Air Force One, the aircraft that carried President Barack Obama on his historic visit to Cuba, flew into Havana over shanties, rundown infrastructure and 50-year-old cars. The symbolism was unmistakable. Irresistible change is coming to Cuba from the direction of the United States
. The scale of the transformation is uncertain but the Caribbean island nation, which for over half a century has been under the clamp of a US trade embargo, is most likely at the start of an era of rapid development and closer relations with its giant neighbour.
Many hurdles remain before cordial relations are fully established. Besides the lifting of the embargo, Cuba wants the return of the US navy base at Guantanamo Bay. Neither is going to occur quickly while the Republican Party controls the US Congress. There remains in the US much resistance to rapprochement. Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz, son of a Cuban refugee, claimed that “Obama has chosen to legitimise the corrupt and oppressive Castro regime with his presence on the island.” Marco Rubio, who was in the GOP race until last week and whose parents moved fronm Cuba to the US before Fidel Castro seized power in 1962, called the mission “one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a US president anywhere in the world”.Similar criticisms were aired when Richard Nixon opened the US door to China in 1972.
Mr Obama, the first serving US president to visit Havana since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, is using words of encouragement rather than criticism to encourage change in Cuba. The US in the past tried to undermine the Castros’ iron rule, to little avail. The composition of the US delegation makes the American message abundantly plain: democratic change will come through economic engagement.
With a posse of CEOs in tow, Mr Obama is fostering a new relationship between American capital and Cuban control. One of the new deals to emerge in Havana involves a US hotel management company taking over the running of Hotel Inglaterra, a national landmark where a young war correspondent named Winston Churchill stayed in 1895 when Cubans launched an uprising against Spanish colonial rule. Under the agreement, US hotel operator Starwood will become a direct partner of Cuban state firms, including the military-run tourism company Gaviota.
This marks a sea change in relations, given that half a century ago American hoteliers, who dominated the industry in Havana, were sent packing by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries.
The prospect of political change remains some way off. President Raul Castro, clearly unaccustomed to having to submit himself to reporters’ questions, got testy when challenged over political prisoners at a novel press conference. His prickly response reflected the line Havana adopted ahead of the Obama visit, insisting that greater commerce and diplomacy with Washington was not a sign that the Communist government was relinquishing its sovereignty.
But there seems little doubt that the beachhead US economic forces are re-establishing in Cuba will eventually lead to a new era of political freedom.