Fidel Castro delivering a speech in Havana on May 14, 2004
Jorge Rey—Getty Images
By Karl Vick
December 17, 2014

The world now has the answer to a question as old as the New World Order: Which would die first? Fidel Castro? Or the chokehold his angry critics maintained on U.S. foreign policy since El Comandante came to power in Cuba 55 years ago? It was entirely fitting that the answer was delivered by an American president whose own age is 53. As he noted in his historic address from the White House on Wednesday, Barak Obama was born two years after Castro’s Communist guerrillas swept into Havana. Like the children and grandchildren of the Cubans who fled to Miami after the Communists arrived, the events Obama actually lived through were the ones that steadily reduced the island from a marquee venue of the Cold War — the thrust stage from which, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, armageddon was nearly launched — to whatever the place qualifies as today: basically a scenic relic of Marxism, with beaches and cigars.

Other stout lobbies remain as present as their animating issue: The NRA likely will be around as long as gun owners are, and the Israel lobby as long as the state. But the U.S. government’s determined, and solitary isolation of Cuba was, as Obama alluded, a victim of generational change. The collapse of the Soviet Union, so thrillingly dramatic, was followed by the more gradual senescence of those who had invested most in opposing its most famous client state.

Time waits for no man, not even Fidel. El Commandante, now 88, is still around, and as recently as 2010 was still capable of stirring the pot. He opened the Havana Aquarium and commanded a dolphin show for a visiting U.S. journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Fidel then told, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more.” The regime that Fidel once made a model of resistance to U.S. dominance is now run by his 83-year-old kid brother. It was Raul Castro who spoke from Havana at the same moment Obama made his historic address at noon Wednesday, the two speeches pre-arranged by the leaders’ staffs to begin at the same hour, signaling both sides’ commitment to a new era of cooperation.

But the Cuban side appeared to be locked in that other era: Raul Castro was seated between dark paneling and a massive desk. The framed snapshots at his elbows were in black and white — the kind of vintage photographs that adorn the Hotel Nacional at the edge of the magnificent ruin that is Havana’s Old City. The glossies in the hotel are there for the tourists, images of the like of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack making themselves at home in a version of Havana glamour familiar to Americans who — forbidden by the travel restrictions Obama says will be pushed away — last saw the city in The Godfather Part II, or any other movie set in Cuba before Castro took over.

The reality just outside the hotel’s doors is far more compelling, from the ardent struggles of human rights activists and artists, to the joyously sensual quality of street life in what may well be the sexiest capital city in the world. Americans who dared to visit — it wasn’t hard, routing through Canada or Cancun — returned with enthusiastic reports of a poor but intensely vibrant society. Its economy may be a shambles now, but the island’s physical features alone, including 2,300 miles of Caribbean coastline not an hour from the U.S., all but assure development, especially by American retirees. Which would be fitting as well, since they would be old enough to appreciate just how time can change things.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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