Cuba Says It Has Solved Racism. Obama Isn’t So Sure.

Workers painted fresh pavement in Havana on Saturday, the day before President Obama arrived in Cuba.
Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

HAVANA — President Obama spoke of his Kenyan heritage. He talked about how both the United States and Cuba were built on the backs of slaves from Africa. He mentioned that not very long ago, his parents’ marriage would have been illegal in America, and he urged Cubans to respect the power of protest to bring about equality.

“We want our engagement to help lift up Cubans who are of African descent,” he said, “who have proven there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.”

Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday, in an ornate Spanish colonial-style hall in Havana, was not only strikingly personal. It was also an unusually direct engagement with race, a critical and unresolved issue in Cuban society that the revolution was supposed to have erased.

For many Cubans, Mr. Obama’s comments were striking for their acknowledgment of racism in both countries. They served as a reminder that their particular kinship with him — as reflected in dozens of conversations and responses to his history-making three-day visit this week — involves not just policy, but also identity.

“It’s a revolution,” said Alberto González, 44, a baker who was one of the few Afro-Cubans to attend a discussion with the president about entrepreneurship on Monday. “It’s a revolution for everyone with a background descended from Africa.”

Defensiveness has long hovered over the subject of race, in part because Fidel Castro said shortly after the revolution that racism had been solved, making the subject taboo.

The discomfort, in part, came from pride: Some of the revolution’s most visible achievements involved ending institutionalized segregation, at beach clubs, at schools and in neighborhoods where the homes of wealthy white Cubans who fled were often given to Cubans of color.

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Socialized medicine and education also helped create a society more deeply shaped by interracial interactions and marriages than the United States.

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And yet, Cuba is no more postracial than anywhere else. Many Afro-Cubans here and abroad have been quick to point out that the presence of Mr. Obama, the first black president of the United States, only highlights that the Cuban government does not reflect the demographics of their country.

On an island that is around two-thirds black and mixed race, according to a 2007 study by the Cuban economist Esteban Morales Domínguez, the civil and public leadership is about 70 percent white. He also found that most scientists, technicians and university professors, up to 80 percent in some fields, were white.

“The images of the meetings, the agreements, they’re all shameful for many black Cubans — I’m including myself in this — because it’s difficult to feel represented,” said Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean literatures and cultures at the University of Connecticut and a scholar at Harvard University.

She added that elements of Mr. Obama’s trip reflected some of the same dynamics: The Cuban-Americans traveling with the president were nearly all white, as were the Cuban officials who interacted with him on the island. Indeed, much of the audience for his speech on Tuesday was white.

In that context, the president — along with his wife, daughters and mother-in-law, who joined him on the trip — offers a clear contrast.

“What you see is confirmation of black empowerment, which has generally been denied in Cuban society,” Ms. Casamayor-Cisneros said. “For black Cubans, the mere existence of Obama is unusual and overwhelmingly symbolic.”

“What you see is confirmation of black empowerment, which has generally been denied in Cuban society,” Ms. Casamayor-Cisneros said. “For black Cubans, the mere existence of Obama is unusual and overwhelmingly symbolic.”

At times, the racism has been explicit. Yusimí Rodríguez López, an Afro-Cuban independent journalist, said there were job listings on Revolico — sometimes called Cuba’s underground Craigslist — “where they say they only want whites.”

What is frustrating, she added, is that Cuban officials have little interest in discussing the issue, or listening. “If you silence the idea that there’s racism,” she said, “you silence every conversation about the problem.”

That is what made Mr. Obama’s comments stand out. By emphasizing that people who challenged the government changed the United States — “When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South,” he said — Mr. Obama’s comments, and sincerity, instilled in many Cubans a new hope and offered a knowing vote of confidence.

Before he arrived, race was increasingly on Cuban minds. Before he departed, new boundaries were already being pushed, among Afro-Cuban intellectuals here, among business owners and even at the so-called Esquina Caliente, or hot corner, a shady spot in a crowded Havana park where men gather every day, all day, to talk sports.

“They talk a lot here about discrimination against blacks in the United States. What about here?” said Manuel Valier Figueroa, 50, an actor, who was in the park on Monday. “If there’s a dance competition, they’re going to choose the woman who is fair-skinned with light, good hair. If there’s a tourism job, the same.”

He added: “Why are there no blacks managing hotels? You don’t see any blacks working as chefs in hotels, but you see them as janitors and porters. They get the inferior jobs.”

Mr. Valier, who is black, insisted that he and the others did not care anymore if anyone from the government was listening to them talk critically about their society.

“The first black president showed that a black person can lead,” he said. “Here, blacks need to see that the same thing can happen.”

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