In 1979, Assata Shakur of the Black Liberation Army achieved a near-impossible feat: She escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women, where she was serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster after a shootout on the state turnpike.
She has remained a free woman ever since, having been officially granted political asylum by Cuba in 1984, five years post-breakout.
Shakur's story serves as something of a symbol for the relationship between some American social justice movements and Cuba's authoritarian regime. Take the statement released last week by Black Lives Matter (BLM), addressing the ongoing protests in Cuba amid the government's inability to provide basic food and medicine: "Since 1962, the United States has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba by cutting off food, medicine and supplies," the group wrote, referring to the U.S. embargo on trade. "The people of Cuba are being punished by the U.S. government because the country has maintained its commitment to sovereignty and self-determination….Instead of international amity, respect, and goodwill, the U.S. has only instigated suffering for the country's 11 million people—of which 4 million are Black and Brown." The statement also mentioned Cuba's protection of Shakur.
It's true that U.S. trade policies have exacerbated Cuba's woes—insomuch as the communist island has been unable to reap the rewards of American capitalism. Apart from that, the "sovereignty and self-determination" of the country's government has led to mass oppression of those 11 million people, who are only equal in that they are equally starving.
But don't take it from me. "[Black Lives Matter is] using the situation in Cuba to club their own government over the head," says a 35-year-old black Cuban activist, whose identity has been redacted as he participates in the nation's first protests in more than 60 years. "What's wrong with them?"
In a conversation recorded and sent via WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service, two Cuban demonstrators, who are both black, responded to the claim that the 4 million black and brown people of Cuba are truly free. After I reached out via an intermediary and asked them to react to BLM's statement, the clip of the two speaking to each other was sent to DADE magazine's Nicolás Jiménez, who translated and shared the transcription with Reason.
The correspondence was dispatched via encrypted messaging because Cubans cannot talk openly about the Cuban government. In fact, the conversation heavily features the two protesters going back and forth on whether it is safe to respond to my press request at all. "You have to respond in a way that doesn't screw you over," says the other activist, who is 25 years old. "They're arresting people at their homes."
"That's why I tell people not to screenshot my messages," responds the 35-year-old. "I've reviewed and I think I'm safe with all my Instagram content, but I'm not sure." He adds that he would have liked to respond with a video, but "I can't expose myself like that," he notes, "because it's true that they're rounding people up."
The Cuban Revolution sought to engineer forced equality via communism following the overthrow of the brutal military dictator President Fulgencio Batista. But that equality is a myth, say the activists, who argue that the Cuban government tries to hide the lingering effects of institutionalized and systemic racism.
At a recent university protest, the 35-year-old relays that special forces "went directly after black people." The 25-year-old agrees. "The idea is that only people on the margins protest against the government. Only delinquents," he says. "In fact, they used to call it a revolution for the poor, and now they use words like marginalized and delinquent to describe what's happening, which is a way of hiding all their racism and all their classism, right?"
Riquet Caballero, a black Cuban immigrant to the U.S., also takes issue with the assertion that the country is equal, a claim made by the Democratic Socialists of America and journalists like The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones.
In an interview, Caballero describes his confusion after coming to the U.S. in the late 1990s and noticing various differences between the two nations. He no longer had to make his own kites out of reeds and newspapers, and, to his surprise, kids no longer played baseball with broomsticks and bottle caps. Other differences were more dramatic: When Caballero came to his Cuban public school in an American Olympic '96 basketball jersey, his teacher threatened him with reeducation unless his mother stole Coca-Cola from her factory job and turned it over for a school party.
"I also used to steal light bulbs and sell them for candy," he adds.
He was able to ditch that side hustle upon moving to the U.S. "I would say that what I have thanks to Cuba is to be grateful for having opportunities," he says, having mounted a Libertarian bid in 2018 for the Florida House of Representatives. "I realized that here in America, you could basically make anything of yourself….The pursuit of happiness is something that is really central to my core."
That mentality is not welcome in Cuba. On the contrary, it's actively discouraged, and punishable by law. "There was a man that was arrested who produced illegal cheese," notes Caballero. "He didn't report all the milk that the cows were producing, even though they were his cows….He only reported the milk production, started making cheese and selling cheese on the side….The government found out and they confiscated his cheesemaking operation." The man was then sent to jail, says Caballero.
Like the two activists in Havana, Caballero also altogether rejects the claim made by American leftists that Cuba has been able to construct racial equality. "They really made sure to control the black population because we have a history of being fighters."
BLM in particular has been criticized by the right for having Marxist roots. While it is certainly not true that every person involved with or sympathetic to BLM is also a Marxist, the group's support of the communist regime in Cuba has cost it support from people who otherwise identify with the broader civil liberties goals of the movement.
"When they killed George Floyd I remember that all of [the Cubans] in Miami were accusing BLM of being Marxist, of being communist. And I defended them, bro. I would say, 'Look, it's more than that,'" the 25-year-old Cuban activist says in the voice recording. "And now I see that no, it's actually less than that. It's like they have this ideological starting point from which they see the world instead of standing alongside allies and people who are going through the same things they are."
"You feel alone," he adds. "You feel like…I don't know. It's a letdown. It's horrible, really."