To kick off Black History Month the African Descent Society BC organized a daylong
"Forum on People African Descent". The day featured a walking tour of the historic black
neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley, followed by art, music, food, speakers and discussion
at the Orpheum Annex. Tamara Hansen, Coordinator of Vancouver Communities in
Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC) and author of the book “Five Decades of the Cuban
Revolution the Challenges of an Unwavering Leadership” (Battle of Ideas Press, 2010)
was invited to speak about "Comandante Fidel Castro, Cuba, Africa & People of
African Descent". Printed here are an edited version of her remarks
On Friday November 25th at 10:29pm, most of you will know that the historic leader of the Cuban revolution, Comandante Fidel Castro, passed away. He was 90 years old. I believe that Fidel leaves behind an incredibly important legacy that says something about our capacity to work together as human beings, no matter our race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, to build a better world. This is what I want to talk about today.
Since his passing response throughout the world has been deeply divided about Fidel’s legacy: was he a visionary revolutionary who fought for a better world or a cruel communist dictator?
I should be very clear that I am very biased on this issue and I believe that Fidel was a very important revolutionary leader and I will be talking today mostly about his role in Cuba, Africa and with people of African descent.
The Cuban revolution
Cuba has had many leaders and heroes, as our Emcee Peter mentioned, of African descent throughout its history. One of the most important was Antonio Maceo, they called him the Bronze Titan because of his skin colour. He was a very important leader in the 1800s against Spanish colonialism in Cuba and also against slavery. But the more recent Cuban revolution in 1959, also had many afro-Cuban involved in its leadership, from Juan Almeida, to Victor Dreke, to Harry Villegas.
I want to begin by explaining some of the gains that the Cuban revolution made for Afro-Cubans. As I read this quote, I want you to think about the situation in Canada and the United States for people of African descent in 1959. These were times of slowly moving towards bigger social justice movements, there was the very active civil rights movement and think about all of the struggle people were facing in the U.S. and Canada. In Cuba it was a time of revolution, the quote I am going to read will describe some of the initial moves made by the revolutionary forces as they came to power after 1959. This is from Naomi Glassman from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs wrote an article in 2011 about race relations inCuba. “When Castro first came to power in Cuba, the Afro-Cuban popultion was disproportionately poor and marginalized, lacking sufficient medical care, social services and educational opportunities. Castro believed that such overt racism was in direct conflict with his commitment to social justice and equality and passed policies to desegregate beaches, parks, work sites and social clubs. He outlawed all forms of legal and overt discrimination, including discrimination in employment and education. Castro also worked to increase the number of Afro-Cuban political representatives, with the percentage of Black members on the Council of State expanding from 12.9% in 1976 to 25.8% by 2003." So these are some of the initial gains that the Cuban revolution made for people of African descent, but this drive was not limited to the Afro-Cubans living in Cuba. A big part of the Cuban revolution was not just about changing Cuban society to be just and equal for all, but also was about revolutionary internationalism. This was the idea of supporting people of other countries who also wanted to fight for a better world in their own lands.
Che Guevara in the Congo
In 1965, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the renowned Argentinian-born leader of the Cuban revolution, went in disguise to Africa, with the support of the Cuban government. He went to the Congo to fight imperialism and promote Cuba's Revolutionary Internationalist ideals. So he went in 1965, in the midst of rebel uprisings, with a group of mostly Afro-Cuban soldiers, who arrived first and began training their Congolese co-fighters in the tactics that had been so successful in Cuba. I was very lucky in 2005 on my first trip to Cuba, I had the chance to meet with a man who went to fight with Che in the Congo. I wanted to briefly relay a story he told me about his experience working with Che Guevara.
So this man is from Trinidad and I sat down with him and I had a chance to sit with him and discuss his memories of being with Che in the Congo. He was very young and an inexperienced soldier. He was part of his community militia, but was not formally trained, and was surprised when he was chosen for this mission. Basically Cuba had decided to send as many people of African descent in order to not stand out in the jungles of the Congo.
However, the famous anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau said about Cuban fighters: “[They] are ready to lay down their lives for the liberation of our countries, and in exchange for this aid to our freedom and the progress of our people, all they take from us are their comrades who fell fighting for freedom.” This is in contrast to colonial and imperial powers who went to Africa with many promises, but who have always taken a million times more from Africa than they have given.
Comandante Fidel, Angola, Cuito Cuanavale & South African Apartheid
So next I want to talk about Comandante Fidel, Angola, Cuito Cuanavale & South African Apartheid. First, in 1975, Cuba sent 30,000 soldiers to Angola to help with their fight for independence against colonial powers. They had a small victory against the South African apartheid army, and wanted to push forward, but due to the geopolitical situation at that time, Cuba had pressure from the Soviet Union to withdraw and they did.
However, they were called on by Angola again in 1987, and this time Cuba decided to carve its own path despite Soviet objections and to go help the people of Angola. So Fidel later explained, “[the South African army] advanced strongly towards Cuito Cuanavale, an old NATO airbase. Here it prepared to deliver a mortal blow against Angola. Desperate calls were received from the Angolan government appealing to the Cuban troops for support in fending off presumed disaster; it was unquestionably the biggest threat from a military operation in which we, as on other occasions, had no responsibility whatever.” Despite the fact that it was not Cuba’s responsibility to defend Angola’s sovereignty, Fidel sent 55,000 soldiers to Angola. He remained in Cuba, spending days and nights strategizing the battle in Angola. In the end, Cuba and the people of Angola won the battle at Cuito Cuanavale. This weakened the South African Apartheid army severely. To the extent that in 1995 Nelson Mandela of Cuba and the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, “the defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today.” Meaning that Nelson Mandela believed that he never would have been released from prison and that he would not have become President of South Africa, without the battle that Cuba and Angola fought together in 1987.
Nelson Mandela said many beautiful things about Fidel. So I wanted to share two quotes with you. He said in Cuba in 1991, "The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character. From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”
Then in 1995 Nelson Mandela was reflecting on his previous trip to Cuba. He said, “I went to Cuba in July 1991, and I drove through the streets with Fidel Castro. There were a great deal of cheers. And I also waved back believing that these cheers were for me…But when I reached the square where I had to make some remarks to the crowd, then I realized that these cheers were not meant for me, they were meant for Fidel Castro…Then I realized that here was a man of the masses…Those are the impressions I have about Fidel Castro in Cuba.”
Such a humble leader, Mandela was often criticized for his friendship with Fidel, who as we know has played a very controversial role in international politics. Nelson Mandela also commented on this a few times saying, “we are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years. [...] No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.” So this is a lifelong friendship between Fidel and Nelson Mandela and between Fidel and the people of Africa. This has been reflected on by many different authors from all over the world, especially all over Africa since Fidel’s passing in November.
In Cuba Today
So what is the situation of people of African descent in Cuba today? People of African descent make up between 40 and 60% of Cuba’s population, defined as black or mixed-race. In February 2013, Cuba held its last parliamentary elections. There were 612 seats open in those elections:
- 48.9% went to women
- The average age of delegates in Cuba’s parliament is 48.
- 37% of the 612 seats were won by either black or mixed-race Cubans.
This is a pretty big percentage for Cuba. However, not as high as they would like. If you talk to any Cubans they will tell you that the issues of sexism and racism, although they have been confronted by the system and by the government in terms of laws and legislation, they still need to be confronted socially, in ever day society in Cuba. There continues to be racial discrimination in society and economic challenges facing Cubans of African descent due to external forces such as family remittances from abroad, which are received disproportionally by so-called “white” Cubans. Like so many other issues these are historically rooted obstacles that cannot be easily overcome. This is a very important struggle they are engaged in on a daily basis. There are many ongoing discussions and debates about these issues happening both inside and outside of Cuba. My favourite this is that when you ask Cubans, what do you think or what do Cubans as a whole think? They will say, ‘Well you know us Cubans, if you put 3 of us in a room, you’ll get 5 opinions!’ [laughter]
Cuba & the world
So most recently, especially in the last 3 years, headlines around the world have praised Cuba, as a country for its revolutionary internationalism, not for sending soldiers as they did to Angola or the Congo, but for sending doctors.
Cuba was a huge part of sending doctors to West Africa during the fight against Ebola. Headlines read across the world, “Cuban doctors take leading role in fighting Ebola” (UK Telegraph), “Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola” (Time Magazine), and “W.H.O. to Announce End of Ebola in Liberia, Thanks to Cuba” (Telesur), all of these headlines promoted Cuba’s leading role in combating this global crisis. In October 2014, Comandante Fidel Castro wrote an article called, “Heroes of our time”. He wrote, “May the example of the Cubans heading to Africa also capture the hearts and minds of other doctors around the world, especially those who possess resources, practice a religion or have the deepest conviction to fulfill the duty of human solidarity.[...] The personnel heading to Africa are also protecting those who remain here, because the worst that can happen is that this epidemic or other more serious illnesses reach our continent, or the heart of any community in any county in the world, where a child, mother or human being could die. There are enough doctors on the planet to ensure that no one has to die due to lack of medical attention. This is what I wish to express.”
Cuban doctors have also played an important role in Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010 and most recently after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. In many ways, the vision of Fidel Castro changed over the last couple of decades, believing that the most important thing that Cuba could give to the world was health. That it is with health, education, and proper nourishment that new liberation fighters will be born and more people will be able to educate themselves and come to the conclusion that the people of the world deserve a better world and a better future.
Fidel, Cuba, Africa & people of African descent
While the Cuban revolution has not been perfect. The amazing this about the leadership of the late Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution is that he was willing to talk about his mistakes and look for solutions and ways forward. In the struggle against racism and the struggle for justice and a better world, we have a lot to learn from what Cuba has been able to accomplish. Thank you.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter:@THans01
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