Part 1 of this piece here.
Cubans have a good sense of humour – but I learned to my cost that Fidel is no laughing matter.
I was in Cuba as part of a Latin America trip, meeting with government officials and foreign diplomats, and getting a sense of the place. One day I spoke to the Cuban diplomatic academy about international developments. The academy's premises were ramshackle but the diplomats, almost all female, were razor sharp. Their questions were right on the money and I enjoyed the exchange. My only misstep was at the beginning, when I made a gentle joke about the Commander-in-Chief. 'I have been thinking of giving a four-hour lecture today in homage to Fidel,' I began. 'But then I decided that only Fidel could pull that off.' The gag was meant to be affectionate but it was met by complete silence and much uncomfortable shuffling. Everyone looked at the director of the academy, who looked severely at me.
Driving down Havana's famous Malecón esplanade it seemed to me very likely that President Obama will visit Havana this year. For a president in his final year of office, the lure will surely be irresistible. While full normalisation can only occur once the trade embargo is lifted (an unlikely prospect with the current Congress), Obama's relaxation of rules on remittances and travel have benefited Americans and Cubans – and improved the reputation of the US in Latin America. Obama deserves credit for bringing sanity to an area of policy that has long caused Washington's friends to scratch their heads.
My final glimpses of the island from the airplane window were of a largely agrarian landscape. Cuba is not without its social achievements, including a high literacy rate and free health care. But the country is sclerotic and undeveloped. Havana would blame the US blockade for all this whereas many observers point to the defects of Cuba's political system. Certainly, Cubans only need to look across the water to Mexico – which is, despite the media coverage of El Chapo and narco-states, increasingly prosperous and integrated into north America – to see an alternative future.
Change is coming to Cuba. What we don't know is whether it will be the controlled change imagined by the old revolutionaries or a rush of influence from the north that transforms Havana into a Little Miami. My guess is that in ten years' time, when both Fidel and Raúl have gone to the great revolutionary convention in the sky, Cuba will be unrecognisable.