For Black Cubans, That Handshake Was Hope

Suffering under sanctions, they see small changes under the Obama administration and look for more.

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium, Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Chip Somodevilla

It’s hard to get excited about a handshake. It is just a courteous gesture, after all.

But for Cubans, particularly many Afro-Cubans, such a gesture between their president and the black president of the superpower just 90 miles north of them fuels hopes for bigger changes.

One such change would be the ultimate lifting of a five-decade long economic embargo that has disproportionately ratcheted up more suffering among black Cubans, who receive far fewer remittance dollars than white Cubans and feel more of the brunt of shortages and hardships, as well as the increasing economic stratification that it abets.

“I knew what happened between Raúl and Obama because my assistant called me on the phone and told me,” said famed Afro-Cuban documentarian Gloria Rolando. . “He said, ‘Gloria! Gloria! Did you hear what happened?’

“That was the most important news that day ... people were calling me all day about it. We don’t always make comments about news events, but we did about that one.

“That meeting may be the window for the start of a new beginning for us.”

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Gloria Rolando

Tonya Weathersbee

Yet while Rolando and most Cubans aren’t naïve enough to believe that the handshake between Raúl Castro and President Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week means the embargo will be lifted tomorrow, or that Obama will become the first serving U.S. president in more than 50 years to visit Cuba, many believe it still represents a goodwill gesture that is, in Obama’s case, being slowly backed by small changes.

Since the Obama administration has been in office, it has eased restrictions on visas for Cuba as well as people-to-people travel and cultural tours. The president has also allowed Cuban-Americans to send more remittances back to their relatives in Cuba.

“In the case of our country and the United States, Raúl has always said that he would put on the table things to negotiate,” said Odalys Lopez, a representative of the North American Division of the Cuban Institute for Friendship With the Peoples, an NGO that, among other things, facilitates international visits to Cuba and provides humanitarian aid.

Lopez said that changes that are being discussed, such as restoring direct postal service between the two countries, demonstrate that agreements between the countries—things that are often symbolized by a handshake—are ongoing.