Maria Luisa Paul, Washington Post, July 19, 2021
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 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.
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.