Thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest the so-called Cuban socialist regime in unprecedented numbers. These weren’t planned or centralized protests; they grew out of desperation and prolonged suffering. Screaming “Libertad” and “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life,” contrary to the State’s “Patria o Muerte,” “Fatherland or Death”), the Cuban people spontaneously took over the streets of more than 40 cities and demanded freedom.
For decades, Cuba has been a sort of beaten-up trophy that leftist movements around the world have kept punching and glorifying. On Sunday, July 11th, the world was able to see the Cuban State for what it really is: a military dictatorship.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel quickly responded with a “combat order,” mobilizing police and military forces, including young men between seventeen and nineteen years old in their two-year mandatory military service. As of this writing, the protests have lasted three days. Now, caught up in a battle between armed troops and unarmed civilians, Cuba bleeds on all shores, even on the shores of exile.
After the wave of SOS messages on social media that are now a typical reaction to sensitive political issues, Black Lives Matter posted their own statement on Cuba. BLM blames the U.S. embargo as solely responsible for the hardships and instability on the island.
“This cruel and inhumane policy, instituted with the explicit intention of destabilizing the country and undermining Cubans’ right to choose their own government, is at the heart of Cuba’s current crisis.”
Their message did not surprise many of my friends, who took to social media platforms to express their disappointment.
I’m very disappointed that @Blklivesmatter put out such an uninformed statement regarding Cuba…particularly when it silences so many Black Cubans who have been protesting and putting themselves at risk who consider BLM to be part of them and their movement too.
— Danielle Clealand (@ProfClealand) July 15, 2021
I don’t know who needs to hear this but two realities can exist at once. You can 100% support the cause and simple fact that black lives do, and always will, matter. You can also refuse to support the official organization that won’t acknowledge police brutality in Cuba. 🤯
— meli 🇨🇺 (@ArrozConMel) July 16, 2021
But the BLM statement caught me off guard.
Maybe whoever wrote these words does not know that Cubans have not participated in free elections in more than half a century, but the BLM followers — those unacquainted with Cuban affairs — should not just accept that our biggest threat is the U.S. embargo. Hear it from the people themselves: Freedom is what they want — democracy, and all the hardships they must face to attain it.
The U.S. embargo is the enemy that dictators use to justify their carcinogenic power and control over the people. We are well aware of the restrictions this policy brings upon the Cuban economy, but to reduce the fight of these people against the Castro-Canel regime to a reaction prompted by U.S.-generated scarcity is to misrepresent more than sixty years of oppression.
To reproduce this rhetoric ingrained in Castroism, a political agenda that each day holds less power in Cuba is to stand behind the very actions that BLM supporters would condemn as fascist in the U.S.
So, what is Black Lives Matter silencing?
Let’s see. Before the demonstrations of July 11 happened, several activist groups had been pressuring the Cuban dictatorship to hold national dialogues and allow artistic freedom and political autonomy. Some of these groups are the San Isidro Movement, the 27N, and the Patriotic Union of Cuba. Their acts included public readings, performances, and hunger strikes. Cuban authorities met these initiatives with more or less the same repression and defamation – portraying dissidents on national television as vandals, delinquents, and “counterrevolutionaries.”
Cuban writer Oscar Grandío Moráguez published an article in Hypermedia Magazine on 7 May 2021, “La desacreditación al Movimiento San Isidro,” where he states: “Many have repeated the term ‘marginal’; it’s a critique tainted by racism that addresses a group of young, mostly Black people fighting the dictatorship from the roots of poverty. Official authorities, mostly privileged Whites, would use worse adjectives to defame them. Mariela Castro, daughter of the most powerful Cuban man alive, called them miserable and chabacanos; the ex-Minister of Culture Abel Prieto defined them as delinquents.”
The rhetoric that journalists, bureaucrats, and politicians use in their self-claimed revolutionary discourse is in effect fascist. The only officially reported death in the manifestations in Cuba is a man whose criminal record was also broadcasted in the daily news report.
Why does BLM not mention this which is similar to the debates generated after George Floyd’s murder?
The poverty that Grandío Moráguez sees the San Isidro members talking about is not directly linked to the U.S. embargo either but to a system founded on classist and racist dynamics of power. This is illustrated by the author and associate professor of comparative literature and Hispanic studies at Brown University, Esther Whitfield, who has analyzed the urban setting in Centro Habana within the context of the popular series, “Dirty Havana Trilogy,” set in the ‘Special Period,’ a euphemism used to denote times of political and economic crisis aggravated in the 1990s.
In it, she writes: “Centro Habana’s inhabitants, unlike those of historically wealthier suburbs to the west, were predominantly Afro-Cuban…Cuban state-directed tourism industry crucial to the country’s economic recovery efforts in the post-Soviet years, steered visitors away from Centro Habana. The colonial city…was subsequently identified as a major economic driver of special period tourism, and hotels, restaurants, and other tourist establishments were concentrated in this district, to the detriment of Centro Habana’s physical and economic survival. At the conceptual level at least, Centro Habana was once again walled out, to segregate not the intramural city’s residents, this time, but its tourism.”
Inequality in Cuba responds primarily to corrupt and strategic decisions that benefit the few, predominantly White families that hold political power. The vast majority of the people are left to eke out a living and rely on their wits to survive in a subterranean market economy.
San Isidro’s leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara addresses this inequality in a series of paintings called “Caramelos sin saliva” (“Candies without saliva.”) Here, he recreates candy wrappers on canvases. Luis Manuel explains that, like many of his friends, he would collect these wrappers as a kid because they could never afford the candies.
Through social media videos, he showed his collection of candy wrappers, which were stored in between pages of textbooks and he said that his friend’s dad who worked at a hotel would bring him the empty wrappers from the trash cans he found in the hotel rooms. These paintings were created during the artist’s unconstitutional house arrest earlier this year, but the police broke into his home and took the paintings away after Luis Manuel sold one and used the money to organize a birthday party for his neighbor’s child.
Otero Alcántara is presently locked away in the State Security Prison, Villa Marista, with no known accusation, adding to a list of over 150 known political prisoners on the Island. This number is expected to grow, and there are ongoing investigations about protesters who have disappeared or are presumably dead. The United Nations has ordered a search for 187 people missing after the protests of July 11th.
So, when BLM says that “U.S. leaders have tried to crush this Revolution for decades,” I wonder what Revolution they are talking about. Because even if such a Revolution once existed — which some would argue that it didn’t — it should be clear that none of it remains today.
As a Cuban myself, I can say that Cuba does not have a strong medical care system, not even a functioning one, and there is not a single unit of education that isn’t contaminated by indoctrination. The one thing that Cuban dictators have kept from the beginning is their propaganda-fueled machine, their export of revolutionary imaginaries, and their fallacious rhetoric.
We are not in the presence of a twentieth-century dictatorship model – quite the contrary – and this deserves a closer look. We must analyze the complex mechanisms that work behind a twenty-first-century dictatorship system that surprisingly manages to influence a social movement like Black Lives Matter in the United States.
That, however, exceeds my purpose here; I just wanted to echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and say that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And in the business of social justice, it is particularly dangerous to support a dictatorship.