Black Lives Matter Visits Cuba

A group of Black Lives Matter activists reflects on the lessons they learned during a recent solidarity trip to Cuba.

cuba flags

“Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind. Ten million people had stood up to the monster. Ten million people only ninety miles away. We were here together in their land, my small little family, holding each other after so long. There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world.” – Assata Shakur

Ninety miles south of the United States is a truly different world. As Black Lives Matter activists, from various groups in the movement, who have been calling for massive structural, political and social changes in our country, we decided to see just what change can actually look like. So in late July we came together with 45 strangers to embark on a life-changing journey to visit and learn about Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade.

In 1969, a coalition of young people formed the Venceremos, “We Shall Overcome”, Brigade, in order to show solidarity with the Cuban revolution and challenge U.S. policies towards Cuba, including the economic blockade and our government’s ban on travel to the island. Our trip, like those that came before us, consisted of work, educational activities, and travel.

We were introduced to a highly educated, politically conscious and diverse society that our government has tried to keep us from for more than 50 years. We met resilient, inspirational, loving people who taught us about generosity, community, humility, and the one simple truth of socialism: that people are consistently prioritized over profit. We found that even within socialism, racial justice is a struggle that must be fought for and encouraged. While we cannot claim to be Cuban experts after one or two weeks, we did learn a great deal about ourselves and what it will mean to continue to build and win a revolutionary movement in our own country.

The three of us — Anita, Chapter Coordinator and Community Organizer with Black Lives Matter; Amity, the BYP100 NYC Communications Co-chair and Shannon, organizing committee member with the NYC Black Alliance and Outreach Director for 2013 documentary film Black and Cuba– came with different perspectives, met and bonded over our questions and analysis of the experiences we had during the trip.

(L to R: Amity, Shannon, and Anita)

We found that In Cuba, people do not like to talk about race.

For Cuba, racial discrimination is a curse that both fled the country with the Cuban exiles and stayed behind with the revolution.

To be fair to the Cuban revolution, many of the Black Lives Matter movement’s “radical” demands to alleviate the effects of structural racism have been fulfilled in Cuba: all education (including higher education) is free, healthcare is free, housing is subsidized, healthy food is subsidized, and more. In 1962 the Cuban government declared the end of racial discrimination through the implementation of these egalitarian policies. In the U.S., racism is aggressive and deadly, systemic and carefully calculated. Although not fully eradicated, we found it true that Cuba’s socialist model diminishes the presence of structural racism and Cubans rightfully take pride in being more socially advanced than the U.S. in their “pursuit” for racial equality.

But, more than 50 years into the ongoing revolutionary project in Cuba, racial equality has still not been fully achieved and is often not addressed directly. While Cuba is an amazing example of how socialism can work to benefit the good of all people, Cuba is also proof that socialism or any tactic other than deliberately and intentionally working towards eradicating institutional and structural racism will not yield total racial equality.

But, it is 2015 and Cuba still does not like talking about race and if you try, we learned, you may be seen as an enemy to Cuban unity. As we attempted to delve deeper into racial conversations while on our trip, we gained a deeper understanding of the possible reasons this response was so common.

We were told “structural racism doesn’t exist in Cuba,” after all, the country was unified under the spirit of Cuban nationalism, the people are one. In fact, in the face of American imperialism, Cuba needed to come together as a nation inclusive of race, in order to fend off violent physical, psychological and ideological attacks from the United States. White, Black, and “Mestizo” or “Mulatto” Cubans fought side by side for justice against the oppressive ruling class of Americans and their Cuban business partners. In America we are Black Americans or White Americans, we fall (or are placed) into clearly marked categories that have been promoted to divide us for centuries. This difference presented a confusing paradox for us as we learned and traveled through Cuba.

What does it mean to an anti-racist movement if everyone– black, white, racist or ally– belongs to us?

Esteban Morales Domínguez, one of Cuba’s most prominent Afro-Cuban intellectuals and a leading authority on race in the country, told us that “when someone is racist towards you, you have a big responsibility in that moment. You can either make a friend or a foe in that moment.” For Amity, who is biracial, this reminded her of the relationship she has with white family members where she feels ownership and responsibility for them even when they say or do racist things. The idea is, if everyone, even a racist, belongs to you and your society, you are responsible both the your aggressor and to society as a whole in that moment.

We were at an impasse. Almost every pivotal moment for African Americans in the United States has shown that this is not a reality that society affords us. While our allies have been strong and unyielding, on a national scale we are not treated like we belong and have consistently faced violence from our neighbors and even the state. The love of a family member is not present when dealing with American society’s racism on a larger scale and the three of us do not believe that it mentally or physically is safe for an oppressed person to have the inherent task of educating their oppressors. We have each advocated for white allies to take a more active role in responding to and educating racist Americans. We want to deal with the permanent racist element in our country in more holistic, balanced and safe ways in order to build a more supportive society for all of us.

It was particularly affecting for us to hear Esteban say this, especially when most white Cubans we met did not like to talk about or admit that racism even exists in Cuba. But you can use your eyes to see. Black Cubans do not have access to economic liberty in the same way that white Cubans do. This can especially be seen in the booming tourism industry in Cuba where economist and labor leaders told us that many Cuban businesses are owned and ran primarily by white Cubans. Much like in the U.S. for Black Americans, it is more common to see Black Cubans behind the scenes– in the kitchen as cleaners rather than servers, as performers rather than managers.

For many of us Black folx on the trip, the non Black Cubans’ approach to racial discrimination felt very similar to #AllLivesMatter, a dismissive response to the urgency and need for #BlackLivesMatter in the U.S. It felt silencing and hurtful. Especially when one Cuban government economist claimed that “institutional racism does not exist in Cuba,” only racism on the individual level, therefore making it a problem that cannot be solved by the State. Especially when we Black Brigadistas experienced and witnessed racism in Cuba and in our own group. Our last night in Cuba, for example, Shannon was approached by two light-skinned Cuban men and aggressively implored to bleach her skin “in order to be prettier” after spending two weeks in a country where race was treated as a second-thought. This triggering incident made us think- if this happened to just one of us, how many dark-skinned Cuban girls are growing up with this type of violent messaging about their place in the world?

We were once again being told how to feel, see, and witness what it is like being Black.

This is an experience that is shared by both Black Cubans and Black Americans alike. In Cuba there are folk songs, monuments and effigies to the heroes of the revolution, the victors who freed the country from the cruelty of the dictator Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar and the strong arm of U.S. imperialism and enacted a total socialist revolution. The most prominent of these heroes are the three comandantes:

Fidel Castro, revolutionary leader turned prime minister and president

Camilo Cienfuegos, leader of rebel forces who tragically disappeared when his plane went missing less than a year into rebel forces winning the country’s governance

Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the man with one of the most identifiable faces in the world, top Comandante and a symbol of revolution worldwide.

Over and over again we saw images of these men on t-shirts, highway signs, murals, memorials, posters and in the songs and talks we had with Cubans. From the siege of the Moncada Military Barracks for weapons led by a young Fidel Castro to Che Guevara’s bombing of an armed military train and subsequent capture of the city of Santa Clara to the folk tale of Camilo Cienfuegos standing in the middle of an open field, cigar in mouth, shooting at a Batista fighter jets– these heroes are the stuff of legend.

The fact that these three — good looking, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, Latino men coming from class, education and privilege — became the leaders of a poor and working class socialist revolution did not escape us involved in the BLM movement.

They are shining, untouchable, messianic figures revered in by Cubans as the “Trilogia de la Revolucion Cubana” similar to white Americans reverence of the founding fathers and Black Americans love of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Though their valor and heroic deeds were revolutionary and produced real change, their total visibility takes up space where Afro-Cubans, women and LGBTQ people should also share some glory.

Though Celia Sanchez emerges as one of the most beloved Cuban women from the revolution she is not treated to the same mythic proportions as the three comandantes. Although the revolution granted women equal status in the eyes of the law, protection from workplace discrimination, comprehensive maternity leave and the right to choose their efforts are not heralded as loudly. Much of the same social and interpersonal sexism and marginalization persists in Cuban society. LGBTQ of all genders experienced increased homophobia and transphobia during the revolution (Fidel was openly homophobic) and, although progressive legislation has passed, sex-reassignment surgery has been available for almost three decades day to day life is still riddled with homophobia and transphobia.

La Trilogia de la Revolucion Cubana’s prominence continues the marginalization of these communities- communities that have always carried the brunt of the burden of the oppressive state and does the hardest, dirtiest work in eradicating it. In 20th century movements for social justice abroad and domestically cis, straight men are still typically the most prevalent figures to emerge, we see this as a detriment to the movements as a whole.

We thankfully saw another difference between our own movement and that of revolutionary Cuba. Standing in the Museum of the Revolution looking at the statue of these three pointing up and outward, named the “Trilogia de la Revolucion Cubana” we couldn’t help but feel genuinely grateful for the community that Black Lives Matter has created that doesn’t ask us to repress any parts of ourselves for the greater good.

We wish we had come from girlhood to womanhood with the powerful image of Coupon Codes, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors the founders and leaders of Black Lives Matter leading the greatest movement for Black liberation in the 21st century. Seeing Black women in open communion with each other and even more open dissent against a powerful, oppressive regime is crucial in countering the harmful narratives of popular media that tells young, Black women to turn up on each other and be complacent with our position in society. Their leadership, action and humility are emblematic of a new dawn of social revolution that centers Black femmes of all fashion- queer, trans, cis, poor, working-class, differently abled. We know we can all be part of the movement because they are. In the words of Coupon Codes, they want a leaderful movement because they believe can,

“create much more room for collaboration, for expansion, for building power when we nurture movements that are full of leaders, and allow for all of our identities to inform our work and how we organize. This then allows for leadership to emerge from our intersecting identities, rather than to be organized around one notion of Blackness. Because of this, we resist the urge to consolidate our power and efforts behind one charismatic leader.”

Not only did they selflessly create the platform for revolutionary leadership and organizing, but they don’t need the glorification of owning the movement and they don’t ask that any of us tone any parts of ourselves down. This is what revolutionary Black femme-led leadership looks like. The Cuban revolution was successful in creating a socialist economic and political system but its cis, white, hetero-male leadership had the blinders of patriarchy on and they remained unable, or unwilling in some cases, to fight for the complete liberation of all Cubans.

Luckily Cubans realize the revolution is an ongoing, ever-growing national project.

Unlike movements in the U.S. which have historically had beginnings and ends, the revolution in Cuba never ended. Coming from the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., we are very grateful and inspired by the results of the ongoing revolutionary efforts by the Cuban people.

As our own imperialist, racist country begins to open up relations with Cuba, we fear that our own communities will become a force that enhances the very racism and inequality we strive to eradicate at home. We challenge our movement and our country to study Cuba and travel with care and thoughtfulness as our country makes Cuba more accessible to us. And for those Black, queer, cis and trans-Cubans who are still feeling the brunt of oppression, Black Lives Matter is a worldwide call to action in full support of your continued organizing for liberation and we will continue to lift you up and stand in solidarity until we are all free. Venceremos!