Human Rights on the Round Table

Yusimi Rodriguez

Cuba's Round Table evening TV Program
Cuba's Round Table evening TV Program

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 24 – A couple weeks ago, the evening television news/commentary program “Mesa Redonda” (The Roundtable) featured the issue “Cuba and Human Rights.”  Taking part in this were distinguished intellectuals and cultural figures, as well as representatives of several of the country’s institutions and ministries.

The previous day, Granma newspaper had published an article by Pedro de la Hoz, as well as a letter by Cuban intellectuals in response to declarations by a group of US African-American intellectuals.

The later declaration was not published by the Cuban newspaper, but the article by Pedro de la Hoz made reference to some excerpts from the statement and described characteristics of its principal author.  He also mentioned some outstanding US African-American intellectuals who did not sign the letter.

This issue was dealt with during the Round Table, but won’t I refer to it since I’ve already written about it in a previous article (The Revolution Made Blacks Human?).

Cubans Playing dominoes.  Photo: Caridad
Cubans Playing dominoes. Photo: Caridad

There was, however, a detail about the intervention in the program by Pedro de la Hoz that caught my attention.  He said, perceptively, that racial prejudice has not totally disappeared in Cuba, despite that it is now more common, for example, to see interracial couples.  He also compared that fact with the tolerance that now exists toward people who are homosexual, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual.

I cannot cite his exact words, but he explained that to be homosexual twenty years ago was seen as the worst of all conditions.  He didn’t go deeper into that position, though, perhaps because it would have diverted him from the main issue, which was the current racial question in our country.

When prejudice was institutionalized

For me it was unavoidable to think that although prejudice always existed against homosexuality in our country (like in the great majority of countries), that attitude was institutionalized after the Revolution with the creation of the “Unidades de Ayuda a la Producción” (Production Assistance Units, or UMAP). To these work camps were sent homosexuals, in addition to hippies and other people whose attitude was not considered “appropriate.”  Many homosexuals were also expelled from universities when their sexual orientation was discovered.

Later, on that same Round Table program, the president of the Yoruba Association of Cuba spoke about freedom of worship and affirmed this has existed in our country since 1959.  But this only made me wonder if the Round Table on that Thursday was directed only toward very young people, perhaps those born after 1985.

Daily life in Cuba.
Daily life in Cuba.

Any person over 30 knows that in the past, members of the Communist Party of Cuba could not have religious beliefs.  People close to me, practitioners of the Yoruba religion, in fact had to hide their religious figurines because their spouses were members of the Party; this would have created problems for them if these were seen in their homes.

Many religious people were asked to leave the country at the beginning of the Revolution, including my Seventh Day Adventist relatives.  They were also placed under the surveillance of the CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution); though with the creation of that organization, they joined it and carried out voluntary labor like any non-believer.

Errors that wash into oblivion

While I was watching the Round Table, I was in the home of a 68-year-old relative, a revolutionary who worked for the police and was also member of the Party.  She continues feeling highly committed to the Revolution.

But even she -who has never practiced nor wants to practice any religion- was indignant at the statement by the Yoruba Association’s president.  She herself commented to me that even the mention of the word God could create problems for a person in their workplace.  Nor could the word of God be mentioned on the radio.

Likewise, in the early 90s, a friend of mine went on a program to speak about the type of Yoga that she practiced and the program director requested that she not mention the word God.

Watching a ball game in Havana.  Photo: Caridad
Watching a ball game in Havana. Photo: Caridad

I have observed that errors in our country have a tendency to become orphans and fall into oblivion.  It’s as if they had never happened.  They are simply not mentioned.  When there is no other remedy than to point these out, the passive voice is always used: “it was performed poorly,” or “an incorrect method was used.”  It’s not said who made the error or who was behind a mistaken policy; while successes are always attributed to a person.

It’s true that we have advanced a great deal in terms of tolerance toward people with non-heterosexual orientations.  On May 17 in both 2008 and 2009, at Pavilion Cuba and other sites, the “Day Against Homophobia” was held. Other important actions similar to these have also been carried out.  Though we’re very far from everything being resolved, there’s no doubt that advances have been made.

It’s also true that freedom of worship now exists, and there’s even dialogue between the government and many religious entities.  But those successes have consisted basically of eradicating erred policies of the past.  Although they are part of the past, they cannot be erased. They happened and they had consequences.  One cannot try to delete the past or rewrite history to what suits you.

Later on the Round Table, Miguel Barnet, the president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, referred to the achievements of the Revolution in the access to culture as a right of everyone.

Havanas Marabana marathon.  Photo: Caridad
Havana's Marabana marathon. Photo: Caridad

Perhaps he didn’t come to refer to the outrages committed against intellectuals and artists in the past, the ostracism to which many were condemned or the prohibitions many faced from the publication of books.  That really wasn’t the issue of his presentation.

In addition, in 2007, there were meetings where they assessed the errors committed during the euphemistically dubbed “Quinquenio Gris” (the “Grey Five,” a five-year period in the 1970s) as if the only erroneous policies had only been applied during those five years.

The past and present

In any case, those errors are now part of the past.  And although these are debated, the past cannot be changed.  What some try to do though, is to justify them or place the blame on certain individuals in order to exonerate government policy from errors.

But what we should in fact worry about is the present.  Exactly the day after that Round Table broadcast, on Friday December 11 members of the artistic collective OMNI were forced to vacate their organizational premises in the Alamar district of Havana, next to the Fayad Jamis Gallery.  OMNI is the organizer of the event “Poetry Without End,” which has taken place annually for more than ten years.  Now the future holding of this event is in danger.

If this news were broadcast by the media in Miami, perhaps they would say this was another case of racial discrimination, because the majority of OMNI’s members are black.  That would be false though.  The reason behind the incident is that this group of artists, exercising their right to establish dialogue with whomever they estimate to be pertinent, met with a group of people described as “dissidents.”

OMNI is now being described as a political group.  They are not political and have made that clear.  I hope it doesn’t take another thirty years to reflect on these facts and to correct what should be corrected.

One thought on “Human Rights on the Round Table

  • In the mid-1840s, the capitalists and bankers sent their two main agent provocateurs into the socialist movement, to take it over from within and redefine it as statist and non-cooperative. They added to the provocateurs’ marching orders a “wish-list” of absurd positions designed to alienate the majority of the people from the concept and movement for socialism.

    This wish-list included an attack on the institutions of private property and the trading market, of course, but that was not all. It added a silly, counter-productive attack on religion.

    What better way to compromise and ruin the reputation of socialism than to denounce both religion itself and the newly-won legal right of the bourgeois revolution of religious freedom.

    This utter stupidity was accepted as socialist ideology. The result has been a social and political disgrace.

    What is needed is an official apology for the “mistaken” notion that religious belief is incompatible with socialism.

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