The World

Fear of a Black Cuban Planet

Many Afro-Cubans are leading calls for change. Who’s listening?

Person holding up a Cuban flag at a protest
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images.

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Cuba’s Communist regime has endured for over six decades and outlasted more than 10 American presidents, several of whom predicted and pushed for its downfall. But in recent days, a government that survived pressure from one of the most powerful nations in the world is facing its toughest fight—from its own people. From social media to the streets, Cuban Americans have added their voices to the call for a new government in Cuba, and many of them are challenging the historic American narrative about the country. One of these people is Amalia Dache. She’s Afro-Cuban and a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. She researches the role of race in higher education and student activism. She’s also the author of the book Rise Up! Activism as Education. On Friday’s episode of A Word, we spoke about the uprising and the myths and realities of racial equity in Cuba. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: When you talk to Cubans on the island and then look at the conversation happening in U.S. politics and media, what’s the most critical disconnect or misunderstanding about the uprising?

Amalia Dache: So the Cubans—Cuban natives, Cubans who are dissidents of the revolution, which many of my family are, and Cuban Americans here—agree that Cuba has to change. Cuba has to be more democratic. Between both the island and the United States, that’s the agreement with Cuban Americans and Cubans on the island. I mean, just engaging on Twitter, you will see people on the left and people on the far right both saying similar things, like “OK, is it possible that the CIA has been involved in the resistance in Cuba?” Have y’all not been following “Patria y Vida”? Have y’all been following Afro-Cuban artists? Have y’all not been following what they’ve been doing? No, they haven’t.

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So this is what I’m saying. We’re silenced and we’re erased on both fronts, in Cuba and the United States, across racial lines, across political lines. And this is a quandary for the Afro-Cuban, for the Black Cuban, but we’re hoping that African Americans and Black people who understand issues of institutional racism, even though they don’t know communism, they know capitalism. We do know that these systems have hierarchies. Cuba doesn’t have corporations that are powerful, like the United States, but they have the military elite that’s powerful, and that’s predominantly white. Let’s be real about this.

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Your research has taken you back to Cuba several times in recent years. What did you witness firsthand about the social and political climate there, and how was it affecting Cubans depending on what your race, or what your perceived race, was?

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When I was in Cuba in 2019, I started a study that engaged with Cubans from my neighborhood about their racial and political ideologies, and what I learned from interviewing Cubans in Havana was fear. There’s lots of fear and lots of secrecy about what they can say. So the fact that I too am Cuban—I was born in Cuba and I was born in this neighborhood—they trusted me and they trusted to share their stories. And what I heard was really that in order to enter higher education, you have to be a part of the Communist regime. In order to learn and to progress within the Cuban system, you have to be aligned with the Communist regime. If you write a dissertation or thesis that critiques the Communist regime, it won’t get published, and you’re going to face repression from the government, your family is going to face repression. There is no academic freedom in Cuban universities, there is no disciplinary peer review, and so you have a society of people who their knowledge systems are limited and can’t engage internationally because it’s a Communist dictatorship.

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A lot of the protests there, protests in general, are generally led by young people. You’ve also studied uprisings in the United States and the protests that we’ve had over the years. What are some similar threads between the youth uprising in Cuba and what we’ve seen in the United States, not just last year, but over the last several years?

What’s similar is that these youth, Afro-Cuban youth, have been leading. They live in the most marginal, oppressed, and repressed neighborhoods in Cuba. So where this resistance began was in one of the southern barrios of Havana, which is highly marginal, as far as race and as far as the economic situation. Because in Cuba, even though you have this totalitarian state and supposedly everyone’s the same across the economic system, you still have neighborhoods, you still have barrios, that are worse as far as their housing, as far as who lives there across the demographics, and you do have predominantly Black and underserved and impoverished—within the scale of Cuban poverty—communities. So even in this kind of government, you still have a hierarchy of poverty and those who are highly affected are Black Cubans, and the youth are the ones that are coming out.

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So that’s why you see with the San Isidro Movement that it’s Black artists, that it’s these artists that are coming from this neighborhood, coming from the San Isidro neighborhood, coming from neighborhoods that are impoverished. So the youth are coming out of these neighborhoods, similarly to the work I did in Ferguson.

So I began studying activism, I wrote my book on activism, because I was a professor at University of Missouri in the belly of the beast of white supremacy in 2014, and Michael Brown gets killed and I’m studying what’s happening. And it’s those that are living in northern St. Louis, it’s those who have been oppressed within the county and who have been living years from the oppressive housing structure in St. Louis and the segregation in schools—those are the people who have been highly impacted by the police state in St. Louis.

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So the Ferguson community, the Ferguson youth, those—again, very similar to the Cuban youth—are the ones that are out in the streets, and they’re the ones who are saying, look, we have to do something, we have to change. They’re angry and they have no fear. That’s the other thing, is that this power of everything being taken away from you, and in a sense the power, the state, takes away your fear too. They’ve taken everything. They’ve taken your body, they’ve taken your family, and now they’ve taken fear.

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In the past, you’ve spoken about how—and this is my perception as well—the political left in America, the Black political left and the white political left, tend to romanticize these ideas of racial equality in Cuba. Can you do a little bit to absolutely destroy that myth? Because it’s something that anyone who has a lived experience in Cuba has always spoken out against, but for some reason, certain factions of the American left want to keep promoting it.

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Yes, absolutely. So this is a major fact and it aligns with what’s happening in the United States with the “critical race theory” supposed debate, how the Republicans are trying to get rid of “critical race theory” in the classroom. Listen to this: Afro-Cuban people, Black people in Cuba, have not been able to engage in their own history since 1959. Since 1959, the Cuban government, the Communist government, has wiped out, off the face of the Cuban planet, all Black political associations, all Black organizations. Cuba before 1959 had 200 Black societies. These Black societies survived colonialism. You hear me? Colonialism. They were completely disbanded in the early 1960s because the Communist government said that it had eradicated racism.

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So you can’t even engage in Black history in Cuba. The Cuban curriculum cannot engage in these conversations because it’s not part of the revolution. It’s counterrevolutionary to talk about Black history in Cuba, to engage Black history. Black Cubans don’t know their history. They don’t know about Black resistance. They don’t know about how Black Cubans and Afro-Cubans during the Republic, between 1901 and 1959, were a part of changing the Cuban society, the young Cuban society. Yes, there was racism in Cuba between 1901 and 1959. There was racism all over the United States. There was institutional racism everywhere. But it was a young nation, and Black Cubans and Afro-Cubans were part of creating the most progressive constitution in 1940. It was the most progressive constitution in Latin America. So Cubans, across racial lines, were making strides, but yes, of course we can critique it because we were looking at it from the U.S. lens. Of course we can critique it, but it was a new nation.

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Your family was part of the Mariel boatlift in the early 1980s, something that a lot of Americans are only familiar with either through Scarface or Miami Vice or that sort of thing. Can you just tell me a little bit about what compelled your family to leave, and then also, how are Cuban Americans who came over on the boatlift perceived differently? How did they have a different political experience in America than those who came over after the revolution in the ’50s?

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The Mariel Cubans, like my father—my father was a political prisoner, one. The Mariel Cubans, they were called the darker exodus because the ones who came in the ’80s, 125,000 Cubans that came in the 1980s, were different from the exodus Cubans in the 1960s and ’70s because this was not the elite. This was not those who owned businesses, for example, in the 1960s and ’70s. These were the Cubans that some had possibly believed that there was going to be change on the island in 1960s and ’70s, and believed in the revolution to a certain extent. They lived it 20 years. So they lived it 20 years, many of which, like my father, were political prisoners because they were against it. So as soon as the revolution comes in, they start noticing that it’s not what Fidel [Castro] said it was going to be. So in total, one can argue that about a quarter of the Cuban migration was Black. So I see that as a form of resistance. I see that as a form of resistance to the government who was both institutionally racist and socially repressive.

So these Cubans come to the United States, like my family and so many other families, face racism on the island, face racism in the United States. Yet their main focus—and this is what I’ve learned in the interviews I just did in Miami a couple of weeks ago, of Mariel and Balsero Cubans—they’re so focused on their families in Cuba, they’re so focused on liberation and freeing these people that they engage in the political structures of the United States in order to basically take down the system. So you don’t see them engaging vocally against issues of race. Primarily, their focus is political. So Black Cubans, at times, feel like they have to choose between being Black in America and being a Black Cuban, and again battling both fronts—battling racism here, but feeling as if, primarily, their concern is what’s happening to their families in Cuba.

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