Civil liberties and human rights are frequent targets of critics of the Cuban Revolution. There are indeed limits to civil liberties in Cuba. Where I differ from most of Cuba’s critics is their assumption that these limits are in place against the will of the majority of Cubans. That is the price, I argue, that most of them are willing to pay for defending their sovereignty against their implacable foe to the north, looking forward to the day when those limitations are no longer in place.
If human rights includes, as United Nations instruments do, economic, social, and cultural rights such as healthcare, then Cuba does as well as, if not better than, the United States. Witness, as I write, the exemplary job it is doing in combatting Covid-19, unlike its northern neighbour. But almost never on the list of alleged human rights abuses on the island, particularly those drawn up by US critics, is police brutality–specifically, the killing of Cuban citizens, and especially those with roots in Africa. Even the most vociferous critics of the “repressive Cuban regime”, to use their language, are unable to produce any credible evidence that the police in Cuba murder blacks as they do in the United States. Their silence on the matter is almost deafening.
The hated US-backed Fulgencio Batista regime that was overthrown in 1959 was notorious for its brutality. Its police were particularly sanguinary. A parent going to a police station in search of a missing son dreaded to hear the detested “se estaba . . . ” from the authorities—”he used to be”. For Afro-Cubans the situation was especially horrific. This is why many of the police assassins, some of whom were black, were tried and executed within months of the revolution’s triumph on 1 January 1959, to the applause of millions of Cubans.
But am I guilty of comparing apples and oranges, two very different societies? The history of both societies suggests otherwise. If the murder of George Floyd has its origins in the institution of racial slavery, as some would argue, then we should expect to see similar outcomes in Cuba. It existed there almost a century before being planted in what would become the United States. And it outlived America’s “peculiar institution” by two decades. But, again, what happened to George Floyd simply does not happen in Cuba.
Think of another country in the Americas with a long history of racial slavery, Brazil–where the police regularly kill blacks with impunity. What, then, explains Cuban exceptionalism? Exactly what happened in 1959: the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
In the twenty-five month lead-up to that victory on 1 January 1959, the Rebel Army, once it liberated a piece of territory from Batista’s despised military, realized that a police force was needed–along with other social services like healthcare and education. To be effective, the new police force, unlike its predecessor, depended on the support and active cooperation of the denizens.
This practice informed the Rebel Army when it forced Batista to flee the island on 31 December 1958. In collaboration with the underground, the 26th of July Movement, a general strike took place the following day. Key to its success was the seizure of police stations–a relatively easy and bloodless operation owing precisely to the mass character of the general strike. Rank-and-file police surrendered or tried to blend into the crowds.
“No police”, as the New York Times reported on 6 January, “are on the streets since they are held in quarters and all officers are under arrest. A few police patrol cars are circulating, occupied by two policemen and two members of the rebel militia. Boy scouts are directing traffic in some places.” Thus began the simultaneous top-down/bottom-up reinvention of Cuba’s police. The Rebel Army commander who headed up the police in the liberated areas became the national head of Cuba’s new police force. The intimate collaboration between the Rebel Army and local population to police an area generalized to the entire country.
When I ask Cuban friends about “snitching” to the police when they see misbehaviour in their neighbourhoods, they immediately say, “of course; why not?” US police constantly complain about not getting that kind of cooperation. Unlike in the United States, especially in communities of colour, Cubans do not see the police as a foreign occupation force. A US rapper once said about the police: “when they start to snitch on each other, then we’ll snitch.”
Race continues to be a challenge for the revolution. Fidel Castro acknowledged as much in a speech to a largely African American and Latinx audience in New York in 2000–the unfinished quest for racial equality exposed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus began a series of programs and measures that have garnered some success.
I have had only one encounter with Cuban police during my visits since 1983. In 2006, while sightseeing with a woman friend who was Caucasian, a policeman, a mulatto, thinking I was Cuban, asked for my identification–a frequent complaint of black Cubans. Cuba has strict laws against the harassment of tourists. Without my passport, I eventually convinced him I was a US citizen. He appeared, at the end, a bit sheepish about the whole matter. Never did I feel threatened; maybe because like most police in Cuba–at least then–he did not carry a gun.
I confess that I have had only one negative (something I am not doing right!)—but telling—experience with the police in Minnesota since moving here in 1971. It was due to the former chief of police of Minneapolis, Tony Bouza, and occurred in his own home. I was attending a Cuba-related event in late winter 1995, hosted by his wife. Together with my then companion, who was Caucasian, we were retrieving our overcoats from one of his bedrooms. He came in and without cause began trying to provoke a fight by mocking how I looked. I thought, at first, that he was being facetious. No, he was serious, and I decided not to take the bait and quickly left. “Imagine”, I remember saying later, “being a black male in the Minneapolis police station when he was in charge”.
Being more conscious about my blood pressure–not unimportant for African American men–I have noted that it improves when I have been in Cuba. Maybe because I am more relaxed there, unconsciously less on guard when it comes to the police.
For those who fault America’s “original sin” for George Floyd’s murder, Cuba teaches that history is not destiny. Again, despite the revolution’s continuing challenges on the race question, what happened to Floyd does not happen in Cuba. Even its severest critics have to agree with this. Is there a better explanation than what I offer here?
August H. Nimtz is Professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies, and Distinguished Teaching Professor, at the University of Minnesota. Recent publications include Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets–or Both (2014), Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets–or Both (2014), and Marxism versus Liberalism: Comparative Real-Time Political Analysis (2019).