While Fidel lives, change will come very slowly to Cuba

El Comandante's hold over his people will outlive his role as president
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The Independent US

Fidel Castro officially retires as President of Cuba today, nearly half a century after he seized power. Cue American cruise liners calling at Havana, and wide-eyed Cubans being allowed to catch the ferry to Miami? Dream on.

Shortly before President Castro said he would step down, an internet video showed Havana students demanding greater freedom from National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon. It was a rare glimpse of public protest, though some believe the regime – possibly Raul Castro or even Fidel himself – allowed it to leak out.

"Why can't Cubans stay in hotels in their own country or travel abroad?" asked Eliecer Avila, a student at the University of Computer Science. Mr Alarcon's deadpan reply was worthy of El Comandante himself: "If everybody in the world, all six billion, could travel wherever they pleased, there would be a tremendous traffic jam in our planet's airspace," he said. "People who travel are really a minority." So much for the wind of change.

Some time today, the recently elected National Assembly – conveniently, there were 614 candidates for its 614 places – will announce the new President and Commander-in-Chief of Cuba. Everyone assumes it will be Fidel's younger brother Raul, who has been acting as President, in which case any change will be painfully slow. More Cubans might be allowed to work in the minuscule private sector as self-employed taxi drivers, barbers, handymen or caterers, say, or farmers could get title to their land.

It is not completely certain that Raul will get the job. But even if someone else is named, or he is forced to rule jointly with some younger comrades, the difference will be marginal. Any significant change in Cuba is more likely to depend on two other dates. The first is the US Presidential election on 4 November; the second, as yet unknown, is the day Fidel Castro dies.

But a Democrat as US president, particularly if it is Barack Obama, might go a long way to hauling Cuba out of its time warp and turning it into what some predict could be the commercial and tourism hub of the Carib-bean. Although he has backed down during the election campaign, Mr Obama made headlines a few years ago when he said he favoured lifting the crippling US embargo on Cuba, even without democratic reform on the island.

If elected, the chances are strong that he will ease the stranglehold. That could sharply increase Cuba's annual GDP per head of $3,000 (£1,500) and average wage of $10 a month.

Most Cuba watchers believe a lifting of the embargo would bring a rush of investors eager to get into banking, tourism, oil and gas exploration, tobacco, sugar, nickel and ethanol. The big cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are among US companies likely to benefit from trade with Cuba. Their shares jumped by more than 20 per cent last Tuesday, when Mr Castro announced his departure.

One man who will resist any drift into America's embrace is Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who would like to think he is the Cuban leader's heir as godfather of the Latin American left. He has provided Cuba with $4bn annually in subsidised fuel products, while Cuba sent thousands of doctors, dentists and teachers to work in the poor barrios of Venezuela. But the Venezuelan leader is not as close to Raul as to Fidel.

Some believe that, if the economic burden of the embargo was removed, a post-Fidel regime would move towards the "Chinese model", maintaining state control but freeing the market. Castro critics, particularly Cuban exiles in Florida, retort that Cuba should stop imitating China in another respect – jailing dissidents for long periods when they have done nothing more than oppose the regime.

While Fidel Castro remains alive, the winds of democracy blowing down from Key West will do little more than ruffle the palm fronds along Havana's Malecon seafront promenade, even if the US embargo is lifted.