Obama in Cuba: Win-win beckons for Havana and Washington

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit to Cuba President Obama's visit is critically important to Americans and Cubans

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Cuba is one of the most exotic places I have visited. The mix of crumbling but beautiful Spanish colonial, 1950s Americana, and 1970s Soviet utilitarian, all laced with plentiful mojito cocktails and the sound of salsa, is beguiling. It's fabulous.

I was here twice last year. The first time was just after Presidents Obama and Castro announced their desire to open a new chapter in relations; the second when Secretary of State John Kerry flew in to re-open the US Embassy on the waterfront.

Now I am back for a third visit - and the cocktail that is Havana has a new ingredient. Well, two new ingredients, actually. One is the smell of fresh paint. The other is shiny black tarmac on road surfaces where the potholes have been filled in.

Of course for security reasons, no one is saying precisely where Mr Obama will go, but here's my top tip as a highly trained investigative reporter. No. Don't follow the money. Follow the smell of fresh paint. And roads where the potholes have been filled in. That's where the president will be.

Important legacy

And subtle it's not. On Tuesday the president is expected to throw the first pitch at the Stadio Latino Americano where the Tampa Bay Rays are taking on the Cuban national team. Buildings surround the stadium and a number have been repainted - but only the ones which will be in the camera line. The rest will have to await redecoration for another day.

The Paseo de Marti, the wide boulevard running through the heart of the historic Old Havana neighborhood, has been completely repaved in anticipation of the arrival of President Barack Obama The Paseo de Marti in Old Havana has been completely repaved
Tourists in a classic American car drive past a balcony decorated with Cuban and US flags in Havana (20 March 2016) Not all of Cuba's mix of crumbling but beautiful buildings have been redecorated

It was once said of the Queen that she must think everywhere smells of new paint. President Obama probably thinks the same.

I say this not to trivialise the president's visit but to underline how important it is to the Cubans and the Americans. Both presidents, both countries have so much to gain. Let's go through it step by step.

For President Obama this is an important part of his legacy, especially when his engagement in the Middle East has hardly been glorious - is Syria, Egypt or Libya a better place than when he came to office?

For a man who is cautious and deliberative, this was a gamble. No-one would have blamed him if relations with Cuba had stayed in the same deep freeze that they had been in for the previous 50-plus years.

Elusive democratisation

But he passionately believed that isolation had failed. The regime was still in place in Havana, and hostility from the island's giant northern neighbour had been used by the leadership to maintain a police state.

US and Cuban flags fly side-by-side on the roof of the Iberostar Hotel Parque Central near El Capitolio (background) in the historic Old Havana neighborhood (20 March 2016) The US and Cuba are moving towards a new era which can benefit both countries
A young woman takes pictures of a vintage car in a street in Havana, Cuba (20 March 2016) Cuba is about to experience an explosion in tourism - potentially an extra three million visitors a year

Only the ordinary Cubans were suffering. The Obama calculation is that engagement will improve the lot of the people as well as lead to greater opening up of political institutions. Economic reform seems guaranteed (more on that in a bit); democratisation remains to be seen.

For Raul Castro, the prize is clear. Over the course of the revolution the Cuban economy was kept afloat by the Soviet Union and its satellite states. That obviously came to an end at the end of the 1980s, but was replaced by the friendship of Hugo Chavez and Venezuelan oil riches. Leave Havana airport and there is still a giant billboard of Fidel and Chavez proclaiming the friendship of brothers and comrades.

But the Venezuelan economy is sinking, and the collapse of the oil price has been calamitous for the South American country. So President Castro was in a situation where he needed a lifeline.

Inviting Caribbean water

But it's the economy where there are massive gains to be had. Under the new openness in relations, 110 flights a day will be able to come to Cuba from the US.

That is going to lead to an explosion in tourism on the island. Say each plane averages just 100 passengers. Then that is 10,000 extra tourists a day, 70,000 a week - potentially an extra three million visitors a year.

Men pause to look at a poster with the concept image of a new hotel that will be built along the Paseo de Marti, the wide boulevard running through the heart of the historic Old Havana neighborhood (20 March 2016) It is just a question of time before numerous US hotel chains will be wanting to put their toes in the warm, inviting Caribbean water
US President Barack Obama waves after his arrival at Jose Marti Airport in Havana (20 March 2016) No one is saying precisely where the president will go in Cuba but his path is likely to follow the smell of fresh paint

So no surprise that the first American hotel group, Starwood, has signed a deal to come to Cuba. How long before some of the other ubiquitous US chains will be wanting to put their toes in the warm, inviting Caribbean water? And just look at the number of CEOs travelling with the president. They're not coming so they can ride around in a 1950s Chevrolet Bel Air.

And it's not one-way traffic. Cigar exporters are eyeing the US market that has been closed to them for half a century. Ditto the rum manufacturers. But also some of the high-tech pharmaceutical companies in Cuba will be looking to the US as a growth platform for their products.

Yes, sanctions will only be fully lifted once the US Congress votes to repeal existing laws, and that might still be a little way off. But what both presidents hope is that the process set in train will be irreversible.

Unlike the baseball, which is a zero-sum game - this can be a win for both countries, and a win for both presidents.

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