The Washington Post’s leftwing columnist Harold Meyerson recently met the Afro-Cuban dissident Leonardo Calvo Cárdenas– who, as the former director of Cuba’s Lenin Museum, “hasn’t always been on the outside looking in.”
Calvo Cárdenas’s days in the Lenin stacks came to an abrupt end in 1991, when he and his friend Manuel Cuesta Morúa, 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 Morúa, who accompanied Calvo Cárdenas on his visit [to Washington]. “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 Cárdenas 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.”
Of course this is more than half a century since Fidel Castro came to power with a pledge to fight racial discrimination in Cuba.
“When we hold public forums at the community level, we’re often arrested,” said Cuesta Morúa. “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 Morúa. “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 Morúa 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.”
While the Cuban regime’s western leftwing apologists like to portray the island’s dissidents as reactionary tools of the Yankee imperialism, Calvo Cárdenas and Cuesta Morúa are among the opponents who make it hard to do so. As was the late Oswaldo Paya, who rejected “the myth that we have to choose between socialism and freedom.”