I didn’t live in the Jim Crow south, or endure the Great Migration. But that’s my heritage. I wasn’t born in Cuba, and didn’t flee the island. But that, too, is my heritage.
My lineage is that of black people leaving their homelands under stifling oppression and tyranny, from Alabama to the City of Guantánamo. So I understand the U.S.’ tyranny against black Americans, and also Fidel Castro’s tyranny against black Cubans.
In the days since Castro’s death, I’ve read hundreds of hot takes about him. Overwhelmingly, the opinions of Americans who clearly have no connection to or stake in Cuba seem to be based more on Castro’s discourse than his actions. Pseudo-intellectuals, casual observers, and “super fans” seem to understand Castro only as mythologized figure.
To many African-American observers he’s an iconic revolutionary who gave America the middle finger and helped African nations assert their independence. To many people, it seems that’s the only thing that matters. But that point of view implies a total disregard for the lives of ordinary black Cubans.
The hardest commentaries for me to read have come from African-Americans who lionize Castro uncritically, while dismissing criticism with an oversimplified argument that white Cubans hated Castro, and black Cubans adored him.
My attempts to push back on that narrative have been met with accusations that I’m somehow an agent of white supremacy, which is absurd. White supremacy doesn’t need my help. It persists in Cuba without me. And that alone should be enough for African-Americans to reconsider their perception of Castro as a liberator of black people.
You don’t have to take it from me. Black Cubans on the island have spoken out for years about enduring discrimination under a revolution that falsely claimed to have eradicated racism. Roberto Zurbano, former head of Cuban publisher Casa de las Americas, wrote candidly about this in a 2013 New York Times Op-ed:
“Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about. The government hasn’t allowed racial prejudice to be debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending instead as though it didn’t exist. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.
It’s true that the 1980s produced a generation of black professionals, like doctors and teachers, but these gains were diminished in the 1990s as blacks were excluded from lucrative sectors like hospitality. Now in the 21st century, it has become all too apparent that the black population is underrepresented at universities and in spheres of economic and political power, and overrepresented in the underground economy, in the criminal sphere and in marginal neighborhoods.”
Zurbano was removed from his position shortly after the article was published.
In 2013, Yris Pérez Aguilera, president of Cuban dissident group Rosa Parks Women’s Movement for Civil Rights testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council about threats and beatings she received from Cuban authorities:
I have been the victim of aggressions on the part of the Cuban authorities, especially by the agents Yuniel Monteagudo Reina and Eric Aquino Yera. They have beaten me into unconsciousness in the pavement, as took place most recently this past March 7 in Santa Clara. The hits to the head, neck, and back have caused me serious health problems that I have not been able to recover from. In addition to beating me, they have threatened me with death on various occasions, these agents have told me that they are going to rape me, and have shown their genitals during arbitrary arrests.
Because I am a black woman the cruelty has been worse, because the government that exists in Cuba is racist.
Other black Cuban dissidents such as Coco Fariñas, Berta Soler, Manuel Cuesta Morua, Antúnez, and Nelson Alvarez Matute speak to racism and repression on the island.
Long before I became aware of dissidents’ stories, I heard personal accounts from my family. I grew up listening to my grandmother talk about the growing concern she had after Fidel came to power. She talked about hiding her plans to leave the island from her family, her fear of returning to visit after she fled, and the pain of having family and friends perish under the stifling oppression of Fidel’s Cuba. She recalled how protestors were seized, how ordinary citizens had their voices silenced, and how friends and neighbors became neighborhood spies.
My uncles passed down their stories too. One uncle, once a successful chemist, was left homeless and starving after the government punished him for seeking permission to leave the country. Another uncle refused to work sugarcane fields for free. Instead, he hid in the mountains until he could flee the island. A cousin who left Cuba almost a decade ago expressed how angry he was that he had to leave his own country to be a free man.
Does it matter to African-Americans that the penalties for speaking out against the Cuban government are beatings and the threat of rape or death? Are we concerned that black Cubans are incarcerated at higher rates than white Cubans? Do we care that black Cubans still can’t enter many hotels or restaurants? Does it matter to us that Castro could not liberate black people in his own country? This, too, is Castro’s legacy.
African-Americans’ obscene romanticization of Castro prioritizes our opinions as outsiders over the lived experiences and collective history of all Cubans and Cuban-descendants. More so, it erases the experiences and dissent of black Cubans.
African-Americans are demanding that the U.S. recognize that #BlackLivesMatter. We are demanding that our voices be centered in conversations concerning us. We’re tired of people talking about us, lifting up our oppressors, telling us to shut up about it, and expecting us to pledge unquestioned allegiance to America. Yet, when Cubans and Cuban-Americans speak of their lived experiences or the pain of their heritage, we drown out the voices we should be listening to.
We justify human rights abuses with arguments like: “Castro might have done some bad stuff, but he did a lot of good too.” Thomas Jefferson was a brutal slave owner and a rapist, but he wrote the Declaration of Independence. George W. Bush flew over New Orleans as dead black bodies floated in the overflowing waters of Lake Pontchartrain, but he authorized billions in funding for HIV/AIDS and malaria treatment on the African continent.
But from the chattel slaves and their progeny, to Hurricane Katrina’s dead and survivors, how much do the good deeds of victimizers’ matter?
In a moment when African-Americans should fall back and center Cuban voices, including the voices of White Cuban exiles (but hearing those voices in the context of whiteness and what whiteness represents), we are not. Instead, we’re making declarations about a complicated figure that we don’t quite understand.
Just as White Americans don’t get to decide what Jefferson or Bush are to us, African Americans don’t get to decide what Fidel was to the black people who struggled, starved, and died under his regime. One person’s hero will always be another person’s tyrant.