On March 21, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years. But the recent diplomatic rapprochement doesn’t come without taking a jab at the island’s human rights record. Like a stoic robot programmed by the notion of US exceptionalism, President Obama announced on Twitter that the US still has “differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world.” After such a long diplomatic hiatus between the two countries, it seemed all the more appropriate for Obama to advance modestly upon his upcoming two-day trip to Havana, avoiding intrusive comments directed at the island’s internal affairs. Nobody is under the impression that Cuba is home to Guantánamo out of national pride and joy.
As the so-called “leader of the free world” props himself to teach the Revolution a thing or two about better living, blatant human rights violations run rampant amid the Black community in the US. This is the community that, in 2013, owned a mere 2.6 percent of the overall national wealth compared to 90 percent held by the white community. Black homeowners were systematically targeted, dubbed as “mud people” by unscrupulous Wells Fargo loan officers, helping to fuel the subprime meltdown. The Black community is the crux of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, indicating that there are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. These infractions – and so many others unmentioned – can’t be divorced from a nation founded upon the tenants of white supremacy and exercised through present-day white privilege and institutionalized racism. They can’t be divorced from the fact that the US has been governed by an African-descendant for more than seven years. As a result of the roiled social conditions that African descendants continue to face in the US, Mireille Fanon-Mendes France, head of a UN panel of human rights experts declared, “Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” February 2016 presented three more telling examples of the United States’ all too familiar nightmare, one that has loomed over African descendants ever since the country’s inception.
On February 10, Cleveland city attorneys filed a claim against Tamir Rice’s family, alleging that they owe $500 in unpaid emergency medical services provided to their child after he was fatally shot by the police. In response, the family’s lawyer, Subodh Chandra responded, “The callousness, insensitivity, and poor judgment required for the city to send a bill after its own police officers killed a 12-year-old child is breathtaking. It adds insult to homicide.”
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The same week, seven US marshals armed with automatic weapons arrested Paul Aker after he failed to pay $1,500 in student loans. Aker was jailed, shackled, taken to federal court and forced to sign a payment program. “It’s totally mind-boggling,” Aker said in a TV interview.
On February 19, Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther, was released from Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) after spending 43 years in solitary confinement. Although his murder conviction had been overturned on three separate occasions, he was maintained in solitary confinement – a form of detainment that human rights advocates and UN officials have described as torture. James Dennis, a federal fifth circuit appeals court judge stated: “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction.”
Only days before Woodfox’s release from solitary confinement, President Obama publicized his upcoming trip to Cuba. Ignoring human rights violations brewing on the home front, Obama added that he’d address human rights violations on the island. Contrary to his belief that US engagement with other nations is founded strictly upon a “teacher-student” relationship, in which the US believes it knows what is best for the rest of the world, the Cuban Revolution is no stranger to fulfilling some of the most basic human rights outlined by the UN. Even poor students from the US – the overwhelming majority of whom are young people of color – have benefited from Fidel Castro’s brainchild medical institute, ELAM (Latin American School of Medicine), allowing them to complete their medical studies free of charge. Mashable reported that 100 students from the US graduated from the school in 2014. Cuba has developed a world-renowned health care service that also trumps Obamacare in efficiency and cost. There’s no reported spate of Cuban security forces shooting down Afro-Cubans in the streets and criminologists would be hard-pressed to gather data showing that there are more Afro-Cubans incarcerated than were enslaved in 1850.
“Next month, I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama wrote on Twitter this past February. True to his ideal of a United States that exists only in faint dreams, formal pomp bestowed upon a Black statesman battered by the hand that feeds institutional racism, President Obama is ready to teach the Cuban government a thing or two about human rights. How can we forget that he has been allowed to tinker with certain aspects of the United States’ geopolitical and socioeconomic board game, almost none of which remedies the detrimental human and environmental effects provoked by the same forces that will defy every last second of his term in office. Venturing to someone else’s abode to lecture them about better living practices will be an incredible masquerade act, one that couldn’t be performed better than by the first Black president of the United States. The semblance of his privilege and authority couldn’t be made any clearer. However, these notions hide deep, very deep, in the shadows of US exceptionalism, a slightly more palatable way of saying white is right.
President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba would be best served by studious inquiry and careful analysis of basic human rights. In retrospect, he’s yet to convince Congress to lift the embargo or close Guantánamo, many of his ambitious policy initiatives blockaded by levels of intransigence never seen in any other US presidency. Official state visits abroad are often exercised through the good spirit of reciprocity. Raul Castro could easily spend the entirety of his stay in DC addressing human rights abuses from sea to shining sea.