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'Obama Effect' Stirs Dialogue on Race in Latin America


For black populations in Cuba, Brazil and other Latin American nations, President Obama's election has opened new dialogues about race. These black communities are responding to what some call the "Obama effect."

When American heads of state gather at a weekend summit in Trinidad and Tobago, it will be the first time a African-American president is among them. Race may not figure on the summit's agenda, which is focused on economic problems and poverty.

But across the region, the election of an African-American president in the United States last November has opened up new discussions about the experiences of many black communities - a process some call the "Obama effect."

The issue of race has taken a special resonance in Cuba, where the island's revolutionary government claimed to have eliminated racism long ago.

Omar Montenegro directs the human rights program for the Cuban-American National Foundation, a pro-democracy group in Miami. He says the Communist government has sought for years to highlight racial problems in the U.S as a way to tarnish the country's reputation.

Montenegro says now the face of the so-called U.S. empire is a black man. He says the Cuban government can no longer portray the U.S. government as some cruel, racist system where blacks have no opportunities.

He adds that many Afro-Cubans have embraced the image of President Obama, and have begun wearing shirts bearing his name or his picture.

Census figures from the Cuban government claim that 30 percent of the population has African heritage. But others say the correct figure is more than 60 percent.

Rights groups say that black Cubans often face discrimination, such as having fewer options for housing, speedy healthcare, and limited access to management positions or jobs in the lucrative tourist sector.

Montenegro says another sign of the racial problems in Cuba is that there are almost no blacks in the Communist party structure.

He says there is a concerted effort by the government to keep blacks out of power, and that contrasts sharply with the election of President Obama.

A similar discussion about the absence of blacks in government is taking place in Brazil, where more than 40 percent of people claim at least some African heritage.

George Washington University law professor Tanya Hernandez studies the ways that Latin American governments address the question of racial justice. "This is where Obama's election might be instrumental because what it has provided racial justice organizations in Latin America is an ability to say 'if we are so progressive, then why haven't we had our own President Obama," she said.

Hernandez says that black rights groups in the United States have long sought to reach out to others in Latin America to share their experiences and help document racial problems.

The new attention on race may boost U.S.-led efforts to generate a region-wide dialogue about the shared experiences of what some see as an African diaspora. "I wouldn't be surprised if in the summit you see some of these [U.S.] representatives who have been privy to the conversations bring it up in that kind of way," she said.

President Obama's election already has helped write a new chapter in U.S. history, and it may influence Latin America as well.

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