Illustration by Oliver Buckingham

Do Cuban Lives Not Matter?

The government of Cuba is committed to the principles of ‘sovereignty and self-determination’. According to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF), that statement is true. So true, that the organisation decided to broadcast it to the 4.5 million people who follow their Instagram account. It is a clear sign that the foundation is out of touch with the movement it claims to represent.

BLMGNF is the world’s premier BLM associated campaign organisation. For millions it is the public face of Black Lives Matter. Its three founders – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi – have significant profiles. Tometi addressed the Oxford Union in September of 2020. 

That assertion about the nature of the Cuban government was part of a wider statement from BLMGNF on the plight of Cuba’s people, prompted by anti-government protests throughout the decrepit one-party state. But the crucial detail – that the protestor’s anger has been directed at their own government – appears to have passed the activists at BLMGNF by. The statement released by BLMGNF contends that the true cause of the Cuban people’s suffering is not a 62-year dictatorship, but the US embargo of the island. It is an attempt by one group of campaigners to gaslight another protest movement. The BLMGNF activists presume to know the suffering of the Cubans better than the Cubans themselves:

“Black Lives Matter condemns the US Federal Government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans, and urges it to immediately lift the economic embargo…instituted with the explicit intention of destabilising the country and undermining Cubans’ right to choose their own government”

That the people of Cuba have not been given the opportunity to choose their own government in over seven decades is apparently an irrelevant detail. But this statement was not brimming with veracity. It parrots the propaganda of Cuba’s stale regime, which has long sought to shift the blame for a sickly economy and rising inequality onto the United States.

In a superb article for the Atlantic, Jorge Filipe Gonzalez made this piercing observation on the Cuban situation: ‘The suffering is not rhetorical’. The protestors in Havana are not faking it. They are feeling the effects of an 11% contraction in the Cuban economy in the wake of the pandemic. The population has been split by monetary apartheid: those who have US dollars, and those who can only pay with the inflation-ravaged Cuban peso. Food shortages have become common. But for the people, there is no recourse to the autocrats in power. Public dissent remains illegal, and scores of protestors have already been arrested

As the economy reels, Cubans of Afro-Caribbean descent are suffering disproportionately. 58% of white Cubans have incomes under $3,000. For Afro-Cubans that number is 95%. It was no coincidence that Havana’s black neighbourhoods were the site of some of the largest anti-government demonstrations. Surely BLMGNF would highlight the suffering of those citizens, deprived of a political voice in a crisis-ridden junta? They have done the opposite.

The statement BLMGNF released is frightening in its fluent deployment of half-truths and outright lies, and in its subversion of the core BLM message: fighting police brutality. Cuba is a country in which the people’s right to self-determination – far from being guaranteed – is actively suppressed by state violence. 

So why have BLMGNF sought to contradict the Cuban protest movement? In 2015, one of its three co-founders said she and another co-founder are “trained Marxists”. Could the group’s reticence to condemn the Cuban government reflect the sympathies of some of their members for the Marxist doctrine upon which the dictatorship was founded? I hope not, but it looks that way.

The priorities of grassroots BLM supporters remain tackling racism and police brutality. Siding with a dictatorship does not advance those goals. 

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Chaos Beckons For Myanmar

While the Cubans of today have never known democracy, the people of Myanmar have only just had it stripped from them. Faced with a coup-spawned tyranny, they continue to struggle for the return of their rights. The foundation of the ‘People’s Defence Force’ by the exiled pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG) in early May is the clearest sign yet that the country is slipping closer to full-blown civil war.

Far from quelling dissent, the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar Military) crackdown on civilians following February’s coup only galvanised opposition to their rule. The new dictator – General Min Aung Hlaing – has overseen the killing of over 900 civilians and the imprisonment of 5,000 more. Many of those who protested peacefully against the Junta through the spring now feel that taking up arms is their only option.

The defection of scores of police officers to the pro-democracy cause has been heartening. The BBC interviewed one officer – named only as ‘John’ – who was among the first to abandon the junta:

“They used us as pawns to protect themselves…The weapons we have are the people’s weapons…I joined the police force to serve justice and protect the people.”

John knew that he could no longer do that while acting as the sword and shield of the coup-leaders.

Those who decide to fight the regime must flee the military-controlled cities to the jungle, where they are given further assistance from ethnic rebel groups like The Karen National Liberation Army. That organisation has fought a low-level guerrilla war against Myanmar’s central government since 1949. It is now training hundreds of former city dwellers to resist the junta.

The determination of Myanmar’s people to rescue their fledgling democracy is impressive. It is far more inspiring than the pathetic performance of the UN. All it has achieved so far is a nonbinding arms embargo on the military. More severe sanctions can only be passed by the UN Security Council. But that body has been crippled by Russia and China. This duo of dictatorships constitute Myanmar’s top sellers of arms, and are apparently content to support the country’s new autocrats. Chinese state media has described the coup as nothing more than a ‘cabinet reshuffle’. A reshuffle with a butcher’s bill 900 people long.

The National Unity Government’s decision in early June to promise citizenship to the heavily persecuted Rohingya is extremely significant. It demonstrates that Myanmar’s pro-democracy alliance is genuinely committed to putting aside ethnic and religious differences in order to oppose the Tatmadaw. Now, the world’s democracies must support the NUG. They are the legitimate representatives of the people. Further sanctions on the coup generals would be a start.

Rarely has the morality of a conflict been clearer cut. A military coup preceded the use of lethal force against citizens protesting the loss of their democracy. Comparisons to Syria are apt. That struggle morphed into a civil war after a government crackdown on the 2011 pro-democracy movement. Half a million people perished in the subsequent firestorm. The conflagration is still smouldering after a decade of genocide, jihad, cluster-bombing, chemical-massacre and refugee crisis. Just imagine the carnage in a country with a population three times the size of Syria’s. At least Turkey and Jordan were stable and wealthy enough to host those who fled their homes. Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand are not. 

By failing to step in immediately following the coup, the international community has already allowed the situation in Myanmar to deteriorate considerably. The country can still avoid the worst of possible futures, but only if the free world gathers its strength. Now is the time to apply meaningful pressure to the junta headed by General Aung Hlaing. That man stole his people’s sovereignty. He cannot be allowed to keep it. 

Oliver Buckingham

Oliver Buckingham is a writer for The Blue, and has his own blog at https://whirlwindofscrappaper.com/. He is a History and Politics student at Lady Margaret Hall, and writes about politics, foreign affairs...