Fifty years from that speech by Martin Luther King Jr. and like him I have a dream of a Cuba that is inclusive, plural, and modern where we all fit. – Yoani Sanchez, August 28, 2013 over twitter
Fifty years ago on August 28, 1963, much of the United States was in the midst of a struggle to do away with segregation, and civil rights activists were struggling to pass voting rights legislation. The march on Washington D.C. that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech sought to pressure legislators into voting for the legislation, and they succeeded.
This was a nonviolent revolution that sought justice and changed the United States of America. Today an African American president sits in the White House as evidence that part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been achieved.
Let us compare this with the violent revolution that sought to end a dictatorship 90 miles away from US shores in Cuba that in 1963 was just four years old. Fifty years later and the Castro dictatorship that replaced the Batista dictatorship is still in power killing and repressing. Despite fraudulent statistics in areas of health care and education, the reality of an ongoing cholera epidemic and the mass exodus of millions of Cubans demonstrates the nightmare that exists in Cuba today. On August 28, 2013, an unjustly imprisoned Cuban is on his 30th day on hunger strike, demanding to be free.
Let us also not forget that many who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the 1950s took up arms again against him in the 1960s in an armed struggle that failed. That wiped out all opposition, violent and nonviolent, for years.
A nonviolent movement began to emerge out of the prisons in the mid-1970s and onto the streets in the mid-1980s — yet there are voices that claim that nonviolence hasn’t worked and counsel either collaboration with the dictatorship or violent resistance.
Sadly, despite the successes of the civil rights movement in the United States by 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. found his nonviolent posture challenged by a black power movement that instead of accelerating change in areas of social and economic justice brought it to a halt. Reverend King warned black activists not to take the way of Castro and Guevara:
“Riots just don’t pay off,” said King. He pronounced them an objective failure beyond morals or faith. “For if we say that power is the ability to effect change, or the ability to achieve purpose,” he said, “then it is not powerful to engage in an act that does not do that — no matter how loud you are, and no matter how much you burn.” Likewise, he exhorted the staff to combat the “romantic illusion” of guerrilla warfare in the style of Che Guevara. No “black” version of the Cuban revolution could succeed without widespread political sympathy, he asserted, and only a handful of the black minority itself favored insurrection. King extolled the discipline of civil disobedience instead, which he defined not as a right but a personal homage to untapped democratic energy. The staff must “bring to bear all of the power of nonviolence on the economic problem,” he urged, even though nothing in the Constitution promised a roof or a meal. “I say all of these things because I want us to know the hardness of the task,” King concluded, breaking off with his most basic plea: “We must not be intimidated by those who are laughing at nonviolence now.”
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., like Gandhi before him, was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro has survived to the present day, hanging on to power and turning it over to his brother as the island of Cuba sinks into misery and despair.
Meanwhile other courageous men of Christian faith, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and a youth leader from his movement who had been a seminarian, were martyred on July 22, 2012, for advocating nonviolent change in Cuba. Oswaldo had managed to obtain more than 25,000 signatures in a Stalinist dictatorship demanding a vote to change the system and recognize the rights and dignity of Cubans. Like Martin Luther King Jr. he was killed but his ideas and example live on to inspire others.