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Finding the Black Left via Cuba

By: 
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007
    Editor’s Note: US-based Blacks have a long history of solidarity with Cuba. In what follows, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, a recent visitor to Cuba, outlines her perspective on why contact with Cuba is still crucial for Blacks in the US.

The balmy night I left Oakland for Cuba, I saw through my speeding car’s window every reason why I resist: ambulances racing down residential streets, young women and men standing outside in their own neighborhoods, only to be met with police harassment. Across the Bay Bridge, I stared up at San Francisco’s County Jail, a monstrous structure. I know because I have loved ones inside those walls, how those lucky enough to have a cell facing the freeway fight to keep their sanity by counting passing cars like mine, late into the night. That night, I didn’t see anything different than what happens everyday: I live in a community in crisis. But what I would see, shortly after that, was that another way of living was possible.

Why Cuba?

Cuba is the colony that got away, and everyone on the island knows it. Cuba had been fighting for its freedom long before Fidel or Che could grow a revolutionary 'stache. Resistance in Cuba started with oppression in Cuba: with slave rebellions against land owners in the 1820’s, then peasant rebellions against the wealthy, then a national rebellion against Spain beginning in 1868. [email protected] have been ensuring their freedom with their lives for more than 100 years. Cuba has been wrestling against American expansionism since the US’s intervention in the Spanish-American war in 1898 when US interference attempted to usurp the Cuban revolution coming in as pillaging colonizers. Through a host of puppet government officials, the resistance continued and finally in 1959 Cuba was able to cast off the reaching hands of US corporations, corruption and political influence. Cuba expelled US based corporations, restricted tourism, nationalized its resources and began again on an international stage what was started in the sugar cane fields among the slaves.

In the decades before that revolution, Cuba was a nation much like this one. There was intense political corruption and repression based on race and class. Poor people ate out of the garbage cans of the wealthy, the majority of Cubans were illiterate because they could not afford an education, and people worked all their lives without ever getting close to escaping huge amounts of debt incurred in the struggle to survive. An older woman in Caimito, a neighborhood outside Havana, spoke to me of the conditions for those Cubans who were poor and black in the years before the revolution, the way my great, great-grandmother used to speak of slavery in this country: it was a living hell that hurts to recall—and something she would die fighting against rather than return to.

Cuba, with Haiti and Jamaica, once had immense wealth, rich in raw materials and was open to all the foreign capital that made itself available. Now, Cuba and its neighbors do not have an excess of anything. Whereas there are many things Cuba does not have access to because of the embargo and prohibitively high prices required of many of the things we consider commonplace in this country, four things remain guaranteed: food, housing, healthcare and education.

The Cuban revolution represents many things for the black left even as Cuba remains a country of deep contradictions. That said, each person I encountered during my time there knew the plight of black folk in the US. They know the violence, the poverty, the hunger, the incarceration, the harassment—and they know that if their revolution fails, our reality is what’s in store for them. The Cuban revolution represents, for me, the refusal to live as an oppressed person.

Much of the resistance waged in the Americas comes from the spirit of slave rebellions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean; it is the common thread that links people in the Western Hemisphere in the way that the experience of colonization links the struggles of people across Africa and parts of Asia. In Cuba, the Cimarron is the essence of an insistence on freedom. The Cimarrones (comparable to the Maroons of Jamaica and the runaway slaves of the US) were the slaves that ran away from the plantations, establishing freed communities and returned to free their loved ones. The Cimarrones were the first [email protected] to fight for independence and as a result provided the initial spark of the Cuban revolution. One of Cuba’s great artists, Alberto Lescay said, “The Cimarron is a human condition,” and it is with that spirit that Cuba operates in the world. Cuba’s foreign policy is internationalism and humanitarian aide to other poor people. Cuba sends doctors to every corner of the world. In fact, Cuban doctors were among some of the first to identify the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Black Left

Regardless of its specific form, black resistance in the US has been resistance against the social, political and economic manifestations of white supremacy: resistance to its institutional, interpersonal and internalized impacts. From Booker T. Washington, to the black Church, to the Harlem Renaissance and Black Panther Party, black resistance has been rooted in an understanding of the international significance and impact of this national struggle.

In the wake of COINTELPRO, crack cocaine, and the explosive expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex, the black left has splintered. This once unflinchingly radical resistance now finds itself negotiating for survival within the mainstream and for funding at the fringes, with the forces of white supremacist conservatism. And, what used to be a discussion that spanned the three points left of center (liberal, progressive and radical) is now a conversation between the Right wing, right-leaning Centrists, and so-called Liberals.

Those of us who consider ourselves radical or progressive nowadays find ourselves outside of dominant political discourse. While the prominent public debates are about troop levels or which war criminal the president will appoint to his cabinet, the majority of the black progressive voice (or any progressive voice) is not tolerated in mainstream political dialogue. This marginalization of course is not specific to the black left; it is the case with the Left regardless of race. What becomes clear is that our impact will not lie in the political process, and as a result we must find other means to make our presence felt. In this way, traveling to Cuba not only creates the opportunity for radical and progressive Black Americans to stand with and learn from the Cuba’s revolutionary legacy, it provides us a way to show, through critical mass, our opinions regarding US foreign policy as we do it ourselves.

Revolutionary Tourism

Traveling to Cuba, as a black citizen of the US, is a revolutionary act. A Black American standing in solidarity with anyone besides the forces of white supremacy that still think they hold us, is an act not only of defiance but also of self recovery and self love. The Venceremos Brigade (VB) has been defying the travel ban to Cuba in a show of solidarity with their revolution by sending a contingent every year since 1969. From the very beginning many of those traveling with the VB were black revolutionaries engaged in struggles for human rights and economic justice for poor women and men in the US. It was reading about Angela Davis’ trip with the VB and learning of the welcome Cuba has extended to many of my personal (s)heroes including Roy Williams, Amiri Baraka and others that inspired me at 17 years old to go to Cuba. Through Venceremos Brigade’s travel challenge, we tell this nation with our actions, that our allegiance lies with the people of the world, and not with this nation’s illegal wars, racism or exploitation.

We stand connected to those whose parents were shackled alongside our parents on the slave ships that traversed the Atlantic for 300 years. By challenging the validity of an unjust embargo, we hold ourselves and our government accountable for the actions our money funds. When the members of the Venceremos Brigade bring material aide from our communities and labor alongside those working to sustain their way of life, we are able to come close to our own humanity. When we take the US government to task for its actions and stop asking for change and create it ourselves, we stand in solidarity and follow the model of internationalism so central to Cuba’s politics.

And, just as we radical and progressives of every stripe (but black leftists in particular) are students, we are also teachers. The most dangerous condition for an oppressed person to be in, for the oppressors, is when the oppressed feel connected in their experiences rather than isolated by them. For this reason, the black left is critical to the travel challenge to Cuba, because the black experience of this nation that sets a precedent for resistance. We know, as does the rest of the world, that the movements of Black Americans influence and expand the freedom that is possible for others struggling for justice around the globe. The black left has a particular position among people of color worldwide. We are positioned inside the United States: our fight is internal. The potential and the responsibility that fight entails and the solidarity it stirs around the world are unmatched. We are inside an empire that terrorizes the world and our interests are aligned with that of our folks in the so-called 3rd world.

While in Cuba, I was so inspired by the way of life on the island that I mentioned to a companero I was tempted to live in Cuba. They smiled, and reminded me that the reason I came to Cuba was so that I could return home and fight for justice from inside the monster that threatens to destroy us all. And that was true. I'm now back in Oakland, with a renewed dedication to developing the leadership and empowerment of poor young women and education for critical consciousness. But the blockade still levied against Cuba is an atrocious form of economic warfare, which is meant to hurt the most vulnerable segments of society: the very young and the very old. The blockade affects much more than Nike shoes, new cars or computer programs; it affects food, fuel, medicine, medical supplies and life-saving technologies. The purpose of the embargo is to crush the will behind the revolution—by starving people to death, and letting them die needlessly—the way poor people in my country who cannot afford costly medicine and life saving technology die needlessly—when the drugs which could save them are available yet unaffordable, only 90 miles north, in the US.

In this light, we should be able to see how our own communities—poor communities of color—are under a similar type of attack in this country: we have no jobs, no health care and no education, but when we turn to the underground economy to sustain ourselves, people, families and communities are ripped apart by incarceration. We are under-represented in universities, politics, and business, but over-represented in prisons, the armed forces, and as denigrated and commodified objects in popular media.

Bringing It Home

The day before the 37th Contingent of the Venceremos Brigade was scheduled to cross back into the US and announce our violation of the 40 year old travel ban, I sat in the grass of a park in Toronto with 3 other brigadistas, silent and contemplative because for the first time in my life I was bringing the fight, my fight, to the doorstep of the empire in which I live. Realizing in a way I had not before, that I was fighting with my body, small, black and female, I felt at once gigantic and insignificant, expendable and interconnected. My body would soon be at the mercy of customs agents and other charged with enforcing unjust laws. I realized I am, we are, the black left.

It is up to the black left to reassemble ourselves, working through the sexism, homophobia, classism and desires to be accepted into institutions upholding white supremacy that splintered us in the post civil rights era and forced us outside of mainstream political discourse. We must be unshaken in our struggles against injustice in its local and international manifestations. It is our responsibility to create the kind of world we want to live in, and live it everyday.

Traveling to Cuba with the VB as Cuba stands at a critical crossroads in their political experiment is not only our responsibility, it is our immense honor. We stand with [email protected] as sisters and brothers in the same struggle to live as free people. The change we affect at home affects the world. The black left, battered and battle weary as we may be, must engage in this battle with heart and know that our freedom is linked to the freedom of the entire world.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers is young, black, and queer. Inspired by the WTO protest and the Bay Area’s growing youth movement, Melanie came to San Francisco at 18 years old to join the fun. Melanie is a member of the “Prop 21” generation and committed to the political education, leadership development and decriminalization of poor young people especially young women.

To get more information about the Venceremos Brigade or take the Travel Challenge, go to venceremosbrigade.org or to get an application email vbrigade[at]gmail[dot]com