Each Sunday in Cuba, hundreds of Cuban citizens march from St. Rita’s Church in Havana to a nearby park, demanding amnesty for political prisoners of the Castro regime. Known as Todos Marchamos (We All March), since January 2015 they have been using the marches to protest government repression, including arbitrary arrests and detention. Week after week, government-organized mobs hurl insults at the marchers, helping the police to corral them into buses for overnight arrest.
As President Barack Obama makes his historic visit to Cuba, it’s worth noting that the Cuban marchers have something in common with the people who helped pave the way for his presidency. Like the U.S. citizens who protested racial injustice by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, the Cuban citizens are “motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the marchers. At that time in the United States, the legislatures of southern states had maintained a series of discriminatory practices that disenfranchised African-Americans not unlike the way Cuban citizens — and blacks, in particular — are disenfranchised by the Castros’ totalitarian regime.
On March 7th, 1965, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” state troopers and deputized possemen in Selma brutally attacked the peaceful marchers with nightsticks, whips and tear gas. Alabama governor George Wallace had ordered his deputies to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march.” Seventeen marchers were hospitalized and many others treated for injuries. One of the organizers of the march, Amelia Boynton, was beaten; a photograph of her lying on the road unconscious appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world.
Worldwide television coverage of the violent repression of the marchers, and the resulting national outcry, impelled President Lyndon Johnson to ask for the passage of voting rights laws to enable African-Americans to register and vote without harassment.
Almost 44 years later, American voters elected Barack Obama, who has worked to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. But that spirit of openness has yet to have a positive impact on Cuban citizens themselves.
In fact, following Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014, initiative for a rapprochement with the Cuban government, repression has markedly increased in Cuba, with 1,141 political arrests reported in February 2016 alone. Among those routinely arrested are Berta Soler, leader of the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”), which is comprised of wives, mothers and daughters of political prisoners; and Antonio Rodiles, a political activist. And like the white officials in 1960s Alabama, the Cuban government has repeatedly stated that it will not change its ways.
Based on its history of repressing dissent for the last 57 years, the Castro government will do all it can outside camera range to prevent the Todos Marchamos groups from carrying out their marches. Expect it to arrest group leaders preventively, intimidate them and restrict their movement. General Raul Castro’s forces will be smarter than Alabama officials in the 1960s — keeping their abuses off camera. But repress they will.
Many of the Cuban marchers will be Afro-Cubans, who are among the most disenfranchised members of Cuban society. Obama should keep in mind that about 80 percent of Cubans jailed in the island for political offenses are black, and most of the leaders of the Cuban opposition are black. More than 60 percent of Cubans in the island are black or mulato, yet the overwhelmingly white Cuban leadership discriminates against blacks, for example, for jobs in the tourist industry where the majority of employees are white. This deprives the black population of contact with tourists and access to foreign currency — a way out of poverty in a country where most people receive government salaries equivalent to $18 to $20 a month.
It would be appalling if an African-American president chooses to look the other way as the Cuban version of the Selma marches takes place during his visit.
Dr. José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the Institute`for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book Mañana in Cuba.