Mandela's Message Didn't Make It to Cuba
In Havana a small white clique rules a majority black nation.
Sonia Garro Photo: Ladies in White
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Did Barack Obama bow to Raúl Castro when the two shook hands at a memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa earlier this month? It sure looked that way in a South African Broadcasting Corporation photo.
On the other hand Castro is a diminutive dictator. That may explain what seemed to be presidential stooping to the level of the tropical totalitarian. Let's hope so. After all, the Cuban military dictatorship, run by a white junta, held and tortured the black political prisoner Eusebio Peñalver for 28 years—one year more than Mandela endured.
The world barely noticed when Peñalver died in exile in 2005. If he had enjoyed the kind of international support Mandela had, things might have turned out differently for him and for Cuba's predominantly black population. Government statistics in Cuba are unreliable but according to a 2009 report in the Inter Press Service News Agency, "most Cuban academics estimate that between 60% and 70% of the population is black or 'mulatto.'"
Cuba was thrilled with the Obama encounter. A Dec. 19 commentary under Fidel's byline, published by the state media, congratulated Raúl for "his firmness and dignity" when the two met.
That's not the only reason Cuba had to be giddy about what went on in South Africa. The world used the Dec. 5 passing of Mandela to recall the courageous struggle for racial equality in South Africa. Cuba used it to brag about the close ties between Mandela and Fidel. No one mentioned Peñalver or the 55 years of racial exclusion under the Castro military dictatorship.
Cuba already had a long history of racial discrimination by the late 1950s, not unlike in the U.S. But after dictator Fulgencio Batista went into exile on Jan. 1, 1959 and Castro took over, things did not improve. In many ways, they got worse.
Peñalver was born in central Cuba in 1936, the eldest of six children. He had to give up going to school full-time in order to work. But he studied bookkeeping at night and graduated from a business school in Camaguey.
Peñalver opposed the Batista regime, like many young Cubans, and he fought with the rebel army in the hope of restoring the constitutional democracy. But when Castro hijacked the revolution for himself, Peñalver broke ranks rather than "sell my soul to the same devil that here on earth is Castro and communism."
Unlike Mandela, he never planned or launched attacks against civilians. But he took up arms against Castro's military in the Escambray Mountains, where he was captured in October 1960.
Peñalver became one of the legendary "plantados," prisoners who heroically resisted unfathomable cruelty at the hands of their jailers. In Oct. 1988, after almost three decades of incarceration, Peñalver was released and banished. From exile in Los Angeles he wrote about the "naked brutality" and round-the-clock beating and harassment that he had endured: "They made the men eat grass, they submerged them in sewage, they beat them hard with bayonets and they hit them with fence posts until their bones rattled."
Peñalver didn't carry the left-wing ideological identity card that made Castro a fan of Mandela. (Mandela never forgot it and was a life-long supporter of Cuba's dictator.) Peñalver fought against two dictatorships, but his cause was never racial. He wanted freedom for all Cubans. Yet it is clear that he suffered more because he was black: He interfered with the revolutionary narrative—so crucial to Castro's "progressive" international image—that the regime emancipated black Cubans.
Angel de Fana, who is white, is another of the exiled plantados. He told me last week in an email that during his many years in prison with Peñalver, "I witnessed how he was a victim of 'additional' punishment simply for being black."
Today Cuban economic and political power still resides with the military and the leadership is still a white men's club. But the subject of racism is taboo. In March, Roberto Zurbano, the Afro-Cuban publisher of Casa de las Americas publishing house in Havana, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined, "For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn't Begun," noting that black Cubans are "underrepresented in spheres of economic and political power." He was fired. Mr. Zurbano blamed the headline. Right.
At least he didn't go to lockup like Sonia Garro, another Afro-Cuban who threatens to unravel the Castro propaganda that he has elevated the black population. She first got into trouble by doing nonpolitical community work, unauthorized by the regime, in her heavily black neighborhood in Havana. In March 2012 she lobbied, along with others, for an audience with Pope Benedict during his visit to the island. The regime raided her house, shot her with rubber bullets and put her in jail. Others asking to see the Pope were detained at the same time, but only Ms. Garro remains in jail.
Black South Africans have won their struggle against official discrimination. Black Cubans wait.