When President Bush said: "The United States will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty," he presumably meant McDonald's, Starbucks and other multinational trappings. But Fidel Castro's announcement that he is stepping down will mean more than the right of Cubans to put real Coca-Cola in their Cuba libres. It is also likely to confer freedom upon Americans. Within a year, they are likely to enjoy the right to travel to Cuba, beyond the confines of Guantanamo Bay.
If Washington relaxes the economic boycott that means US citizens are banned from vacationing in Cuba, it will have profound effects on the island – and the rest of the Caribbean.
In the mid-1990s, with the Cuban economy imploding after the collapse of its Soviet ally, Mr Castro said that only tourism could save the island. He has been proved right (though remittances from Cubans in the US have also paid an important part in propping up his regime).
Canada, Italy, Spain and Britain have proved invaluable as investors prepared to drag Cuba's decrepit tourism infrastructure into the 21st century, and by providing a supply of sun-starved holidaymakers. The US Treasury rules that thwart Americans keen to visit Cuba are unlikely to be relaxed until the next president takes office, for fear of upsetting voters in the Cuban exile community. But Mr Castro's stepping down provides John McCain, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama with an excuse to abandon the economic boycott that has provided the outgoing President with an effective propaganda weapon.
The big US airlines have their draft schedules ready; I expect Miami-Havana swiftly to become the busiest international air route in the world. The burger chains and coffee multinationals may have already scouted out the best locations. And America's hotel groups and tour operators will seek to outbid the Europeans and Canadians for the best properties.
The Caribbean's most seductive island is surrounded by superb beaches, dotted with beautiful colonial cities and populated by welcoming and well-educated people. It has also been magically (for visitors, at least) preserved in ideological aspic, free of the US influences that affect other islands. Once the boycott ends, 300 million Americans will be able to explore Cuba, rather than just fly over it. Other Caribbean islands are likely to see a sharp fall in bookings, which in turn could mean bargains for British travellers from 2009 onwards.Reuse content