Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro have undone the “nothing doing” of almost six decades, notwithstanding critics and sceptics on either side, including Republican Congressmen in the US and the Cuban revolution’s elder statesman, Fidel Castro. The US president’s historic visit to Cuba is the first in 88 years by an occupant of the White House; it’s certainly the first since the revolution of 1959 and the freezing of ties from the early 1960s. Obama may travel only along freshly un-potholed roads and past monuments given a fresh coat of paint, but in a Havana where timezones appear to overlap, the imprint of his trip will be deep.
Unsurprisingly, the young are more enthusiastic about Obama’s visit. While the older generation may feel a sense of unease at the pace of change, younger Cubans can’t wait for the opportunities a full reset of ties could bring. Those opportunities can’t come without US investment and a boost to Cuba’s own fledgling and tiny private sector, cautiously encouraged by Raul Castro since he assumed office in 2008. His imperative was a dying economy — starved of funds by the US embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union and paralysed by central planning and the prohibition of commercial enterprise. The average Cuban income is still $20 a month and the economy is far behind the rest of Latin America.
Obama’s visit doesn’t put the “final nail in the coffin of the last legacy of the Cold War”. The topmost hurdle is the embargo, which the US Congress will not lift till Cuba improves its human rights record, especially with regard to jailed dissidents, while Havana insists on the return of Guantanamo Bay. So far, Washington has been more flexible. It’s time Havana began reciprocating. It can begin by opening up the internet and media, over which the regime still holds a monopoly.