We are now in the 55th year since the Cuban revolution and Caribbean intellectuals and politicians will soon produce their nauseous rhapsodies about the glories of Cuba under Castro, perpetuating one big lie of the western hemisphere that, under Fidel, blacks in Cuba have been liberated from marginalisation and underdevelopment. And for those who are unaware, a 2009 report in the Inter Press Service News Agency says, “most Cuban academics estimate that between 60 to 70 per cent of the population is either black or mulatto”.
Independence brought dignity and opportunity for blacks in the English-speaking Caribbean, not in Latin America. After 55 years, Afro Cubans are nowhere near the top of the social, political or economic ladder. They are invisible in the government run by mainly white males. Compare their plight with their co-ethnics in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and the OECS where blacks have dominated politics for the majority of years since independence and have a strong presence at the middle and upper levels of their societies.
Notwithstanding achievements in health, Cuba is one of the most backward places on the planet, where the people are suppressed; they do not enjoy freedom of speech, choice or property; they are jailed if critical of the government that keeps them all impoverished; and the vast majority would flee to Miami, if given the chance. And we know who constitute the majority of Cubans.
Compare Cuba with South Africa after apartheid. Much remains to be done, but black leadership of South Africa is today entrenched. Even the possible weakening of the African National Congress after Mandela’s passing does not mean that blacks could lose political power. Also, as we start 2014, 51 per cent of middle class South Africa is black and 32 per cent white, a dramatic shift from 2004 when whites were 52 per cent and blacks 32 per cent. Afros are on the move there. So there was great irony when Barack Obama, first black US president, almost reverentially shook the hand of Raoul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, liberator of black South Africans, whilst the very Castro keeps Afro-Cubans suppressed.
Demonstrating how black leadership was deliberately destroyed in Cuba, Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady examines the case of Eusebio Penalver, a black revolutionary who participated in the overthrow of Batista. When Castro hijacked the revolution, Penalver broke away rather than “sell my soul to the same devil that here on earth is Castro and communism.” He was captured in 1960 and jailed for 28 years, enduring daily brutal treatment. As Penalver himself later revealed, “they made men eat grass, they submerged them in sewage, they hit them with fence posts until their bones rattled.” According to O’Grady, Penalver wanted freedom for all Cubans but suffered more because he was black. “He interfered with the revolutionary narrative, so crucial to Castro’s ‘progressive’ international image that the regime emancipated black Cubans.”
But Castro and Cuba have constituted a holy grail for Caribbean politicians and intellectuals. They have refused to ask searching questions, instead lavishing 50 years of praise on a white military junta that inflicted brutality and suppressed millions of “the Caribbean family”. This hypocrisy and political flaccidness is amply displayed by Caricom itself. Always ready to bleat about Cuba’s progress in health and quick to robotically condemn the unfair US trade embargo, regional leaders have never questioned Castro’s dictatorship, suppression of freedom, jailing of thousands of “dissidents” including poets and artists, prevention of a free media, denial of political choice to Cubans, suffocation of entrepreneurship and retardation of the country’s economy. When Sir Shridath Ramphal gave a speech in the 90s in Trinidad, nudging Fidel towards democracy and the dictator lashed back, not a single Caricom leader or intellectual defended the distinguished West Indian. And as I observed two years ago , “in 21st century Port of Spain, at a meeting with Castro junior, Caricom leaders, old and new, were still the predictable chorus to Cuba’s unchanged back in times melody, condemning the US but saying nothing about democracy and the rights of the Cuban people.” Such cowardice and hypocrisy!
But then Caricom has never stood up for anything. Take the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham from which Guyana is yet to fully recover. Burnham regularly stole elections, completely ruined the economy, inflicted hardship on the people, fomented racial violence, suppressed the media and freedom of speech and generally rained ruination on a hapless nation. Thousands of its best fled Guyana and the courageous Walter Rodney was assassinated. But Caricom produced not a peep, no condemnation of brutal Burnham, no effort to have him mend his ways. Instead they indulged him. At the Heads of Government Conference of Ocho Rios in 1982, we had the appalling spectacle of this callous dictator at the opening ceremony, boasting of his political methods in Guyana to the amusement and applause of his “distinguished” audience.
Caricom should be eternally ashamed of its impotence while one of its own nations was being destroyed. It practised the same indulgence of Eric Gairy and his Mongoose Gang in Grenada. And when the New Jewel Movement relieved Grenada of Gairy and started to establish a communist dictatorship, Caricom, naked under the fig leaf of “ideological pluralism”, made no attempt to have Maurice Bishop call elections and return Grenada to democracy. Further, when the revolution imploded with murder and mayhem, Caricom was in complete disarray, sharply divided on a course of action, leaving Grenada to be saved by Ronald Reagan and the US forces.
With no history of standing up, expect Caribbean leaders to continue mouthing platitudes about “our Cuban brothers and sisters”, but never to expose the big lie, even after 55 years.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former government minister