USA Today , May 30 2002
HAVANA, Cuba - Gloria Rolando's short film, Roots of My Heart, ought to be required viewing in the White House. Made without the support of the government-run organization that sanctions and finances much of this island's movie industry, her film is the story of the massacre of more than 6,000 people on this Caribbean island, a brutal episode that took place long before Fidel Castro came to power.
But the story that Rolando tells is the key to understanding why Castro remains hugely popular among this island's 11 million people and why they largely mistrust Cuban exile leaders in the United States.
Ever since Castro took control here 43 years ago, Cubans who fled to south Florida have couched their campaign to oust him as a democracy movement. Every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush bought into this ideological struggle without giving much attention to the historical underpinnings of the revolution that brought Castro to power.
But one sees scant history of democratic government in Cuba in the century since it gained independence. For much of this time, Cuba was a "pigmentocracy" run by a white minority that mimicked the discriminatory practices of the Jim Crow era in the American South. Resistance to this racism peaked on the day in 1912 when thousands of Afro-Cubans < members of a political party called the Independents of Color < massed on the 10th anniversary of Cuba's independence to protest the lack of racial equality.
Newspapers controlled by Cuba's white minority accused the group of wanting to rape white women and impose a black government on the island. These scare tactics masked the resistance of the white ruling class to the party's push for racial equality.
In a ghoulish show of contempt, Cuban leaders honored the soldiers who carried out the massacre with a festive outdoor dinner in a small Havana park shortly after the slaughter ended.
The deep-seated rage the 1912 massacre produced, and the following decades of racial oppression, caused the vast majority of Afro-Cubans to support the revolution that Castro led and to back the government he now commands.
"Most of the people who fled to Miami are white; most of the people on this island are of African descent. This is so for a good reason." Ruben Remigio, the black man who now heads Cuba's Supreme Court, told me.
Despite Cuba's widespread economic problems, the quality of life for most Cubans of African descent has improved dramatically since 1959. They have better health care, vastly more educational opportunities and a significant presence throughout Cuba's government. While they are far from satisfied with conditions in this country, most say they are better off now than they were when Fulgencio Batista and the white privileged class that backed him dominated life here.
The anti-Castro movement in the United States is made up largely of aging members of the white faction that benefited from Batista's regime or its precursors. The conventional wisdom in the United States is that Castro is blocking their return to Cuba. The truth for many in Miami and Washington is harder to swallow.
Before Castro came to power, most white Cubans were satisfied with the racial stratification that existed here. Most Afro-Cubans were not.
Today the economic embargo the United States imposed on this island, which Cuba exile leaders in Miami insist on maintaining, takes its heaviest toll on Afro-Cubans. This is so because of a loophole that permits U.S. Cubans to send as much as $1,200 a year (a princely sum in Cuba) to relatives in this country.
Since most who fled Cuba are white, the money they send to people here goes largely to white Cubans, leaving Afro-Cubans to bear the brunt of the embargo's effects. The resulting economic imbalance and its source is not lost on Afro-Cubans who vow never to allow the exiles to regain a position of power and privilege in Cuba.
This history of racial oppression, not Castro's communist regime, is what undermines efforts to improve relations between the United States and Cuba.
© Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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