Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Fidel calls it a day

Fidel Castro has finally decided not to be President of Cuba any more. Now, perhaps, his country has some chance of entering the post-Soviet 21st century (more so than the economic reforms already in train since he fell ill). There is no doubt that his revolution replaced a corrupt sleazy regime in the late fifties, and developed a health and education system that were the envy of many in Latin America. Nor that the tourist visiting Havana - as we did five years ago - can enjoy a mix of brilliant Buena Vista-style music and faded Spanish glories, all within an increasingly lucrative tourist infrastructure (even if the restaurants reflected the vagaries of rationing). This all came at a price, not just in human rights and freedom of speech: since the Soviet collapse, Cuba has also been a country where educated young men spend the day latching themselves onto you as unwanted guides for a dollar and baby formula (probably to sell on), where the prostitution that Castro claimed to have eliminated is again rife or where taxi drivers earn far more than doctors or teachers. Hardly the ideals of the revolution. Of course, the ridiculous American embargo has propped this regime up far longer than it might otherwise have survived; and in that respect the US boycott is as culpable as Hugo Chavez with his subsidies today. Yet while one might hope that Raul Castro and whoever might replace him will open Cuba fully to democracy, the attraction of Vietnamese or Chinese market-led autocracy will be stronger for the Cuban Communists. But, democracy is far more likely to come if the Americans use Castro's death to end the boycott for good. For the Western tourist, there will no doubt be a sadness at the loss of an open air museum. But for most Cuban people, the hope must be that life can get better.

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