The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A powder keg about to explode’: Long marginalized Afro Cubans at forefront of island’s unrest

People shout slogans against the government during a protest in Havana on July 11. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)
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The sudden burst of protests in Cuba unlike any in the six-decade history of the revolution happened spontaneously. But the lead-up to that unprecedented moment came via defiant acts by artists, a song that became an anthem for frustrated Cubans and the arrest of a rapper whose eight-year prison sentence sparked an initial protest last year.

All those acts were driven in large part by a long-marginalized sector of the island’s society perhaps hardest hit by the current crisis — Afro Cubans.

“It’s a powder keg about to explode when you have a regime that refuses to recognize that there are large communities with economic, housing, material and food deprivation,” said Guillermo “El Coco” Fariñas, a prominent Black dissident.

By some estimates now a majority of Cuba’s population, Black families have experienced some of the deepest hardships as the island grapples with its worst economic decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have less access to remittances than White families whose relatives have fled in greater numbers since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. And they are underrepresented in the more lucrative sectors of society, such as tourism.

Though the protests brought Cubans of all races to the streets, the plight of Black citizens has become one focal point, igniting a broader global conversation about race relations and discrimination on the island. Black Lives Matter faced immediate backlash from Cubans on and off the island last week when it praised the nation for its “solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent” and called for the embargo’s end.

“They focused on the embargo — which has real effects — but completely ignored the people’s cries and their pain,” said Raúl Soublett, an Afro Cuban activist in Havana. “They made an observation of Cuba from the distance that negates the reality. They should listen to Black Cuban voices, the voices of those who resist oppression day after day.”

The months leading up to the July 11 protests were marked by a slow but steady series of events pushing the boundaries of free expression on the island.

The conviction of a Black rapper, Denis Solis, on a charge of “contempt of authority” spurred a small but groundbreaking protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in November. The San Isidro movement he belongs to is named after a poor, predominantly Black Havana neighborhood. And it was Afro Cuban artists who penned “Patria y Vida” — or “Homeland and Life” — a song that turns a revolutionary saying upside down and has been blaring across both sides of the Florida Straits.

Afro Cuban leaders have played key roles throughout the island’s history, noted Amalia Dache, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, starting with Antonio Maceo, a general and independence hero.

“You had Black generals, like Antonio Maceo, and one of the leading anti-racist scholars of the late 19th century, Jose Martí, working together,” she said. “Cuba begins with this idea: ‘We across racial lines come together and start this nation of Blacks and Whites.’ ”

After the war, Cubans of color continued making strides, helping craft the island’s 1940 constitution and organizing some 200 Afro Cuban associations. When Castro took power, he promised to eliminate inequality and end discrimination. Although literacy campaigns helped improve diversity in many professions, racial inequalities never disappeared. Discussion of ongoing discrimination, meanwhile, was pushed aside, Dache said.

In touting a narrative that held up the revolution as the savior of the Afro Cuban community, many of their previous contributions were lost, she said.

“You’re making it seem like Afro Cubans didn’t have a presence in shaping the nation for 60 years, that the revolution saved them from segregation,” Dache added.

While official Cuban census data says people of color make up about 35 percent of the population, studies by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies place that figure around 62 percent. Today, Afro Cubans often experience discrimination by police and government officials who use derogatory names, said Soublett, director of the Alianza Afro-Cubana, a project to empower the Black and LGBTQ communities.

“Black families are the ones who benefit the least from the state’s economic policies,” he said. “They’re the ones with the lowest incomes, and the ones who are criminalized when they try to find food for their children and homes.”

Alfredo Martinez, an activist who has worked with the San Isidro movement and is a collaborator at Tremenda Nota, an LGBTQ independent magazine, said Cubans of color are often treated with greater violence by police than their light-skinned counterparts.

“There’s a lot of discrimination in the use of force. If you’re a Black male, they’re going to hit you harder and treat you a lot worse,” Martínez said. “As a White, middle-class male, I’ve seen darker-skinned colleagues have longer prison sentences and been beaten harder than me — even if we were doing the exact same thing.”

The circulation of U.S. dollars through remittances has alleviated some of the economic pressures Cuban families face. The access to foreign funds, however, is also starkly unequal: While an estimated 60 to 90 percent of White households have relatives living abroad, only 30 to 40 percent of Afro Cuban households have a family member outside the island.

Afro Cubans also have a harder time getting into some of the island’s higher-paying jobs. Without access to dollars, it can be tough to start an independent business such as a hostel or restaurant. According to research conducted by Harvard University professor Alejandro de la Fuente, business owners often discriminate against Black job applicants, particularly in the tourism sector, which for many Cubans has been one of the few avenues to a better livelihood.

The role of Afro Cuban activists in the protests casts into doubt the government’s narrative about racial equality, said Juan Pappier, a senior researcher for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.

“For years the Cuban government has pointed to human rights violations in the U.S., particularly to abuses against African Americans, as a way to divert attention from the human rights violations in Cuba,” he said. “The fact that Afro Cubans are protesting and are being repressed now poses a great challenge to the narrative the Cuban government has been using for years.”

For Afro Cubans living in the United States, the experience of racial inequity is one that resonates on both side of the Florida Straits, but the politics can be tricky to navigate.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Cuba from Havana to Santiago on July 11 in the biggest anti-government protests in decades. (Video: Reuters)

America Valdés, the 19-year-old daughter of Afro Cuban comedian Alexis Valdés, said she supported Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death last year and promotes the cause of equality. But she was disappointed by the organization’s remarks on Cuba, glossing over any mention of human rights violations during the protests.

“I have a lot of young Cuban friends that are in my situation right now. We’re ideologically homeless,” she said. “Last year, I got death threats from Latinos because I was fighting along progressive Americans, who are now the ones coming against me for calling out Cuba’s repression.”

Black Lives Matter did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

Back on the island, hundreds have been detained in the aftermath of the protests. Among them: Fariñas, whose long history of hunger strikes and activism pushing for freedom of speech on the island earned him the Sakharov Prize in 2010.

The 59-year-old physician said he was detained July 11 by authorities who suspected he had played a role organizing the protests. He said he told them he had not. Rather, he said, the protests were sparked by Cuban youth frustrated by “decades of empty promises.”

As he entered a holding cell, he came face to face with dozens of young people he hadn’t seen before — though they did recognize him.

“They were all kids,” he said. “They were all clapping with a face filled with hope.”