Terrell Jermaine Starr is a freelance journalist in New York City who specializes in Russian-U.S. affairs and national security. You can follow him on Twitter: @Russian_Starr.
In 1930, Robert Robinson left his job at Ford Motor Company in Detroit to work as an engineer in Soviet Moscow. Robinson, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Cuba, had hoped to avoid the racism he faced in the United States.
He was immediately disappointed.
Soviet citizens regularly hurled racial slurs at him and he was routinely denied promotions at his factory job because of his racist Russian supervisors. In his autobiography Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, Robinson said the Soviets used his achievements as political tools to ridicule America on its racial issues. In reality, the Soviet Union had racial issues of its own.
He fled the U.S.S.R. in 1974. And Cuba really isn’t any better, even after Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Be it the U.S.S.R. or Cuba, communism, as a political system, is not the oasis of racial harmony most black Americans believe it to be. As a Fulbright Scholar who has studied how black peoples from America, Africa and the Caribbean experienced communist states, I can tell you that for every Assata Shakur who finds safe haven in Cuba, there are jails full of “darker-skinned Cubans” who have never received the dignity of their American exile guest. And for every Langston Hughes who was treated like royalty in Moscow, there are people such as Pierre Kalmek, a sailor from Francophone Africa, who lived in the Moscow during the early 1930s and complained that locals regularly spat on him.
Over the past week, Castro was lionized for his freedom-movement activities across Africa and his embrace of black civil rights figures in the United States. After Angela Davis was acquitted of murder, in 1972, she visited Cuba to thank its people for supporting her during her murder trial. And when Black Panther Party members Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton needed refuge, Castro opened the doors of Havana to them.
But in Communist Cuba, all black lives do not matter.
One of the first mistakes Castro made when he took power in 1959 was to determine that racism was solved in Cuba. Like Castro, Soviet officials made similar ill-advised declarations that allowed even more racism to fester. In Cuba, 62 percent of the population is black, but 71 percent of its public leadership is white, according to a 2009 study. What’s even more disturbing: In 2009, 70 percent of black Cubans were unemployed; 60 percent of black Cubans cited racial discrimination as the cause.
Roberto Zurbana, editor and publisher of the Casa de las Américas publishing house, wrote in the New York Times that, because Cuba inherited more than three centuries of slavery from colonial rule, Afro Cubans haven’t been able to take advantage of the nation’s economic liberalization after the 1959 revolution.
“Most remittances from abroad — mainly the Miami area, the nerve center of the mostly white exile community — go to white Cubans,” Zubana wrote. “They tend to live in more upscale houses, which can easily be converted into restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts — the most common kind of private business in Cuba. Black Cubans have less property and money, and also have to contend with pervasive racism. Not long ago it was common for hotel managers, for example, to hire only white staff members, so as not to offend the supposed sensibilities of their European clientele.”
For speaking out, Zurbana was rewarded with losing his post.
How, then, could Castro, a revolutionary who supported freedom fighters in Africa and America, allow racism this pervasive to rule in his own country? Because the Cuban revolution could not overcome its whiteness, that’s why. The same holds true for the U.S.S.R. The Russians who dominated the Communist Party could not overcome their Slavic-ness. That is how racism continued to rule its nation during the Soviet period — and racial strife isn’t any better for black people in Russia after 1991, either.
Kimberly R. Lyle, a black American of Cuban descent, wrote in Fusion that one of her uncles, a chemist, was left homeless after he requested permission to leave the country and her cousin expressed anger that he had to flee Cuba to be, in her words, “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?” she asked. “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.”
That is the legacy of how communism works in nations that have a black minority population. In the end, it ends up failing the same people its propaganda claims to support. As black people, we understandably are in a constant exploration for a political system that liberates us. Unfortunately, communism, like Western democracy, ultimately ended up failing us in the cases of Cuba and the U.S.S.R.
If you are a black person whose fame scores political points, you will be treated accordingly. But, for average black peoples who do not carry such political pull, you are subject to the same ills as black people in the capitalist nations that communism has historically abhorred.
We thank Castro for protecting Assata Shakur and we thank the U.S.S.R. for rolling out the red carpet for Langston Hughes and other exceptional black Americans. But we cannot naively lionize Castro as a true freedom fighter when most of the black people who called him their leader suffer behind prison bars and live below poverty lines his revolution failed to address.