President Obama’s surprise announcement that the United States will normalize relations with the government of Cuba leaves many questions open about how race relations will fare on the island.

The 51-year U.S. embargo against the Caribbean island was meant to punish Cuba’s government for becoming socialist. But there has long been a belief that the radical government, led first by Fidel Castro and now by Raul Castro—with its emphasis on granting all citizens the right to good health, education, social security and employment— at the very least vastly improved the quality of life for Afro-Cubans.

Socialism did not end social inequality in Cuba, but Blacks advanced markedly in Cuban society from where they had been in 1959. Under the socialist structure, many Afro-Cuban families found themselves with access to education and employment opportunities that had been denied to them in the past. This change took place, in many instances, because after the Revolution, white Cubans fled the island in large numbers. Afro-Cubans were able to take advantage of their absence and had their own “affirmative action” advancements, with access to better jobs than in the past.

Even with the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, Raul Castro has made a point of telling the Cuban National Assembly that there are no plans to end the current governing structure on the island. “In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” he said.

Still, vast transformations are headed the island’s way, and many people want to ensure that Afro-Cubans share in any growth opportunities.

Afro-Cuban author Pedro Perez- Sarduy is hopeful about the coming changes. He believes they will help his community. “Cuba was a socially stratified society before 1959, which is what I tried to show in my novel, ‘The Maids of Havana’,” he said. “The revolutionary process neutralized that, but the inherited racist prejudices of our recent pseudo-republican past (from 1902 to 1958) were not eradicated completely.”

Perez-Sarduy is co-editor of “AfroCuba: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics and Culture” (2002). He notes, “We are very far from having a perfect society and aspire to get to that point. But racism is a disease that is very difficult to eradicate, because it is in the mind and in people’s attitudes… Each country has its own mechanisms for dealing with the scourge of racism, which was a result of the Middle Passage. In the case of Cuba, perhaps we will have to be more consistent in the fight to overcome the disadvantages the Black population faces in Cuba, and we must come up with more original ways of ensuring that balance. We were too complacent in those early years of the Revolution, when many leaders thought that with a few practical measures, racist prejudices would disappear. We were wrong. But since 1959, we have conquered many of the civil rights battles that the Black population in the U.S. has spilled and continues shedding much blood over. Our achievements include the free and universal right to education, health and sport; everyone gets an allowance so that they can attend cultural events; and we don’t need life insurance [because health care is guaranteed].

“We benefit from all of these achievements, these are our civil rights that have been and will be jealously defended. Now with the start of the International Decade for People of African Descent, I believe that for the

Black population in Cuba, the Cuban Revolution, with all its flaws, is our redemption and our ‘service’ (reparation). We will continue to try to perfect it because we don’t have another option, and we are determined to not give up, because our ancestors were killed and massacred so that we could have a future of dignity.”