This week President Trump banned travel to Cuba. This ban is just the latest hostility in a history that goes back a very long time. Most of us have been taught that Cuba is anti-democratic and the source of all things evil. For Black people, however, Cuba is where a great number of our brothers and sisters live. In many ways, Cuba has been more supportive of Black people than America has. Ongoing hostility towards Cuba disrupts a legitimate connection between Black people in America and on the island.
The roots of US/Cuba hostilities go back to Fidel Castro. He served as President of Cuba from 1976-2008 and Prime Minister of the Republic of Cuba from 1959-1976. The American media would have you believe that his rise to power meant the end of freedom in Cuba as they knew it. In 1959, Castro ousted a sitting Dictator, Fulgencio Batista. What is often overlooked is that Batista, as John F. Kennedy once charged, murdered 20,000 Cubans and turned a Democratic Cuba into a police state, all with the US supporting his “reign of terror.” Once in power, Castro implemented reforms that essentially seized the assets of American corporations and the elites in Cuba. This was during a time when U.S companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands, almost all the cattle ranches, 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions, 80 percent of the utilities, practically all of the oil industry, and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.
Because of these reforms, Castro was now bad for business. In an attempt to oust Castro, President JFK authorized an unsuccessful military operation, not for “democratic freedom”, but all for business. This failed operation was not only embarrassing for the U.S., but it strengthened the position of Castro’s leadership. Castro’s leadership, incidentally, was supported by a great number of Cubans who wanted change. Overthrowing the government required a revolution and revolutions are bloody, just as when we fought a revolution to overthrow British rule. Those on the other side of Castro’s revolution have largely supplied the narrative about Castro that the media has fed us for decades. What the media doesn’t show is that as a leader, Fidel Castro supported black people in various ways.
In the 1960’s as civil rights leaders were assassinated, Cuba implemented land reforms to benefit poor blacks on the Island, supported leaders like Malcolm X and even gave asylum to black freedom fighters who were forced to flee America. Cuba was the only nation that actually sent troops to Africa to fight against Apartheid military forces, ultimately helping to free black South Africans. Meanwhile, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was quite supportive of the Apartheid government in South Africa, even going so far as to veto a bill to impose sanctions on that nation. For this and other supportive actions, Nelson Mandela became a great admirer of Fidel Castro. In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Cuba immediately offered 1,600 medics, field hospitals and 83 tons of medical supplies for the mostly Black population in need. The offer of help was declined by the U.S., even as the city remained neglected by the federal government.
Understanding this history requires us to take a harder look at the lens through which we see Cuba and America’s relationship to it. Further, it means we must challenge the belief that America is supremely qualified to lecture Cuba on Democracy and Freedom. The history should cause us to reexamine who is and isn’t our enemy, as Black people. As Mandela once said, one errs when they assume that their enemies “should be our enemies.” Cuba has been clear on where it stands with respect to Black freedom. Cubans are our brothers and sisters. Being disconnected from it is being disconnected from family.