The execution of three blacks by a Cuban government firing squad in April for attempting to hijack a boat to Miami is raising questions about racism on the communist island.
It was the first time anyone, black or white, had been executed for trying to flee Cuba.
Cuban President Fidel Castro justified the executions of Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac, Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo and Barbaro Leodan Sevilla Garcia as a deterrent to another mass exodus.
But some Cuba watchers, on and off the island, doubt that the three would have been put to death had they been white.
“By executing [three young blacks], Castro was sending a clear message to the Afro-Cuban population” that dissent will not be tolerated, said Jaime Suchlicki, director of Cuban studies at the University of Miami, in a report on Cuban racism released this week.
“I was a Fidelista. I love my nation,” Ramona Copello told wire service reporters in Cuba on April 11, the day her son was executed. “I no longer love Fidel. He assassinated my son. Now I have no faith in the revolution.”
On March 18, two days before the beginning of the U.S.-led war with Iraq, Cuban officials began a crackdown by arresting 35 opposition figures.
A day later, six men hijacked an airplane to Key West, and less than two weeks later, a second plane was hijacked.
The three Afro-Cuban men tried to commandeer a Havana ferry to take them to Florida days before the Castro regime jailed 43 dissidents.
The ferry hijackers were executed April 11, nine days after their capture.
Cubans of African descent, who make up 62 percent of the island’s population, live in the worst, most dilapidated Havana neighborhoods: Cerro, Luyano and Guanabacoa.
Afro-Cubans have the worst jobs and are increasingly disenfranchised, according to the University of Miami report.
In 1997, the Cuban government passed laws preventing citizens from moving to Havana in search of high-paying tourist jobs, but according to the State Department, the law “was targeted at individuals and families from the poorer, predominantly black and mulatto eastern provinces.”
The report notes that none of the top 10 generals or senior military leaders in Cuba is black.
None of the 15 presidents of provincial assemblies is black. Two of the 40-person Council of Ministers is black, and three of the 15 provincial heads of the Cuban Communist Party are black.
Cuban blacks, according to government reports, have 5 percent of the lucrative tourism jobs, but Afro-Cubans constitute 85 percent of Cuba’s prison population.
Afro-Cubans and black tourists increasingly complain about “racial profiling” by state security officials, according to the report.
Mr. Castro, a white revolutionary from an upper-class background, overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt leader of mixed race, in 1959.
One of the pillars of faith in the Cuban revolution is that Mr. Castro freed poor black Cubans, giving them schools, jobs and health care.
Today, Afro-Cubans who turn their backs on the “gains of the revolution” are considered unappreciative.
“There are a growing number of black Cubans in the opposition movement. The leadership is almost entirely black or mulatto,” said Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba, noting that the ferry hijackers could not have been executed without Mr. Castro’s specific order.
“No white Cuban has ever been executed for trying to leave. The message is clear: If you are white and speak out, it is bad. If you are black and speak out, you are ungrateful and watch out.”
But Wayne Smith, at the Center for International Policy, though acknowledging that racism exists in Cuba, said it did not play a part in the executions.
“It was wrong. They didn’t harm anyone, but the Cuban government said they had to do it to prevent a mass exodus. My sense is that they were not executed because they were black,” said Mr. Smith, who has extensive contacts within the Cuban government.
Uva de Aragon of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute agreed.
“There is racism in Cuba, but I think if they were white, they would have been executed just the same,” she said.