U.S. policy toward Cuba “only serves the interests of imperialism,” civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis said at a conference in Havana.
“Why in 2019 does the United States continue to impose sanctions?” he asked. “Whose interests are served? Not the United States’ interests and not Cuba’s. U.S. policy only serves the interests of imperialism.”
Chavis is president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for more than 200 African-American-owned community newspapers. He was the keynote speaker at a December 2019 conference about U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Chavis called on Cuban and American people to work together to improve relations between the two countries, and said most Americans want an end to U.S. sanctions against Cuba.
He praised the healthcare and educational systems in Cuba.
“The people of the United States could learn from the people of Cuba how to make education affordable and accessible,” he said.
Chavis criticized Trump administration sanctions against Cuba. He cited the banning of all commercial flights except those to Havana. Travelers can no longer fly directly, for instance, from the United States to Santiago de Cuba. That, he said, is “a violation of my human rights.”
He called on an increase in youth and cultural exchanges.
“We need to write songs about the Cuban revolution,” he said.
And he predicted that U.S. sanctions against Cuba would ultimately fail.
“Time is on the side of the revolution,” said Chavis, ending his speech. “Viva Fidel! Viva the Cuban revolution!”
I spoke to Chavis afterward to learn more about his background and how he became interested in Cuba. That interview is below.
Cuba Money Project: I wanted to ask about some of your past political activism and how it shaped you and led you to Cuba. So what can you say about how, how some of the past activities led to Cuba.
Benjamin Chavis: I started out in the civil rights movement, at a very young age. I was 12 years old and I joined the NAACP. Then by the time I was 14, I joined SCLC Southern Christian leadership conference, which was led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I became, by the time I was 15, the youth coordinator for the whole state of North Carolina for the Southern Christian leadership conference.
But I must say the reason why I joined the movement freedom movement, civil rights movement at 12, I was born into my family was in the movement. My family was a part of the NAACP. My great, great, great grandfather was the Rev. John Chavis, the first black person to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister in the United States back in the 1700s. So in Granville County, North Carolina, where I’m from, where I was born, my family has been on the same land for over 200 years. So activism, you know, in the church, activism in the church, activism in the community is what I was born into. You know, nobody recruited me. It was part of my natural life to fight for freedom, to fight for justice, to fight for equality. And from 1963 – I was born 1948 – so by 1960 I’m 12 years old.
In 1960, the students sit-in movement started in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina citizens. And so by 1962 I was working full time as a youth coordinator while I’m in high school for Martin Luther King Jr.
I was only 14, but I put my age up. So I was driving at 14 because in order to be in this advisement, you have to have mobility. You have to be able to, I was a statewide coordinator. There are 100 counties in North Carolina. So in order to go to all these places, I had to have mobility. So I put my age up, I’ve got my license and I worked from ‘62 to ’68, for six years. Dr. King was killed in ‘68 in Memphis, Tennessee. After he was killed, I was finishing up my college. I was a chemist, I had a undergraduate degree in chemistry.
But after Dr. King was killed, I wanted to go back and be a minister. So I had to go back to school and study religion, philosophy, theology, and that’s in ‘68, ’69, ‘70.
So I was hired by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to be the Southern organizer. So now I’m organizing in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, for the church. But keep in mind, I even though I was by then in my early 20s, I had started when I was 12. So I was an eight-year veteran of the civil rights movement, even though I was 20 years old.
By the time I was 23, my church sent me to Wilmington, North Carolina. The issue with school desegregation. Even though the Brown decision in 1954 said that only equal schools were unconstitutional, many school districts in the South, particularly in North Carolina, had not desegregated, even by the 1970s.
So Nixon was president. Keep in mind that when Dr. King was killed in 1968, Nixon and Agnew ran on a law-and-order campaign. This was to put the movement in check. So it was very difficult after Dr. King’s assassination to keep the movement alive. And that’s, so I was one of the followers of Dr. King that we wanted to make sure that his assassination was not an assassination or the movement or his spirit or his dream.
It was very important not to let his dream end, not to let the movement end, not to let the fight end, an unbalanced fight.
So I’ll go to Wilmington in February of 1971. Nixon is still president. I began to organize and by this time there were all these white supremacists, prior military groups, the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, they joined together and created an organization called the our ROWP, the Rights of White People organization, which was a white power military racist organization in North Carolina during the height of Vietnam war. So a lot of these people that were in the ROWP, former military people. There was a lot of racism in the U.S. military even during the Vietnam war. There was a lot of racial polarization inside the military. When Dr. King spoke against the Vietnam war, people tell, ‘Well, what does that have to do with civil rights?’ His most famous, one of his most famous speeches besides the “I have a Dream” speech was the speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, one year before his assassination. Dr. King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And we had to fight for civil rights in America, but we also had to fight for human rights in Vietnam. The war was immoral. The war should be opposed and we had a more international consciousness. So by the time I went to Wilmington there was emerging also Pan-Africanism, the anti-colonial movements in Southern Africa and the apartheid movement in Southern Africa, liberation movements in PLA in Angola, the FRELIMO in Mozambique, SWAPO in South West Africa, which later became Namibia. I knew all of these groups. I joined the ANC when I was 22 years old. So even though I lived in United States, I was a member of the African National Congress. Mandela was in prison by then.
So to make a long story short, I’m in Wilmington, North Carolina, fighting the ROWP and these white supremacist groups. They came and shot up the church, violently. We were the victims of the Klan attack, but they put us in jail for resisting the Klan, and I and nine others, eight of whom are only 16-, 17-year-old high school student leaders. I was 23. They sentenced us in 1972 to 282 years in prison, collectively. I had the longest, I had a 34-year sentence.
We were known as the Wilmington, North Carolina 10. At the same time, Angela Davis was on the Ten Most Wanted list.
She got out. I, we formed an organization, even though I was sentenced to prison, we filed an appeal. So in 1973, Angela Davis and I started the National Alliance against Racism and Political Repression to fight, to free political prisons. She had just won her case. I still had a case to win, but there were all these political prisoner cases going on, not just in the South, but all over the United States.
And as I recall it was Angela that first introduced me to the struggle in Cuba. And we declared international solidarity with liberation movements in Africa. This is the early ‘70s. We lost all of our appeals by 1975 December.
So that means Jan. 1, I have to go back to prison. So I spent most of 1972 in jail. I spent all of 1976, all of 1977, all 1978, all of 1979. Didn’t get out to 1988. By this time, Jimmy Carter is president. He’s running human rights, political prisons in Russia. So I write a letter to the White House, appealing for political prisoners here. And at the same time, Fidel Castro, Comandante Fidel Castro, Cubans, had campaigns here in Havana to free the Wilmington 10.
Brezhnev, who was the head of the Soviet Union, talked about the freedom of the Wilmington 10. There were a group of students in Paris, they chained themselves to the U.S. embassy in Paris, calling for freedom of the Wilmington 10. So the Wilmington 10 became like a cause célèbre for human rights, political prisoners. So all during the time I’m, you know, still organizing because even though I’m in prison, I started organizing inmates, prisons. So to keep me from organizing, the prisons kept moving me around the different prisons, but they made a mistake because the more they moved me around, the more prisons I became in touch with. So we organize the first North Carolina prisoners labor union. We organize around the rights of workers. I began to, even though I was a Christian minister, I began to develop some type of socialist ideology. I worked very close with the Communist Party of the United States as well as the church. I didn’t see a contradiction, you know, liberation theology. And so one thing led to another. And so by 1980, we went out, we get our case overturned.
I moved to New York. I started organizing again. I became the head of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. And I later became the vice president of the National Council of Churches. All the churches in the United States. We bring a delegation of preachers to Cuba in 1984. And that’s when I introduced Fidel at the United Methodist Church here in Havana in 1984. So I’m very conscious now about what is going on in the Caribbean and Cuba and Africa, in the world. By 1988, I come back, I go to Angola, and that’s when I spent time with the Cuban troops in Angola, Southern Angola, after the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
So my consciousness, my worldview expanded. We had to fight to get Mandela out of jail. By this time, Reagan is president. He had a constructive engagement with apartheid. Reagan was supporting Savimbi who was trying to overthrow Angola. Mobutu in Zaire, now it’s called the Congo. So all of these contradictions. United States foreign policy was on the wrong side of history. In Cuba, it was on the wrong side of history. In Africa, it was on the wrong side of history and other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. And they were on the wrong side of history even in the United States also.
So I began to work with the Congressional Black Caucus to change the policy against Cuba in the 1980s. Then by the 1990s, ’93, Clinton becomes president.
We worked, the United States refused to recognize Angola until President Clinton became president. I was involved in helping the Clinton administration change its policy toward Angola. I could not get them to change this policy against Cuba, although they respected the fact that the Cuban troops were in Angola. You know, so that’s sort of like a quick overview. I don’t know if I told you too much or too less, but so when I speak about Cuba or I speak about Africa or I speak about black America, it’s not necessarily from books I’ve read about it. I’ve lived it and sort of experienced it.
Cuba Money Project: And what do you feel when you step off the plane and you’re in Cuba?
Chavis: Well, this is my fifth time being in Cuba. I feel like I’m at back at home. I see Cuba as the home for all people who want to make the world a better place, because Cuba’s contribution to making Africa a better place is undeniable. It’s not appreciated enough, I think by people in the United States, particularly black people. Whenever Fidel would come to Harlem, people would always applaud and salute him because of the sacrifice and the contribution with Cuba. I think we have to raise consciousness more. We have to – so every time I – to answer your question, whenever I come back to Havana, whenever I come back to Cuba, I feel like I’m at home.
Cuba Money Project: And during this particular trip what’s been the most notable thing that you’ve felt or that has happened?
Benjamin Chavis: Well, I see the advances, I see the progress that Cuba has made in spite of them blockade, in spite of the embargo, in spite of the restrictions that the Trump administration has put on Cuba. I see the progress of the Cuban people.
I think the resolve, the strength, the stamina, the perseverance of the Cuban people is something that I admire. And this particular conference I think is a great conference. I think it’s very timely because United States in the next 12 months is going to go through hopefully some changes. We don’t know, but maybe, but whatever happens, I think we have to do more, in my view, to better inform the people of the United States about Cuba, its progress, its contribution to all of humanity in healthcare and education and other areas. I think the culture here in Cuba is so strong and I think that we should do more to export Cuban consciousness, Cuban poetry, Cuban music, Cuban culture as part of the revolutionary spirit of Fidel Castro.
Cuba Money Project: One final question. You know, you could sit back and relax and stay in the U.S. What is it that motivates you to come here?
Benjamin Chavis: Well, I’m honored to be here. I mean I wanted to come, so I don’t see coming to Cuba as a hassle or as trouble. To me, this is very fulfilling. This is very rewarding. I have been a freedom fighter since I was 12. I’m 71. On Jan. 22, I’ll be 72. So for the last 60 years, I had been a freedom fighter. So being in Cuba enhances my rededication to the struggle. As they say, “The struggle continues. Victory is certain.”
Cuba Money Project: I don’t have any other questions. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
Chavis: Part of the problem with the United States is that we live in a world where the distribution of capital, the concentration of capital, monopolization of capital, causes a lot of inequalities and injustices. And I think the average person who lives in the United States needs to know more about its foreign policy.
But the truth is, and I – I should’ve said this yesterday – American foreign policy grows out of its domestic policy. You know what the United States does around the world, they do at home. It’s not two different policies. It’s one policy.
Cuba Money Project: You look at racism and hostility toward immigrants, it starts at home.
Chavis: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And I think Trump is a little bit more pronounced about it, but I think these policies, the systems that Ramón Sánchez Parodi talked about today, it’s very real. The context of imperialism, most people in the United States don’t even use that term now. I still use that term because I think imperialism is still a reality. It cloaks itself, you know, globalism, but it’s really imperialism. So we have to continue to work.