When US president Barack Obama announced in February that he would be visiting the Cuban capital of Havana on March 21, he became the president to do so while in office since Calvin Coolidge visited the country at the height of the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado y Morales in January 1928. The visit comes after the August opening of a US embassy in Havana, the first in 54 years.

What kind of a country will Mr Obama find? Ruled as a dictatorship since 1959 when another US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown, and as a Communist fiefdom since two years after that, Cuba has seen dramatic changes since longtime leader Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006 to be replaced by his brother Raúl.


For instance, Cubans have been allowed to possess mobile phones and DVD players since 2008, and since 2010 foreign investors have been permitted to lease government land for up to 99 years. Cuba's October 2014 Law on Foreign Investment allows 100% ownership in certain sectors by foreign investors, and some 3000 restaurants and 8000 rental rooms are now in private hands. A 2012 law even eliminated the exit permit that for 50 years Cubans had been required to possess in order to travel abroad. 

Since Mr Obama’s December 2014 announcement that relations with Cuba would be normalised, business between the two countries has picked up. In 2015, US secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker, granted 490 authorisations for US companies to do business in Cuba, estimated to be worth a total of $4.3bn, up more than 30% from the previous year. Ms Pritzker has called on the Cuban government to do more to facilitate investment and trade, while Cuba, for its part, often in the person of minister of foreign trade Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, has called on the US to disassemble the complex web of laws put in place to isolate Cuba and discourage economic ties after its 1959 revolution. The latter are so byzantine that even some US companies claim it can be hard to decipher what is and is not now permitted. 

Mr Raúl Castro, now 84 years old, has announced that his current term as Cuba’s president will be his last, and that he will step down in 2018. His likely successor is Cuban vice-president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 55-year-old, who was born after the 1959 revolution. Whether Mr Raúl Castro does indeed step down, and whether Mr Diaz-Canel’s worldview matches his relative youth when it comes to foreign investment and calls for Cuba to become a representative democracy, remains to be seen.