End of the big stand-off will bring changes good and bad to Castro’s nation.

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 - 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, Roques's fervour endures.

"If I could die tomorrow and give Fidel an extra decade of my life, I would," he said as we drove through the marshy coastal plains in the south of the island, past the site where America staged its disastrous invasion attempt in 1961.


But even Roques, an economist before he became a taxi driver, knew 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 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"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries," said US President Barack Obama.

At the same moment, 160km off the coast of Florida, Cuba's 83-year-old President, Raul 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 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 US$100 allowance for tobacco and alcohol; Cubans began imagining the hotels they would build, the restaurants they would open to cater for the influx of tourists.

But if those most affected were taken by surprise, Britain's Foreign Office was not.

"We rather suspected this was in the air," said Minister of State Hugo Swire, who in October became the first British 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 Raul and Fidel are not young men any more, and things need to change."

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," says Britain's ambassador to Cuba, Tim Cole, 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, only 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 rum and revelry.

Obama has not lifted the ban on tourism to Cuba, but he has increased the number of people who can find an excuse to visit. Now anyone wishing to travel for religious reasons, professional meetings, sports competitions, journalism or humanitarian activities can do so.

Naturally, hoteliers are licking their lips in anticipation, especially as Americans will be able to use their credit cards in Cuba, further enticing them to spend.


The chief executive of Marriott hotels, Arne Sorenson, has already made clear the chain's desire to expand into Cuba. And the leap in value of shares in cruise industry giant Carnival (which rose 3.59 per cent on the news) speaks for itself.

But 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 in 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 be only a theme-park attraction for the tourists whose arrival doomed them.

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 he is in charge of preserving and restoring the Unesco world heritage core. And 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 says, has a unique beauty and magnetism precisely because it is "not in step with the times". And that is something that 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 Vinales, 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.

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. In March, Cubans were permitted to access email on their mobile phones, but not the internet. Now, about 300 internet cafes 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 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. After generations of hostility and mutual suspicion, this week's announcement will benefit both sides, and corrupt neither.

Thaw turns up heat for 2016 race

David Usborne

The surprise decision by United States President Barack Obama to end decades of Cold War enmity with Cuba has instantly become a part of 2016 presidential calculus as leading White House aspirants from the Republican and Democratic parties take opposite positions.


The stakes may be highest for Hillary Clinton, who in spite of the political dangers took little time to side with Obama, arguing that "isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power".

If she runs in 2016, her endorsement of the policy shift would doubtless make her a target for those Cuban-Americans living in Florida for whom any rapprochement with Havana remains anathema. She will be relying on growing evidence that once-huge support among the roughly two million Cuban-Americans for maintaining the embargo, which the US imposed on Cuba in 1960, has greatly fragmented in recent years.

Florida, where most Cuban-Americans live, has so many Electoral College votes that winning it is essential for candidates in a presidential election. For Republicans especially, there is no path to the White House without Florida if the race is even slightly tight.

The Cuba bombshell came one day after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was "actively exploring" seeking the Republican nomination in 2016. Having him in the race would create a significant challenge for Clinton in Florida.

Then he took a different course from her on Cuba, condemning Obama's decision to normalise relations and seek an end to the embargo. "I don't think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship," Bush declared.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican also weighing a 2016 run, called the change "the latest attempt by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all costs".

But Bush and Clinton had already put themselves in their respective boxes over Cuba. Bush had only recently told a group of supporters in Miami that he thought extending a hand to Havana would be wrong until full democratic and human rights reforms had been undertaken. Clinton wrote extensively of her support for ending the embargo in her recent memoir.


Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who led Obama's re-election in the state in 2012, said: "If you're a third-generation Cuban, in your mid-30s, went to college here ... things that define your worldview are not Cuban embargo politics.