and every single one of those examples would require a larger space than what I have available, and there is an existing scholarship that covers it much better than I ever could. Individuals and organizations like Black Lives Matter look to the revolutionary government’s grand narrative of “solidarity” with the Global South as justification, or redemption, for the internal atrocities that were committed by the Cuban government, are actively participating in the erasure, or at the very least ignorance, of the experiences of those people. While many question the extent, and intent, that motivated the Cuban government to involve itself so deeply in racial issues at home or abroad, there is no question that the conclusions are complicated, nuanced, and full of paradoxes and contradictions.
Race has played a central role in Cuban politics since the wars of independence and the abolition of slavery in 1886. Cuban state officials, physicians, intellectuals and policymakers struggled with navigating through the challenges and setbacks that resulted in the period following the abolition of slavery and independence. Modern states like Brazil and Cuba were taunted by the legacies of their colonial pasts in a number of ways, but none so vividly as with the task of creating a modern, racially democratic nation.
For the first half of the 20th century, increasing American intervention and Spanish immigration during the first republic further cemented racialized social norms that Cubans struggled with for the decades following abolition and, later, independence. As a result, 20th century Cuba produced and reproduced deeply racialized constructions of citizenship. These complex ways in which Cubans understood themselves and the nation through racial categories shifted dramatically as the island transitioned into a “post-racial” society after the Cuban revolutionary government “eradicated” racism on an institutional level and took on a more Marxist approach at understanding social categories. Nonetheless, race, and racism, did not remain a thing of the past for many Afro-Cubans––women in particular–– after the revolution.
As the revolutionary state began the large process of nationalization and aligned itself more closely with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, the leadership was pushed to promise more radical visions of labor, housing, and medical reform for Afro-Cubans. Although the language through which the state recognized these issues became less rooted in racial categories and took on a more Marxist-centered approach, new strategies and categories continued to be used to target Afro-Cuban families. For example, although Afro-Cuban women gained more access to healthcare during the revolutionary era, they continued to have less agency over their reproductive bodies and were often targeted for experimental procedures and treatments, like birth control (IUD’s) that were chosen to be conducted in areas with higher concentrations of Afro-Cubans. While Afro-Cuban women gained greater access to political spaces and institutions of social support, they continued to fall prey to state promises of gender and racial equity. This is supported in part by the work of anthropologists Oscar and Ruth Lewis’s on the 1960’s in Cuba. Lewis, famous for attributing his theory of “culture of poverty” to the failures of the capitalist system, was welcomed to Cuba, but later expelled for his findings that the socialist system did not, in fact, resolve these issues.
The economic crisis of the 1990’s strongly affected Afro-Cuban’s lived experiences as well. Most families had to depend on the black market and, for some men and women, engaging in income-generating activities such as prostitution and jineterismo –– or hustling –– was the only way to support their families. For Afro-Cuban women in particular, their sexual and reproductive bodies were once again considered to be contested sites where battles surrounding competing ideas about progress, reform, and morality were waged. Material shortages, especially those related to medicine, sanitation, public health, and nutrition, women’s sexual and reproductive choices and endangered the lives of mothers on a daily basis. My own mother, a mulatta, was pregnant with me during this time. She did not have access to proper medical care, pre-natal vitamins, nor did she have access to healthy foods. When she was induced and delivered me via c-section, the doctors tied her tubes without her knowledge or consent, at the suggestion of her mother. No paperwork, no signatures, no concern for what the patient wanted. They decided what she could do with her reproductive body for her.
I agree with the Black Lives Matter statement that the Cuban embargo is a failed, and dated, Cold-War political tactic that was meant to undermine the Cuban communist government. But while the embargo, and it’s various enforcements like the Toricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, is a failed policy and significant blame should be placed on the United States–– to give blanket immunity to the Cuban government based on their perception of how and why the revolutionary government involved itself in global movements, is a slap in the face to the many Cubans–– especially Afro-Cubans–– who have suffered through censorship, repression, and poverty under a six-decade long dictatorship. As a leftist, a scholar, a Cuban, and a supporter of Black Lives Matter, I am deeply saddened and disappointed by this statement. I understand that Black Lives Matter, the movement, and Black Lives Matter, the organization, are different and the views and opinions by those that crafted this statement do not reflect the views of all of its members, but this statement has intentionally ostracized, marginalized and hurt various members of the Cuban community. And, from a voting standpoint, this did not help make inroads to getting the support of Cuban voters, whose presence in South Florida especially, is significant.
Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente is a fourth year Ph.D. student at Florida International University where she studies gender, family and childhood in Modern Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba. She is also interested in comparative communist cultures, black internationalism, and tackling heavy theoretical works – most notably, affect theory. In her spare time, she is an avid film buff, beach bum and actively engages into arguments with Miami-Cuban Republicans.