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Afro-Cubans Come Out In Droves To Protest Government

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The recent protests in Cuba mobilized thousands of people, making them the biggest demonstrations there in decades. While Cubans from all backgrounds took to the streets to demand better living conditions and more freedoms, Afro Cubans came out in droves, not only challenging the government but also the narrative that the Cuban revolution was a great racial equalizer.

Amalia Dache is an associate professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. And she is a Black Cuban American. And she joins us now to talk about Cuba. Welcome to the program.

AMALIA DACHE: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your family fled the country as part of the Mariel boatlift in the early 1980s, right?

DACHE: Yes, they did. My father was a political prisoner in Cuba in the late '60s and early '70s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you study Cuba now. What are your impressions of how race is impacting the social dynamics we're seeing there?

DACHE: So I've been working on a study since 2018 talking to Cubans in Havana. I collected narrative history interviews. One of the main things that came out was how race plays a role in how they access education, for example. So Afro Cubans would mention that, you know, they live in poor - the poorest areas. They really can't access higher education because they have to have access to American dollars or tourism in order to buy food to go to school. And this came out, of course, for white Cubans. But Afro Cubans were the ones who mentioned the living conditions where they were worse off, especially in Havana.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I myself have visited Cuba many times as a journalist. I have heard Afro Cubans talk about how they are referred to in a different way or discussed differently than their white or lighter-skinned counterparts.

DACHE: Yes, absolutely. The Cuban population, the lighter-skinned Cuban population, sees them as subordinate or sees them as, like, second-class citizens. The colonial system of race did not end with the revolution. But then there's also this discourse that comes from the state, from the revolutionary kind of dictatorship state that states Black Cubans, Afro Cubans have to be grateful because we gave you education. And we gave you equity and equality. And so they feel like they have to kind of pay back with their loyalty the state. And so when they keep the system, for example, there's, you know, illegal committees of race that face a lot of oppression. It's called (speaking Spanish). They have documented how Afro Cubans - you know, when they speak out, they are more repressed. They face longer jail sentences. Or (speaking Spanish) - I don't know if you've heard of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Ladies In White, the protest dissident group.

DACHE: Yeah, dissident group - high percentages of Afro Cuban women - they are beat on the street.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A Black Lives Matter affiliate here in the United States released a statement when the protests began in Cuba saying that, quote, "Cuba has historically demonstrated solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent." I mean, that is true up to a point, but it was sort of tacitly supporting the government. What is your view - your views on that statement coming out?

DACHE: It didn't surprise me, honestly. Of course, you know, I was disappointed. And the reason I was disappointed is because right now, when we're thinking about global solidarity with Black people, especially right now, we need all hands on deck. I know that there has been a history of erasure of the experiences of Afro Latin America within the broader, larger U.S. discourse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So obviously, you know, there's a lot of pain around Cuba, right? Families have been separated. People have lost a sense of identity from those who have left the island. And, you know, the exile community, you know, point to fierce political repression and a failed economic model in Cuba. And then on the other side, some people want to make it out to be a socialist utopia where they say and point out that literacy is among the highest in the world, and health care is free and all of that while an embargo has been in effect. Two very distinct visions of one country - and everything seems to be put through the prism of U.S. politics. But what at this particular moment do you want people to know about what is happening there?

DACHE: What I want people to know about Cuba is that Cuba since 1962, under the revolutionary dictatorship, disbands every Black organization that existed before 1962. So you have these organizations - you have Black activism and Black resistance happening in Cuba that gets completely erased. You don't hear from Black Cubans. They are invisible on the island. Their pain, their suffering is invisible. And we need to listen to Black Cubans, who are the ones largely that are in the prison systems. There were 15 prisons before 1959. Now, there are over 200 prisons in Cuba. You have incarceration rates that are, you know, predominantly Black Cubans that are not part of the conversation that we're having when we're talking about the embargo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amalia Dache, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, thank you very much.

DACHE: You're very welcome. Thank you for the time and the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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