Obama's visit unlikely to affect Cuba's deep-seated racism

The visit of America's first black president may hearten black Cubans this week, but Barack Obama’s presence will do little to end the racism that been endemic in the island nation for decades, authorities on Cuban race relations say.

"I think conditions for black Cubans have worsened considerably in the last 20 years," observes University of Florida Professor Lillian Guerra, who studies Cuban and Caribbean history.

"It's very ironic — to have a black president entering a country that represses black people," she added.

Guerra shares a story about taking groups of students to study in Cuba over the past decade and asking them to keep track of how many times per day they see police searching the backpack of a black citizen on the street. On average, she said, that number was five, a figure that is curious since searches without probable cause are supposedly illegal in Cuba.

This conduct does not surprise Thor Halvorssen, president and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation. He notes that even as Obama was about to enter the country with a large delegation and with the world's eyes upon it, Cuban authorities publicly arrested members of the civil rights group Ladies in White, whose leader is black.

They were marching for free speech and democracy, and some were reportedly dragged kicking and screaming by government security from outside of a rally held Sunday at a cathedral. Obama was expected to meet with them this week to discuss their plight.

Halvorssen adds that by his group's accounting, about 2,500 people, many of them black, have been arrested in January and February of this year alone, most "beaten up, harassed and then released," as per a Castro policy dubbed "catch and release" that allows these dissidents to be freed just before their treatment becomes an international incident. Many endure this treatment over and over again, with an estimated 80 to 300 political prisoners there currently awaiting longer sentencing.

"They jail people on non-political charges so that the government can say they are common criminals," Halvorssen said, noting that human rights violations and issues of racial equity are unlikely to change just because Obama visited.

About 900,000 Africans arrived in Cuba as slaves. Slavery there was abolished in 1886 by order from Regent Queen María Cristina of Spain. While black treatment in Cuba improved during the nation's socialist revolution, with access to state services and education, a new free-enterprise system, which encouraged entrepreneurship in the 1990s, left them without opportunities. Few had families like their white counterparts living in the U.S. and abroad who would loan or give them money to buy homes and launch businesses. And their access to high-paying tourism jobs was also limited by the government, which argued that European travelers preferred services from whites.

Today, Guerra says, blacks can be found heavily represented in three professions: as musicians, security guards and athletes. "Those are the ones the state has promoted," she said. "It is not ones they have chosen."

With Obama's visit, experts interviewed have lowered their expectations for improving race relations, though the president has pledged to use part of his Tuesday remarks to address issues of social justice.

Halvossen said race and human rights issues need to be exposed inside Cuba for what they are. "In reality, Cuba is one enormous political prison," Halvorssen said.