Cuban activists fighting racism weigh their fragile relationship with the government

Norberto Mesa Carbonell, founder of Cofradía de la Negritud and Professor Katrin Hansing at a conference at Havard University.
Norberto Mesa Carbonell, founder of Cofradía de la Negritud and Professor Katrin Hansing at a conference at Havard University.

Almost apologizing because he “doesn't want to make things worse,” Afro-Cuban activist Norberto Mesa Carbonell recalled how Cuban police arrested him for trying to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last month.

“I was jailed for eight days,” the retired agricultural engineer and founder of Cofradía de la Negritud — Spanish for Brotherhood of Blackness — told a recent Harvard conference on the Afro-Cuban movement that drew about 30 activists from the island.

“The Cofradía de la Negritud had been staging events on that day (March 21) for nine years but this year … the activity was banned on orders from the second secretary of the Communist Party,” Mesa told the audience.

An uneasy silence followed his comments even as the meeting continued. Left hanging was the question of whether a civil movement that seeks to fight racism in Cuba can push much beyond the limits imposed by the government.

The examples discussed at the conference, hosted by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute (ALARI) at Harvard's Hutchins Center earlier this month, reflected the tensions within a movement that acknowledges Cuba's “revolutionary” advances, but that also wants to push an anti-racism agenda in a country where the government controls all legal institutions.

“In a country controlled from the top down, if you want to change education, you have to deal with the government. If you want to change television you have to talk to the government, because it's state-owned television,” activist Roberto Zurbano told the audience. “That's the country we live in, and we did manage to fix some things.”

Cuban activists who participated in the conference “follow a strategy of maintaining dialogue with the government” because they believe that solutions to issues like racial discrimination “requires the formulation of public policy,” ALARI director Alejandro de la Fuente told el Nuevo Herald.

The Afro-Cuban movement has scored several successes, de la Fuente added, by diversifying and focusing public attention on the issue of racism. Several programs that run with more or less government support, and sometimes against the grain of bureaucracy, are trying to empower Afro-Cubans in local communities.

But the recent attack on Cofradía de la Negritud, founded in 1998 to fight against what its founders see as Cuba's growing social and racial inequalities, shows what can happen when independent groups go too far in addressing the issue of race.

“If you're going to talk about social and racial inequalities, you need to take the historic and cultural dimensions into account,” Mesa told the conference. “But the most important thing is the people at the bottom, who are struggling mightily and don't see the possibility of overcoming their situation in the short run.”

He added that dealing with that problem requires stepping into politics, which has led to differences between the Cofradia and other members of the Afro-Cuban movement.

The Cofradia has worked many years to push the government to address issues such as Afro-Cubans' unequal access to education — a campaign that likely contributed to steps such as the broadcast of review lessons for students who cannot afford private tutors.

But his frustration with what he perceives as the government's inaction has been increasing in recent years.

“We have to talk about those things, and we are determined to raise awareness among people,” he added. “Not within the State, because the State knows what is happening. There are studies by research centers that show what is happening, but what's missing is action by authorities.”


Part of the problem is that Cuba does not have state institutions dedicated to fighting racism, unlike other Latin American countries, said de la Fuente. And those that do exist, such as the Aponte Commission of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), follow the government line, several activists said.

“What dialogue? There is no mechanism for dialogue” with the government, said one participant. “Do you really think that some government official is going to stand and listen to me venting?”

One interesting experiment was the creation in 2013 of the Cuban chapter of the Regional Linkage of Afro-Descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as ARAC. Some participants say it was established because of pressures by Cuban and Latin American activists, but others say it was a government decision.

ARAC tried to unite several organizations and “shift from an interest group to a pressure group” in order to “demand practical actions” for combating racial discrimination, activist Gisela Morales said during the meeting.

The troubles that followed “were institutional,” added researcher Gisela Arandia. “Who decided that (effort) would go nowhere?”

“Our capacity to negotiate between us is not the same as our capacity to negotiate with the [Cuban] State,” Arandia added. “The State accepted this project and many of us … believed but never said that it was a trap, a deception.”

The case of ARAC is especially interesting, according to anthropologist Maya Berry, because it was an attempt to independently establish “Afro-descendancy as a political issue” and at the same time to seek legitimacy within the Cuban context, where “the scripts for blacks' relationship with the state are very limited.”


The testimony of rapper Soandres del Río from the group Hermanos de Causa — Spanish for Brothers in the Cause — clearly illustrates the consequences of trying to create anything that is independent of the government — in his case the Puños Arriba rap festival. Del Río participated in a cultural exchange program at Miami Dade College, with a scholarship financed by the Cuban American National Foundation, and afterward lost his status as a state-approved artist. He is now treated like a dissident.

“Right now, state security has tapped all the phones in my house,” he said. “I cannot sing in Cuba any more.”

The majority of the rappers and other youths linked to the festival have left the island because of harassment from government officials, he added.

The government is “very afraid that the people would come together over a common passion,” he said, referring to the hip hop movement, which pioneered public expressions of complaints against racism in Cuba. “There's even fear of the word ‘independent.’ 

Del Río does not much like the idea of talking to the government.

“In the case of rap, there was a pattern of confrontation,” he said. “The State institutions played the role of a Trojan virus. It penetrated us, and by the time you see your symptoms, it's too late. They penetrated us and destroyed a movement that was so beautiful.”

The Mesa and del Río cases reflect the fine line that Afro-Cuban activists must walk every day. Many have lost their jobs: Zurbano himself was fired as an editor at the Casa de las Americas because of one of his columns, published by the New York Times.

Even activists who regard themselves as radicals expressed fear of government retaliation if they spoke with Miami journalists. The Communist Party did not allow several Cuban academics to attend the Harvard gathering.

“Why can (UNEAC President) Miguel Barnet come (to the U.S.) to say what we're doing, and we can't? Because he's authorized to speak,” said one activist who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. “The government pays our salaries.”

Another activist said he expected some sort of harassment when he returns to Cuba, even though a prestigious university organized the event and did not invite members of opposition groups such as the Committee for Racial Integration.

De la Fuente initially said opposition groups were not invited because the issue of race was not central to their agenda. The decision drew criticism from Cuban observers who considered it exclusionary.

“What was agreed to was not the exclusion of anyone, but the participation of those who were coming,” de la Fuente told el Nuevo Herald. “That process left out some people, and not just in the opposition … not because they did not deserve to be here but because the resources are limited.”

“I think criticism is healthy and it is useful to debate what the impact is of trying to have a discussion with Cuban authorities,” he added.

Zurbano said that the next goal of the Afro-Cuban movement should be the creation of “our own institutions,” in a dialogue with the government. Del Rio, however, proposed a different road ahead.

“As independent actors, we can do a lot of things,” he said. “The only thing we have to do is organize ourselves.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres