A special moment for Afro-Cubans

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.

For Afro-Cubans, 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.

Yolanda Mauri, an Afro-Cuban, in Havana.

“He’s black and in some moment of his life he must have realised 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 identity 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 U.S.. 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 programmes to help black Cubans overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation. According to official figures, 10 per cent 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 specifically cited Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 normalisation.