[Editors note: I’d like all of us to welcome a new contributor to the blog, Jorge Ponce. A career federal employee, Jorge will occasionally send us missives on the subject near and dear to our hearts, with an insider’s perspective.]
During the celebration of the 2009 Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder called the American people “essentially a nation of cowards” for failing to openly discuss the issue of race. I’d like to take him on it and proceed to engage in such a discussion.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) played a key role in bringing down the apartheid regime of South Africa. Its members lobbied for aid to Africa and the imposition of sanctions. Indeed, Congressman Charles Rangel, one of the CBC founders, proclaimed in 1986, “The U.S. has held ideals of freedom for more than 200 years and we should not tolerate their abrogation by any other country!” I wholeheartedly agree with the Congressman.
A CBC delegation visited Cuba in April 2009, and met with Fidel and Raul Castro. Congresswoman Barbara Lee indicated how Fidel “was very engaging and very energetic.” Congressman Emanuel Cleaver proclaimed that “he’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met!” In referring to Raul, Rep. Bobby Rush opined that he “was very engaging, down-to earth and kind man.”
It is surprising that the CBC delegation chose to ignore the racist policies of the Castro regime, and, yet, there were plenty racial inequalities to see in Cuba. For example, although the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami said that 68% of the Cuban population is black, 90 percent of the current prison population in Cuba is black, while the ruling Communist Party is only 9 percent black. When the Cuban Government developed its tourist industry in the early 1990’s, whites were given preferential treatment. The Cuban authorities let its foreign partners from such countries as Spain to control its hiring decisions, and many opted for whites. Academics say that black Cubans are failing to earn university degrees in proportion to their representation in the Cuban population. Afro-Cubans are more likely to be harassed by police on the street than their white counterparts – a Cuban version of racial profiling. Nevertheless, Cuba does not have an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce anti-discrimination laws, and has no plans to set up one in the future.
There are many prominent Afro-Cubans who are rotting in Cuban jails. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez (known as Antunez) served a 17-year sentence for quoting Martin Luther King and the UN Declation of Human Rights in a public square. Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, winner of the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom, is serving a 25-year sentence for his strong advocacy for basic freedoms for all Cubans.
On February 23, 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year old Afro-Cuban political dissident serving a 36-year sentence, died in a prison cell after an 83-day hunger strike. Tamayo wanted to protest the continuing repression of political prisoners in Cuba. To show solidarity with Tamayo’s cause, Guillermo Farinas, an Afro-Cuban psychologist and journalist, announced in March 2010 his intention to go on a hunger strike to call attention to the plight of Cuba’s political prisoners. On March 4, Farina lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital, but Cuba’s Granma newspaper announced that Farinas will be allowed to die if he continues on a hunger strike. On March 17, 2010, Cuban security forces and pro-government civilians violently disrupted another protest march by the Ladies in White — female relatives of political prisoners — and dragged them away in buses. The security agents and civilians punched, pinched, scratched, pulled the hair, made rude gestures and yelled profanities at Ladies in White members. Two of them, including the mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, had to be rushed to a hospital to treat their injuries.
The CBC has been missing-in-action all this time. None of its members has made any public pronouncements to raise the awareness of the world community to the plight of these helpless, valiant, and freedom-loving Afro-Cubans.
While warming up to President Obama upon taking office, things have taken a turn for the worst lately. President Castro accused the United States in December 2009 of “giving breath to open and undercover subversion against Cuba.” His brother Fidel followed suit by writing an op-ed saying that Mr. Obama’s “friendly smile and African-American face” masked his sinister intentions to control Latin America. Whatever honeymoon existed in the beginning is now over, and Fidel Castro’s remark about the first African-American President reveal again his deep-seated racism.
The vision and a goal of the CBC relate to promoting the public welfare to meet the needs of millions of neglected citizens, and seeking a national commitment to fair treatment for the economically disadvantaged. Afro-Cubans are waiting for the CBC to live up to its creed.
In the South African and Cuban scenarios, white-controlled government oppressed their black citizens. The only difference between the two, however, is that the last President of apartheid-era South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, had a very conservative reputation, while the Cuban Castro brothers are avowed socialists.
The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “”Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I think that the CBC members should embrace Dr. King’s philosophy. To remain silent to the injustices suffered by Afro-Cubans at the hands of the Cuban Government would make the CBC lose its moral compass.
Jorge E. Ponce