WASHINGTON – “More than half a century ago, Fidel decreed the elimination of racism,” said Leonardo Calvo Cardenas. But “this just made the problem deeper and more complex.” Calvo Cardenas is an Afro-Cuban — a group that makes up roughly half of Cuba’s population but that is greatly under-represented in its political leadership, media and nascent business class. Calvo Cardenas hasn’t always been on the outside looking in. “I was the director of the Lenin Museum,” he told me during a visit to Washington this month.
But Calvo Cardenas’ days in the Lenin stacks came to an abrupt end in 1991, when he and his friend Manuel Cuesta Morua, a historian at Havana’s Casa de Africa Museum, lost their jobs after publicly criticizing the Castro regime’s lack of democracy. The two went on to form a democratic socialist organization that the regime routinely harasses but, atypically, hasn’t stamped out.
“We were the first alternative political movement that publicly opposed the U.S. embargo,” said Cuesta Morua, who accompanied Calvo Cardenas on his visit. “That makes it more difficult for the Cuban government to give us the kind of treatment that other dissidents have gotten.”
In 2008, the two joined other activists to form the Citizens Committee for Racial Integration — an organization whose very name is an indictment of their beleaguered workers’ paradise. “The Afro-Cuban population is stagnant, at the bottom of the social pyramid,” Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna, the committee’s national coordinator, said during the recent trip. As in virtually every other nation in the Western hemisphere, Calvo Cardenas added, “Cuba has traditionally had a racially stratified workforce. And despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the government, African descendants remain excluded from the most promising jobs.”
None of the committee representatives accused the Castros of harboring racial bias. The problem that the Castros and the Communist Party have with the committee is that an independent movement for racial equality is a living, breathing refutation of the idea that, after more than 50 years in power, communism has delivered equality. Another problem for the party is that any independent movement is inherently not under its control. For Afro-Cubans, the road to equality is blocked by the party’s suppression of civil society.
In recent years, Cuba’s economic travails have made the nation’s racial rifts more visible. Still, “the government hasn’t waged a public anti-racism campaign,” Madrazo said, as doing so would have required acknowledging the persistence of racism under Cuban communism.
So the Afro-Cuban activists formed the committee themselves. The group promotes not only racial equality but also has a gay and lesbian chapter and presents annual awards to human rights advocates and champions of pluralism.
In a more repressive period, of course, the committee’s leaders would be languishing in jail and its activities would be conducted underground, if at all. Today, the Communists are encouraging a modest wave of small-scale entrepreneurialism, though a movement to a more market-oriented economy is no guarantee of democratization, as the examples of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and China today make abundantly clear. Nonetheless, a little political space not occupied by the party has opened up in Cuba, and the committee is one of a handful of groups that, not without risk, seek to expand it.
“When we hold public forums at the community level, we’re often arrested,” said Cuesta Morua. “But then they let us go. The tactics of repression have changed. Long prison sentences didn’t weaken the human rights movement; they strengthened it.”
The committee leaders entertain no illusions that the regime’s fall and the institution of a democratic government would in themselves eliminate Cuba’s racial stratification. “The existence of multiple political parties guarantees the democratization of the state,” said Cuesta Morua. “It doesn’t guarantee the democratization of society.”
Nevertheless, the committee leaders are emphatic that Cuba can’t become more egalitarian until it becomes radically more democratic. Cuesta Morua marveled that there are still some in the American left who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. or identify with him today yet support a Cuban regime that would never permit a similar march in its own country.
“We have a message for the American left, especially the African American left,” he said. “There are forgotten Cubans, invisible Cubans, many of them Afro-Cubans, many of them not. They do not live in the utopia that some Americans still imagine. They live in Cuba.”
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.