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THE VIEW FROM ACROSS THE POND : Is Cuba ready for a new revolution?

















As the island dictatorship announces a historic rapprochement with Washington, does it risk simply becoming a soulless outpost of the US, asks Harriet Alexander









By Harriet Alexander

6:00AM GMT 19 Dec 2014











Celio Roques wears his patriotism proudly. A veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, he fought alongside Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and has a treasure trove of anecdotes to prove it: how Fidel rallied his troops; how Che was very serious; and how the cheeky Cienfuegos repeatedly stole Che’s cigars to wind him up. And 50 years after fighting alongside Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Mr Roques’s fervour endures.





“If I could die tomorrow and give Fidel an extra decade of my life, I would,” he told me recently, as we drove through the marshy coastal plains in the south of the island, past the site where America staged its disastrous attempted invasion in 1961. But even Mr Roques, an economist before he became a taxi driver, knew that change would have to come, sooner or later. 



“Fidel’s big mistake was not opening up in 1989,” he said sadly.


 “That was the moment. But our economy is ruined. Our country is dying.”




This week came the news that Mr Roques and many of his 11 million compatriots had dreamed of – the US and Cuba were re-establishing diplomatic ties and lifting some of the crippling restrictions on business, banking and travel.



“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” said Barack Obama, the US president, addressing the nation live.





At the same moment, 100 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba’s 83-year-old president, Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel, was delivering a similar message to a spellbound public, who stopped their school lessons and gathered around neighbourhood televisions to watch.




 “We need to learn to live together in a civilised way, with our differences,” said Mr Castro – sparking jubilation across the country, and the ringing of bells in central Havana.






Americans began excitedly debating how many Cuban cigars and how much rum they might buy with the newly instituted $100 allowance for tobacco and alcohol; Cubans, meanwhile, began imagining the hotels they would build, the restaurants they would open to cater for the anticipated influx of tourists. 




But if those most affected were taken aback, the Foreign Office was not. “We rather suspected that this was in the air,” said Hugo Swire, the minister of state, who in October became the first minister to visit Cuba in almost a decade.



“It makes sense. We want Cuba to be a rehabilitated, integrated part of the international community. I think there is a generational shift – and a recognition that Raúl and Fidel are not young men anymore, and things need to change.”





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18 Dec 2014









Yet how much is going to change, and how quickly, remains unclear.



“We’re not going to see McDonald’s on the Malecon in the next few weeks,” reckons Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba, referring to the coast road that runs through Havana.


 “But this is certainly a very significant change. And in some areas its impact will be felt quite quickly.”





Last year a mere 170,000 Americans travelled to Cuba – a far cry from the pre-Castro era, when Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway would bring hordes of their friends to the island for legendary nights of rum and revelry. 





Mr Obama has not lifted the ban on tourism to Cuba, but he has widened the net of people who can find an excuse to visit. 



Now anyone wishing to travel for religious reasons, professional meetings, sports competitions, journalism and humanitarian activities can do so.





Naturally, hoteliers are licking their lips in anticipation – especially now that Americans will be able to use their credit cards in the country, further enticing them to spend. Arne Sorenson, chief executive of Marriott hotels, has already made clear the chain’s desire to expand into Cuba. And the leap in value of shares in the cruise industry giant Carnival (which climbed 3.59 per cent on the news) speaks for itself.




Is Cuba selling its soul? 



Will the island now be subject to an invasion of US cruise ship passengers, and college students on spring break bacchanals? 



Will it be smothered with a series of garish resorts like Varadero – a high-rise mini Miami on Cuba’s north coast, and the destination of choice for package tourists? 





Part of the magic of the island is its sense of being lost in time – a country where billboards advertise loyalty to Fidel Castro rather than the latest Nike trainer, and where the traffic is a brightly coloured convoy of 1950s Studebakers, Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles.





The risk now is that these emblems of a faded world, if they are preserved at all, will only form a theme-park attraction for the very tourists whose arrival spelled their doom.








Fortunately, the historic centre of Havana is likely to be spared such a cultural revolution. 




It has been sensitively restored under the guidance of Eusebio Leal, whose job title is city historian – meaning that he is in charge of preserving and restoring the Unesco world heritage core. And Mr Leal, one of the closest confidants of the Castro brothers, is highly unlikely to allow his life’s work to be squandered by the influx of tourist dollars.



 Havana, he boasts, has a unique beauty and magnetism precisely because it is “not in step with the times”. And that is something, he insists, which has played “an important role in our national identity and our national character”.





But away from the capital, the ripples from the changes in Washington may be felt more strongly. Many changes will be for the better. 



In Viñales – capital of the tobacco-growing region – the cowboy-hatted controllers of the cigar-producing farms will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of new exports. 




In towns such as Mejico, once a booming centre of sugar production, farmers will be celebrating that they can finally receive agricultural equipment from America. Lack of modern tools has caused a crisis in farming, and Cuba imports around 60 per cent of its food.



But perhaps the biggest change for Cubans will be the agreement that America can bring telecommunications to a country where only around 5 per cent of the population have access to the internet.





 After all, it was initially illegal for them to access the internet; then they were allowed to use it if they paid extortionate prices for a computer in a top hotel – meaning that the vast majority of people were effectively offline. 




In March, Cubans were permitted to access email on their mobile phones, but not the internet. Now an estimated 300 internet cafés exist, but the cost of an hour online is equivalent to a week’s wage for a state worker. Finally, the barriers to the web are set to be torn down.





With that, and every other creeping change, Cuba will doubtless face charges that is becoming little more than the 51st American state, or simply a pleasure pit for rapacious consumers from around the world. 



Yet Cubans are in no doubt that such risks are worth taking. 



For them, the biggest threat is the threat of continued isolation. And they have had their hearts broken before. 



“Every time they have tried previously – Jimmy Carter in 1977; Clinton in the 1990s – something happened to stop the rapprochement,” says Dr Manuel Barcia, a Cuban academic and associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Leeds.


“But my feeling is that they are really opening the door this time.”




There have already been encouraging flickers of the co-operation that may be to come. 



Cuba’s recent contribution to the fight against Ebola, when it sent more than 250 doctors to West Africa, was a tangible sign of its growing collaboration with the world. 




After more than 50 years of isolation, we can now look forward to many more.



 For despite generations of hostility and mutual suspicion, this week’s announcement will end up benefiting both sides, and corrupting neither.






http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/cuba/11302041/Is-Cuba-ready-for-a-new-revolution.html



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