My friend's teenage daughter is furious. It's one of those days when the U.S. embargo that restricts trade with Cuba has taken its toll on her. "I'm not mad at you," she tells me, "I'm mad at your government. " She wants to know what Cuba has ever done to the United States, and how her nation of only 11 million people could ever be a threat to America. "We have our kind of democracy, and America has theirs," she continues. "What right does your government have to starve us because they don't like our political system?"
The embargo has been wreaking havoc in Cuba for more than 20 years. When I first came here in the early 1980s, there were shortages of food and other items, but the economy grew nevertheless. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, Cuba's primary trading partners, the nation entered what we call "The Special Period." Cuba lost 85 percent of its ability to import or export goods. If you can imagine trying to survive on 15 percent of your household income, you can imagine what's happened here. The days when food was so cheap that groups of children would occasionally make mischief by pelting passing cars with eggs or tomatoes were over. Basics like shoes, soap and toothpaste became hard to get. There were daily blackouts and factories were shut down. Although education and health care continued to be free, some lifesaving medicines were difficult or impossible to get.
The hardest part for Cuban mothers is watching their children suffer. Parents sometimes cut holes in their children's shoes when they become too tight. My neighbor's daughter wore cracked, taped together glasses. Hotel workers have donated part of their tips to buy medicine for children who are seriously ill. Every mother wrestles with the fear that the embargo, or the blockade as it's called here, may kill her baby. This is especially true for Blacks here.
There is an old Cuban saying: "When White people catch a cold, Black people come down with pneumonia." Although Black Cubans have benefited greatly from the Revolution, they started out at a terrible disadvantage. Before the Revolution in 1959, few of them had access to higher education, well-paying jobs or decent housing. Most feel that the blockade has robbed the government of the economic resources needed to wipe away the inequities caused by years of slavery and exploitation.
My friend's daughter asks me if Black Americans support the blockade. "No," I answer. "Most Black leaders and activists have called for an end to it." She looks suspicious. "What are they doing to stop it?" I explain that perhaps because of the weight of our own oppression, we haven't learned the importance and necessity of expressing solidarity with other oppressed people.
But I'm not writing this to shame anyone. I'm writing to say that Black people in the U.S. have much in common with our sisters and brothers in Cuba. We share the same dreams for our children. We all want them to feel loved, and to be happy, healthy and well educated. The Cuban Revolution is based on a belief in human solidarity, that people must struggle together across differences to create a world that is defined by peace and social justice. Cubans believe that people being good to people can make this world like heaven instead of hell. It's why many Cubans no matter the challenges of their own circumstances volunteer to work in Latin America and Africa as teachers or doctors. If they can do that, surely Black Americans can demonstrate solidarity by publicly and consistently denouncing the life-threatening embargo against Cuba.
For information about what you can do to support Cubans and end the embargo, contact Pastors for Peace at (212) 926-5757.