David Usborne: The genie of change is already out of the bottle

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The Independent Online

Gay visitors to Havana no longer need to lurk at a certain street corner in hopes of a whisper in the ear about the location of that night's clandestine party. For the last few months there has been an officially tolerated gay club in the historic district close to the National Theatre. Who'd have thought?

You hear the argument made that change will ruin Cuba. Having a regular gay club to visit takes away some of the cloak-and-dagger thrill of how things used to be. Meanwhile, the package-tour industry (in Canada and Europe, but not in the US) might as well agree on its promotional slogan: visit crumbling Cuba before Castro dies.

This was always nostalgic nonsense and not just because the Castro in question – Fidel – did not die as everyone expected when he fell ill, albeit very gravely, in late 2006. There he was yesterday at the close of the Communist Congress next to his brother, Raul, who has been in charge for nearly four years.

The remaking of Cuba will not to be wrought by an invasion of American cruise ships. It will come from within. Hopefully, it will not be the ruination of a country that has much to be ashamed of – most notably in the arena of human rights, but also reasons for pride – such as its record on health, education and the arts.

The future can be glimpsed through the 300 economic reforms adopted by the Congress this week which range from the petty (new rules on animal insemination) to the profound (the dropping of barriers to the buying and selling of property). That Raul is sincere about change was obvious from the scolding he gave the bureaucrats to stop blaming everything that is wrong with Cuba on the US embargo, a remarkable statement from a Cuban leader.

Also important: word of plans to provide seed money to Cubans interested in starting private ventures. In conversations with Cubans on a recent visit, it was lack of access to funds and loans to begin new businesses that they complained about first. (Only those with family in Miami have access to real money.)

Naturally sceptical Cubans should feel some hope that change is in sight. That makes Raul's reverting to type yesterday and choosing old revolutionaries as his deputies all the more disappointing.