Blacks in Cuba demand justice, reform needs BLM support

Ninety miles off the coast of America, another powerful calculation is playing out in one of Cuba’s poorest and predominantly black neighborhoods.

While this movement also calls for social and racial justice and inclusion, the unprecedented uprising of people of color on the Caribbean island has failed to get the attention it deserves from Americans – and in particular activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter.

Where are Beyonce and Jay-Z strutting around Havana and, in fact, where is President Obama, who encouraged Cubans to seek change and open up to the world?

Their voices are needed at this historic turning point in Cuba: the start of a post-Castro era.

Afro-Cubans in Havana’s San Isidro neighborhood – who risk their lives to openly confront the Cuban government – could have broad support right now. They are the flashpoint of a relentless and courageous retreat from government repression, suffering and economic strife that often runs along racial lines.

With Raúl Castro retiring as head of the Communist Party this weekend, there will be no Castro leading the country for the first time since 1959, although those close to Castro still hold government posts. Without genuine reforms that establish basic human rights and open economic opportunities for all, however, the transfer of power means little to Cubans, who once again flee by sea to South Florida.

After succeeding Fidel, the second brother Castro was considered a reformist, but he failed to do so, miserably. Instead of opening up the country to modernity, Raúl Castro installed another hated despot as president, Miguel Díaz-Canel. He also replaces Raúl at the head of the Communist Party.

All white men who made many promises of social justice, yet destroyed Cuba and let black citizens carry the worst of burdens, make the most sacrifices for a Revolution that continues to betray them.

The repression continues

With or without Castro at the helm, Castro oppression remains ingrained in society, from police practices that arbitrarily send people to prison, often black men and women, to the 2019 rewrite of the Constitution under Díaz-Canel which criminalizes independent artistic expression.

The San Isidro movement started organically as a group of young artists opposed to the censorship measure, Ley 349, and grew stronger as more and more artists, writers, musicians and independent journalists called for a dialogue on freedom of expression.

The government refused to listen and continued the arrests, harassment and surveillance, but the artists did not relieve the pressure. Dozens of artists, intellectuals and journalists, including big names in art and cinema, presented themselves on November 27 in front of the building of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, demanding to be heard .

A soundtrack for change

In the streets, the leaders of the San Isidro movement are mostly Afro-Cuban artists and their hymn and rallying cry, “Patria and Vida”, – “Homeland and Life” – is a powerful Cuban rap and reggaeton song that bravely says to the regime: “Enough!”

Basta ya.

No more “trampling on the dignity of a whole people”, they recall. No more paradise in Varadero for foreigners as “Cuban mothers cry for their runaway children”. Stop treating us “like animals”.

The performers of the song are four provocative and visually stunning black musicians, one of them shirtless with the call to “Patria y Vida” painted on his tight abs. Another is a member of the group Gente de Zona, once vetoed Miami for appearing to be pro-Castro. At one point, a member appears wearing a hoodie, a garment loaded with meaning.

It is the Cuban left that protests against the Cuban left – and the most encouraging note is that the rallying hymn and cry for freedoms has spread to both Miami and Havana.

“The disappointment is over,” they sing. “It’s time to create what we dreamed of and what you destroyed with your hands.”

The video has over 4.6 million views on YouTube, yet I haven’t seen it make the Twitter feeds of American artists rightly defending the BLM name.

See people, black and white, singing in a ruined street in San Isidro “Patria y Vida” – led by one of the rappers, Maykel Osorbo, wearing a dangling handcuff tie – seeing them shout Díaz-Canel, may seem normal to Americans accustomed to Black Lives Matter protests.

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Rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo lifts his arm, showing a pair of handcuffs around a wrist, after authorities attempted to arrest him on April 4, 2020, in Havana, Cuba. Facebook

But, in Cuba, it can be suicidal.

“#PatriayVida is a global movement that belongs to all of us Cubans who claim freedom and democracy in Cuba”, Osborbo posted on Instagram. “Art has more force than a dictatorship.”

It seems so at the moment.

The movement grew outside of humble San Isidro and incorporated a rainbow of lawyers who wrote the “27N manifestCleverly using the language of the left that the islanders understand to describe what a new Cuba should look like.

It is time for the American left to embrace a new day for Cuba.

The lives of black Cubans also matter.

This story was originally published April 16, 2021 9:50 a.m.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has written on all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boat lift became her first front page article. Cuban refugee child of Freedom Flights, she is also the author of essays, short fiction films and the novel “Reclaiming Paris”.
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Estelle D. Eden

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