Havana good time... but what next for Cuba?

Fidel Castro has survived many US Presidents, and a trip to Cuba suggests he may outlive the Cold War as well as Obama re-thinks 50 years of failed sanctions

It is rather an odd feeling to be witnessing the closing chapter of the Cold War, as the United States admits the Castros have won, and it is time to move on… Well, almost.

Even more odd was to be flying out from Havana’s April sun as President Obama began unraveling the last vestiges of the East-West stand-off that the rest of the world has long since discarded. Washington wants a new relationship with Havana, and from what I could gather from the locals, they want a new relationship too.

It does make you shudder visualizing the potential impact of Cuba being a free destination for potentially millions of new tourists. An extraordinary city is surely in for a big shock as the ubiquitous golden arches get the starter’s pistol to begin muscling in amidst the laundry laden balconies of decaying grandeur. Such sentimentality however is the ridiculous privilege of someone who doesn’t deal daily with the hardship of living in places you’d swear were long ago abandoned. It also pretends that Americans are not already skirting around the patronizing travel restrictions insisted on by the supposed great democracy.

For nearly fifty years Cubans have defied the odds and survived without new American culture. I say ‘new’ of course after taking a ride in a pink 1957 convertible Cadillac as if it was any other taxi… because it and a gob-smacking array of other vehicles from the 1950s constitute a good deal of the country's mostly battered fleet of cars. They call their mechanics magicians for good reason, as the movie set-like ghosts of auto companies now facing bankruptcy keep on a chuggin’. What’s not circa JFK is usually a Lada – straight from the assembly lines of Cuba’s Cold War friend, the USSR, aka Russia.

While the restrictions being lifted so far deal with only Americans of Cuban descent being now free to fly back to Cuba, and also lift the ban on remittances to inhabitants of Cuba, there is surely more to follow soon, and in that respect the timing of this week’s Summit of the Americas is interesting.

There will be the usual noticeable absence of Castros at the gathering because Cuba doesn’t pass the democratic smell test, but that icon of democracy, Hugo Chávez will no doubt be ready to go into battle for his great comrades, the Castro brothers. The unrepentant enemy of Bush II will make sure Cuba’s fate provides a solid side-show to the other pressing issues, including the economic crisis and perhaps the Mexican drug meltdown.

Castro senior has made it clear real US-Cuba progress will be made only when the trade restrictions are lifted. He’s urged Obama to get rid of something that has failed for fifty years. GM's Rick Wagoner failed for only a smidgen of that and he’s a goner. An embarrassing Cold War legacy surely can’t be much more difficult than a fighting car company chief executive.

The other impeccable timing in all of this is Cuba's celebration of fifty years since the revolution. Havana and her highways are bedecked with banners and flags in case anyone might forget the fight.  “50 Años de Luchas y Victories”, along with photos and images of Che and Fidel and stirring statements about revolution being the base of Cuba’s patriotism, her socialism and internationalism.

Within Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, life-sized caricatures of Batista, Reagan and Bush I are especially thanked as “cretins” who respectively made, strengthened and consolidated the Revolution. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, but blockades aren’t very cuddly either.

Now it is Obama’s turn to deal with the communist neighbour that has bedeviled so many of his predecessors. He won’t be shaking hands with a Castro but he will be watched closely by them.

The local Havana rag, Granma, published over Easter the “Reflections of Fidel”, taking up six of its sixteen pages. While Raúl runs the country, big brother is boring everyone to death with his streams of consciousness, but the old boy has not lost his revolutionary zeal, and he’s looking for answers from his neighbours as to why Cuba remains excluded, even though his distaste for the summits and their “murky” history is glaring.

In his musings, Miami remains the “capital of the counterrevolution, the blockade and the dirty war on Cuba”; and the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 had one strategic objective – “the imperialist dream of a free trade treaty stretching from Canada to Patagonia”. Once a revolutionary, always a revolutionary and proud of it!

Fidel has issued a challenge to those who share his geographical slice of the world – will anyone still demand Cuba remain excluded and blockaded? He’s declared the times for the politics of exclusion are over. I am sure someone else who hogs the news has said that recently also. Now they just need to get on with it, or as Fidel warns “even the stones will cry out”. And I bet you they won’t have the rhythm of a hot Cuban salsa in a nightclub in downtown Havana.