Break out the cigars: The introduction of more capitalism will, if managed astutely, lift Cuba’s people and its international status


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The Independent Online

Like the elderly Buicks, Chevrolets and Plymouths still prowling the streets of Havana, America’s relations with Cuba have grown absurdly archaic.

Whatever sense it may have made to impose the toughest of sanctions on the Castro regime during the Cold War and after the missile crisis, they look very strange today. The Soviet Union is long gone, and even Vladimir Putin’s Russia shows no interest in stationing nuclear missiles on the island. Indeed, since the collapse of the USSR, Cuba has been deprived of the substantial economic support it once received from Moscow. There certainly seems little point in the US punishing Cuba any longer.

So times change, and the decision by President Barack Obama to normalise relations is as welcome as it is overdue. At the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Mr Obama is expected to sit down with Raul Castro, the first time the leaders of these nations have met since the days of Dwight D Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt dictator deposed by Fidel Castro more than half a century ago. It is a powerful, historic, symbolic moment.

Taking Cuba’s name off the list of nations (supposedly) sponsoring terrorism is the latest concrete step in the right direction, as are the direct flights from Florida to Cuba scheduled to start in July. Small-scale capitalism has already made a comeback on the island, and more is sure to follow as sanctions are relaxed and Cuba rejoins the global economy.

The sooner the Cuban regime – which, it is worth stressing, remains undemocratic and oppressive – stops persecuting journalists, establishes competitive politics and holds free elections, the better. Steered in the right direction, and with international support rather than isolation, Cuba could become a prosperous and progressive beacon for the whole of Latin America, and a regional power in its own right.

And yet, as with so many such transitions across the former Soviet satellites, and indeed in Russia itself, there are dangers. Too rapid a conversion to global capitalism could easily see Cuban society badly fractured, and the genuine social progress in areas such as healthcare jettisoned needlessly. As every developing economy knows, balancing the needs of the local population and foreign businesses wishing to bring jobs and investment is hazardous. Even now, for example, the former East Germany mostly lags behind its former western neighbour in living standards and infrastructure.

Cuba seems certain to enjoy a tourist boom, as decades of pent-up demand from American holidaymakers are unleashed. Exiled families will soon be able to reunite, cigars are sure to be a popular memento of a trip, and the bars and restaurants will see trade they have never experienced before. It will be quite a culture shock for all concerned.

As Mr Obama nears the end of his presidency, he seems busily engaged in ticking off a sort of bucket list of foreign-policy gains. The rapprochement with Iran is the most far-reaching, alongside the ending of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the demise of Osama bin Laden. Bringing Cuba back in from the cold is another win.

North Korea and a few other rogue states seem beyond his diplomatic reach, and  the rise of Isis is the greatest setback of his watch. Still, for the people of Cuba, these are hopeful times, and they have reason to be grateful to Mr Obama.