Covid, Cuba, and Human Rights

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

As we approach what many people hope is the end of the COVID-19, or I should say the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, let us consider a few things that we need to think about. First, while it is imperative that everyone be vaccinated, we still do not have a vaccination against this virus for children. Second, coronaviruses mutate. There are over 200 head cold viruses and most of them are coronaviruses. So, SARS-CoV-2 is probably endemic, meaning that we will have to contend with it in some form in perpetuity. Remember the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed roughly 50,000,000 million people worldwide. Yet, we no longer fear the flu because the flu is easily diagnosed and treatable. So, here’s the skinny: We need a couple of highly successful treatments for SARS-CoV-2; and we also need a test that can be administered where any healthcare professional can tell you whether you tested positive or negative in a matter of minutes. We’re not quite there yet, so be careful. This brings me to the crisis unfolding in Cuba.

As a Black American historian with some Afro-Cuban roots, the island nation has always been of interest to me personally. As I type this, however, the romanticized idea of Cuba that so many of us Black Americans hold—myself included—is dissolving before our eyes as Cubans, and particularly Afro-Cubans, have taken to the streets in protest against the harsh abuses they experience courtesy of state-sponsored police. The pandemic has exacerbated an old problem. While it would be easy to blame the USA for its decades-long (and unnecessarily punitive) embargo against Cuba, I am learning from Afro-Cubans on the ground that the USA’s embargo is not the primary cause of their hardships and grievances.

Many Black Americans are all too familiar with the late Fidel Castro’s visit to the USA where he deliberately stayed in Harlem with us. I remember the late Kwame Ture (né Stokely Carmichael) received medical care on the island. Then there is Black activist and fugitive Assata Shakur who received asylum on the island and has lived there for decades. Therefore, we Black Americans were not prepared to hear or fully accept what we were seeing on the ground in Cuba, namely young Cubans throwing rocks and bottles at police officers, marching in the streets, denouncing Castro, and telling Black American pundits to hush up because none of us have a clue what these young folks have been dealing with. And I have to agree; it is time for us Black Americans to stand down, shut up, and listen without the American-centricity we all carry but often fail to acknowledge.

I wrote back in January of this year that I wanted President Joe Biden to return to Obama-era normalization with Cuba. I still stand by that wish because as the government of Cuba has exported its best doctors to other countries to pay the island’s bills, it has also done so at the expense of the health and well-being of Cubans on the island. The medical miracle that Cuban medicine has been (a vaccination for meningitis, successfully preventing an HIV-positive mother from transmitting the virus to her unborn child, and fighting Ebola) is threatened by a more systemic problem that we do not want to face—plain, old-fashioned racism that Cuba claimed was finished decades ago, and a government that silences anyone that disagrees with its policies, which has apparently been in place for decades.

Right now the American Embassy in Cuba warns Americans not to visit Cuba due to potential violence and the continued spread of SARS-CoV-2. Biden unfortunately intends to sanction individual members of Cuban government. Sanctions have not worked, ever. As material shortages have always been a problem on the island for at least 5 decades, the pandemic has pushed everyone to their limits. Many Cuban protestors have stated that the folks in the government are eating and living just fine. Yet, the masses of Cubans now face severe food and medical shortages, and incarceration and/or death for daring to speak out about the abuses they suffer. Even worse, many Afro-Cubans complain that we don’t listen to what they are truly trying to tell us.

I still believe that the coordinated efforts of Cuban doctors, American doctors, and scientists from around the world can help us stem the tide of this pandemic, where, at minimum this disease only remains as a treatable and preventable disease. Yet, I also know that history tells us that any revolution that goes on too long eventually imitates the regime it was trying to replace. We must also be prepared to acknowledge and work toward a future where we Black Americans listen first to our kith and kin Afro-Cubans to stem the tide of state-sponsored racism, murder, and deprivation that they face—And those diseases are far more difficult to treat than any virus.

Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

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