“It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money,” the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in the winter of 1860.
The occasion was a speech in Boston’s Music Hall. A mob had broken up an anti-slavery meeting there a week before, and Douglass rose in defense of free speech:
"No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government…Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.
"Neither race nor residence determined freedom of speech. “A man's right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color,” Douglass said. “The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right—and there let it rest forever.”
Four heroic men behind bars would appreciate his words all too well.
Angel Moya Acosta, Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, Iván Hernández Carrillo, and Jorge Olivera were among 80 Cuban human rights activists convicted this month in a series of closed sham trials—“a judicial Tiananmen” in the words of opposition member Manuel Cuesta Morua. Their crime was conscience, to witness evil and call it evil.
Acosta was sentenced to 20 years, Biscet to 25 years, Carrillo to 25 years, and Olivera to 18 years. Families and friendships have been torn by totalitarian violence.
These men share a racial as well as moral nexus; they are black. People of color are a majority in Cuba, and they aren’t exempt from Fidel Castro’s despotism.
It is a crime for black Cubans to criticize this white tyrant, his henchmen, or their dogma. Neither can they establish their own media or associate conscientiously. And like chattel on a plantation, they can’t leave Cuba without a pass. (When Americans consider foreign travel, issues such as cost and scheduling are of concern. Cubans worry if they will be allowed to travel and harmed for the desire.)
Eusebio Peñalver, a black Cuban exile who was a political prisoner from 1960 until 1988 (yes, 1988), observes, “There is no difference between the Cuban dictator and Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or any of the dictators who have terrorized the peoples of the world.” Former black prisoner of conscience Dr. Ramón Colás notes how the Castro regime “had turned me into a modern slave, subjected to unjust laws, discriminatory practices which made me a non-person.”
Black Cubans such as Dr. Biscet and Jorge Olivera have been fundamental to the Cuban human rights movement. Others include prisoner of conscience Jorge Luis García Pérez and dissidents in exile such as Vicky Ruiz Labrit and Marcos Lázaro Torres León .
What has been the response of prominent black political figures to the imprisonment of these black Cubans 90 miles from America? What has been their response to the systematic violation of black Cubans’ human rights 90 miles from America?
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: silence.
Jesse Jackson: silence.
Al Sharpton: silence. (Sharpton describes Castro as “brilliant” and “absolutely awesome” in his recently released book, Al on America.)
Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks: silence. (Robinson rhapsodizes over Castro in The Debt.)
Black journalist Clarence Page writes of Castro’s latest victims, “They look to us in their hour of need and to the other freedom-loving people on this planet. We must not let them down.”
Black leaders, why are you letting them down? One doesn’t expect solidarity from the Ku Klux Klan, but one does expect it from those who claim to defend the rights of blacks.
Black leaders, aren’t black Cubans your brothers and sisters? Or do you ignore their subjugation because you think them inferior?
The NAACP’s annual convention is July 12-17 at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Friends of black Cuban prisoners of conscience and human rights in general should make their presence known. Let the NAACP know that Cuban people of color deserve advancement too.