July 11, 2020 Cuba was back in headlines and on news broadcasts around the world. This time, it was because Cubans, led by a youth movement that was fed up with 60 years of the mistakes and failures of its nominally Communist government, enacted the largest and most significant protests in their country’s recent history. And because it could not be otherwise, the island’s comedians sharpened their satires, the rappers intensified the urgency of their provocations. The call to boycott the current Havana biennial flew like gunpowder among painters, sculptors, and photographers. Finally, in the theaters the footlights went out and the curtains lowered; the marquees on the cultural centers came down, and the lights in the galleries went out. The artists, too, came out into the streets. By November 27 of last year, a group of artists had organized a massive demonstration at the Ministry of Culture.
Amid all of this, and the spotlight of international attention that waxes and wanes on Cuba as scandal or economic crisis dictate, the question of race — however subtly hidden, however camouflaged by the shouts of the crowds — is a constant theme and an unanswered challenge.
On the one hand, many Black Cubans may have yet to realize that the current president, Comrade Diaz Canel, has nothing to do with them or their needs. Perhaps they have not yet fully acknowledged that certain characters, like Comrade Esteban Lazo and other Black leaders in the highest levels of the Communist Party of Cuba and its government, are only there as scenery and window dressing. On the other hand, a cursory look at which racial population predominates in Havana’s wealthiest neighborhoods (El Vedado, Miramar, Kholy, Nuevo Vedado) and which predominates in the poorest (Coco Solo, El Pocito, La Guinera, San Isidro), not to mention who fills the island’s prisons, suffices to establish that — in spite of the “revolutionary” propaganda that has persuaded many on and off the island of the revolution’s vindication of its Black citizens — in fact, racial policy, racial inequality, and race relations number among the revolution’s many failures.
And yet, in what should be a collective struggle of all Cubans against dictatorship — which has brought the full force of its brutality down on any manifestation that dares to oppose its supposed principles — the impact of racism and the disproportionate struggle of Black Cubans continues to be ignored. The recent movements led by young artists, which have attracted much international media attention, are not immune from the stain of racism.
Thankfully, the increased availability of mobile phones, the tiny cameras most citizens now carry in their pockets, help to free us from the Byzantine structures of rumor and inference on which we had to rely for so long, and simply see for ourselves. Video and the ability to disseminate it is no longer the exclusive purview of the government. With the ubiquity of social media, it is freely available to all who can afford a mobile phone.
And there, you will see the two disparate realities of the Cuban artist movements. One of its faces is defined by those who appeared in the November 27 protests. These are students or graduates of the state art school system, and they are supported by other (not so young) playwrights and actors, film directors, or journalists. They are predominantly White. We saw them in a cluster before the Cuban Ministry of Culture’s headquarters in El Vedado, demanding that their demands for freedom be heard by the dictatorship’s minister of culture — who indeed, came out to meet them, joined by his vice minister of culture. They came, not to join the demonstrators in seeking consensus, but to fight them. This bears repeating, so imagine this scene: The official Minister of Culture of a country comes out to engage in a literal street brawl, throwing punches at the young artists. What other proof of cheap, undignified vulgarity can possibly be needed to convey the absurd inadequacy of a government — and by extension the system it upholds?
The capitol gold dome in Havana Cuba (image by Cuban Newspaper via Flickr)
The other face of the young artist movement is the San Isidro movement. These young artists, who are almost all Black and Brown, also possess rigorous academic and professional training, although the art they make tends more to the vein of institutional critique or performance, or “street art,” or outright polemic. The work, and the movement, feel in many ways more vibrant than their officially sanctioned counterparts. Its leaders had been holed up for some time — well before the events of July 11 and November 21 — in the (to say the least) precarious conditions of their house in Old Havana. For months they had been demonstrating, enduring persecution, imprisonment, hunger strikes. In a neighborhood — poor, Black, “unsavory” — where it would never have occurred to the Minister of Culture to dare throw a punch at anyone.
So: demonstrations before the Ministry of Culture on the one hand, the San Isidro movement on the other. Putting aside value judgments, let us simply look at the videos and take note of the racial makeup of each group. Let’s examine the disparities in how social media commenters express their solidarity for one group or the other.
At this point, certain voices will inevitably express concern that raising the issue of race will be divisive, that the dictatorship itself would benefit from the resulting fracturing of solidarity — and these voices are not entirely wrong. It is worth considering, however, that this is the same argument that the then president of Cuba, José Miguel Gómez made in 1912, when (paraphrasing no less significant a Cuban than José Martí), he said, “The Black person who says “my race” errs by redundancy; say you are a man and you’ll have stated all your rights.” Then, with the same fervent patriotism Gómez sent in the troops to crush with fire and blood Black and Brown Cubans. The same Black and Brown Cubans who, having put their own bodies on the line in the Cuban War of Independence, found their voices excluded in the nascent republic and organized themselves into the Partido Independiente de Color.
This pattern appeared again during the United States Civil Rights Movement, and here it touches me personally because it affected my own father. Some Black Cubans sought to leverage the US Civil Rights struggle to call attention to the racism that persisted in Cuba under the revolution. The state security apparatus labeled them racists and counterrevolutionaries, using the same cynical logic to claim that calling attention to racial injustice divided and weakened the revolution.
The same logic appeared again in a 1980s Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists, when the great actress Elvira Cervera and the great writer Mayte Vera pointed out the issue of racism, this time on national television. And the official response when confronted with this blatantly obvious issue was to acknowledge that it was in fact an issue — but that it was not the right moment to address it.
And now, as we approach the end of the year 2021, we face the same false binary. Can the issue of endemic racism in Cuba be directly acknowledged as inseparable from the ongoing systemic injustice and be incorporated into the struggle against the dictatorship? If not now, when?