Cuba is already far from being the place it used to be. The once proudly tattered mansions of central Havana sport fresh paint jobs and modern fittings. Those magnificent old American gas guzzlers not reduced to rust or scrap have largely been turned into tourist limos. Air-conditioned buses speed travelers across the island, there are hotels that are neither exorbitant nor terrible, and the food is sometimes even described as “mind-blowing.”
The thaw in US-Cuba relations that began this week promises to accelerate this modernization. Though lifting the US embargo is still up to the recalcitrant Republicans who will, as of January, control Congress, their resistance is bound to crumble by 2018, when Raúl Castro has said he will cede power—most likely to Miguel Díaz Canel, a reformist who was not even born when Fidel took control in 1959. From there, Cuba’s abundant beaches, proximity to the US, and the ruthless entrepreneurialism that only Communism can hone should do the rest. Costa Rica is sometimes cited as a model.
But here’s a scary thought: What if it’s more like a small, Caribbean Russia? What some call a military oligarchy (paywall), dominated by Fidel’s compañeros and their families, runs the country’s emerging model of state capitalism. Individual Cubans may be enterprising, but the steady river of tourist dollars has flowed largely into state coffers. Corruption and kleptocracy are increasingly the norm. As the Castros’ grip fades, these new rich will wield the power, and they, like Russia’s oligarchs, won’t take kindly to efforts to break their monopolies. And what happens when a weak state is right on the drug route from Latin America to the US? The Castros tried to block smuggling. Their successors may be less diligent.