HAVANA – Yolanda Mauri’s ancestors almost certainly came to Cuba in chains, laboring as slaves on an island of French coffee plantations and fields of Spanish sugarcane.
Her parents became their family’s first professionals, graduating with engineering degrees after Cuba’s 1959 revolution ended segregation. Mauri, 26, graduated from an elite technical university with a degree in computer programming. Today, she struggles to patch together a living from poorly paid government work and freelance jobs like building websites. She feels the sting of racism in casual derogatory comments or a maître d’s refusal to seat her in an expensive restaurant.
For Mauri and hundreds of thousands of black Cubans, Barack Obama isn’t just the first U.S. leader to visit their country in nearly nine decades. He’s a black man whose rise to the world’s most powerful job is a source of pride and inspiration.
Obama’s March 20-22 visit has raised Cubans’ hopes that a new era in relations with the United States will bring an end to the U.S. trade embargo and improve life for everyone on the island. For Afro-Cubans in particular, the presidential trip carries a special charge, a hope that an African-American leader’s near-universal popularity among Cubans of all races will help end lingering prejudice and inequality.
“He’s black and in some moment of his life he must have realized that as an African-American he had to elevate his performance level because as a black person you have to work twice as hard to get the same result as a white,” Mauri said. “I (identify) a lot with him because of that.”
Cuba’s culture is a blend of African and Spanish influence. The island’s world-renowned music and dance traditions draw deeply from the cultures of the West Africans brought to the island as slaves. Its Santeria religion is a blend of Catholicism and the Yoruba practices of Western Africa.
One of Fidel Castro’s first acts after overthrowing Cuba’s government was to declare an end to a regimen of segregation that mirrored unequal conditions for blacks in the United States. Afro-Cubans praise the country’s incorporation of anti-racism into its official ideology, and acknowledge that black Cubans have made dramatic advances thanks to the revolution.
But nearly 60 years later, Afro-Cubans are underrepresented in the ranks of Cuba’s political and economic elites and make up a disproportionate number of the urban and rural poor. Black Cubans have benefited less than their white counterparts from closer relations with the United States. Relatively few hold coveted, lucrative jobs serving foreign visitors.
Discriminatory hiring is particularly egregious in the elegant private restaurants where Cubans can earn more in a night in tips from tourists than the average monthly salary. There, as with many jobs in hospitality and tourism in Cuba, waiters, waitresses and bartenders are overwhelmingly white or light-skinned, mixed-race Cubans.
Cuba’s state ideology of race-blindness means there’s little official discussion of race, and few programs to help black Cubans overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation.
“People here look at blacks like they’re the worst, and since Obama’s black it’s like we have a bit more status, here and over there,” said Rosa Lopez, who sells snacks in a public market in a working-class Havana neighborhood of La Lisa. “Having a black president of the United States gives us just a little more pride.”
Some black Cubans have taken to affectionately referring to Obama as “el negro,” “the black guy,” in enthusiastic conversation about the president’s pending arrival, and some of the most popular memorabilia for sale ahead of the trip are images of the president and first lady shown talking to each other with distinctively Afro-Cuban Spanish dialogue jokingly superimposed.
According to official figures, 10 percent of the population of 11 million identify as black. Another quarter identify themselves to census-takers as mixed-race, a racial class that also suffers social discrimination in Cuba, although often to lesser degrees.
In remarkably warm descriptions of his regard for the American president, Cuban President Raul Castro has specifically cited Obama’s personal background as a factor in the new U.S.-Cuban relationship, without talking directly about race.
“I admire his humble origins and I think that his way of thinking stems from those humble origins,” Castro said before holding a meeting with Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 11.
For many in Cuba, of all races, Obama’s historic status as America’s first black president is inextricable from his history-making role in restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba and moving toward normalization.
“It was only an African-American man who’s been able to loosen things up,” said Orlando Vila, the 50-year-old chief of a self-employed crew of workmen repairing a state-run warehouse in Old Havana. “He’s faced the realities of life and now people here are expecting a change, too.”