Coming soon: Zillions of Americans

A barbershop with sidewalk view in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.
   OBAMA'S BEEN there. And before long, every American should be able to travel to Cuba unfettered.
   The United States, but for a dwindling number of hotheads, wants this. Economically, gaining access to a nearby market of more than 11 million people, while at the same time earning goodwill among Latin American nations that have grown frustrated with the decades-old U.S.-Cuba impasse, are big incentives for the U.S. to drop its trade embargo.
   And Cuba, hurting for cash, needs this.
   Even as the island and longtime patron Venezuela drift apart politically, the collapse in oil prices has erased the profits Cuba once made from trading the services of doctors and other professionals for Venezuelan crude.
   Squeezing Cuba even more, however, is the fall of another commodity – nickel.

Tourists outnumber locals at the public beach at Siboney on Cuba's south coast.
   A decade ago, exports of nickel from a vast reserve near Cuba's eastern tip were the island's single largest source of income. Now, with prices dropping to a 13-year-low in February, there's little return from the joint Cuban-Canadian mining operations.
   That leaves tourism to keep on the lights. According to Cuba, 3.5 million people visited last year – a record – and tourism so far this year is up 15 per cent over 2015. But Cuba's hospitality sector is stretched to the limit – or beyond, judging from the shortages of food and other items I saw on the island last month. Huge investment will be needed to make tourism viable on the scale necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy.
   It's said that both Barack Obama and Raúl Castro wish to leave a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement as their legacies. And why shouldn't they desire to be remembered for a deal that could benefit the citizens of both nations?
   But money, as always, is the big motivator here. It's why, despite Fidel Castro's hollow claim that "we don't need the imperio (empire) to give us anything," the two nations will find their way past some seemingly sky-high obstacles – the U.S. presence at Guantanamo Bay just one of them.
   And each will get at least some of it what it wants, or needs.

Cuba often seems to be in a waiting mode, but a cash crunch could hasten change.


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