Almost all these artists, like many of their compatriots who took to Cuba’s streets, are of African descent.
Cuba’s protests, suffocated for now, were overwhelmingly peaceful and included people of all ages and races. They have many causes — political dictatorship, economic deprivation, a failed government response to covid, sheer frustration.
Yet contained within them — indeed, at their forefront — are the special grievances of Black people in a country where enslaved Africans were first brought during Spanish colonial times, followed in the 20th century by Caribbean laborers such as the Haitians who were exploited by Angel Castro, Fidel and Raúl Castro’s father, on his vast estate.
Castro propaganda depicted the 1959 revolution as a triumph for Black workers and other poor Cubans, and many international progressives still believe it, judging by the endorsements on a full-page ad in the New York Times blaming U.S. trade sanctions for Cuba’s predicament.
The signatories included Black Lives Matter Global Network, which thereby lent its prestige to the largely White Cuban government’s denial of responsibility for deepening and increasingly racialized poverty in Cuba since its economy’s post-Soviet collapse.
Afro-Cubans are less likely to have relatives abroad than White Cubans; few get dollar remittances to purchase goods in Cuba’s warped, state-run economy. A survey of 1,049 Cubans by Katrin Hansing of Baruch College and Bert Hoffman of the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, completed in 2018, found that 95 percent of self-identified Black Cubans have less than $3,000 in income, and essentially none are in the island’s top economic strata. The island’s tourist facilities notoriously prefer to hire Whites.
With few other opportunities, Black men must often scratch out a living buying and selling in the black market, becoming targets of the cops. Racial profiling and arrest, often on vague charges such as “dangerousness,” are almost rites of passage.
“If you’re a Black male with dreadlocks walking through a touristy area, you will be stopped by police,” Hansing says. Mass incarceration reigns: human rights groups estimate as many as 794 of every 100,000 people are in prison, a disproportionate number of them Black.
Black Cubans who complain about conditions are often told they should be thankful for what “Fidel and the Revolution” have given them.
“When I was arrested by state security, they told me I was an ingrate, because if not for the Revolution I would still be living in the trees,” says Ramon Colas, a Black dissident forced to leave the island in 2001 who now lives in Jackson, Miss.
Except for insults and force, the government seems out of ideas for countering Black Cubans and the hip-hop artists who voice their feelings. Last spring, official media labeled Yotuel Romero, one of the Black vocalists on “Patria y Vida,” a “jinetero” — prostitute — an allusion to his marriage, in Spain, to a White woman. In Cuba in April, rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Perez escaped arrest and led a crowd in chants against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel — a handcuff still dangling from his wrist. Days later, he was beaten by plainclothes agents.
After July 11, the government called the protesters “criminals” from “vulnerable neighborhoods.” The one protester police acknowledge having killed, Diubis Laurencio Tejada, a 36-year-old Black man, was depicted as an “anti-social ... element” who died during a clash with police. Thereafter, his mother reportedly committed suicide.
At war’s end, the Mambises won partial victory: emancipation for themselves, but not other Cubans — and no independence. One can only hope today’s non-violent struggle ends in liberation for all.