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In Raúl Castro's Cuba, Glimmerings of Real Change At Last?

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Monday we learned that the possibility I raised here in February in "Could 2008 Be The Year of the Castro Convertible?" may already be coming to pass -- and "tourism apartheid" seems to be one of its first big casualties.

Born of the need to generate hard currency after the suspension of Soviet subsidies to Cuba in the early 1990s, this was a policy that essentially banned most ordinary Cubans from hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-oriented areas. It was an ugly thing, and I witnessed firsthand how much it stung. It was on a sunny April afternoon in 2002, the "Year of the Five Heroic Prisoners of the Empire" (five Cuban agents jailed in Florida) that my partner and I were on a road trip with a good friend who taught history at the University of Havana, and had once been a Communist Party true believer. We decided to check out an up-and-coming resort island on the north coast called Cayo Coco, but when we got to the border-station-like booth guarding the entrance to the island's causeway, the bored, barely coherent guards waved us gringos through but turned our friend Camilo away. "You know the situation, comrade" they mumbled. He started to pepper them with logical, unanswerable arguments, but they cut him off -- to let him wriggle his toes in this hallowed sand, they'd need authorization from the local poder popular ("popular authority," aka the mayor's office). Furious and humiliated, Camilo insisted we drive half an hour back to the nearest city, appropriately named Morón, where we pulled up in front of the city hall, he tugged on a pair of jeans over his bathing suit and burst in.

We waited nervously for nearly another half hour, when he emerged triumphantly waving a piece of flimsy paper. "You tell me how I, a University of Havana professor, am going to explain to my colleagues," he'd told them, claiming we were Harvard professors, "that I am not allowed to take them to a beach in my own country?" And so Camilo actually mustered up the cojones to browbeat the hapless Party-hack mayor into manually typing out an on-the-spot letter of safe passage to the beach. We drove back, savored the looks on the guards' faces at our return -- and with permission, no less -- and finally made it out to the sand (which, by the way, was full of Canadians).

Yesterday I thought back to that afternoon and Camilo -- who not too long afterward gave up in weary disgust and managed to leave Cuba for Spain -- upon hearing the announcement that this particular humiliation at long last has just come to an end under newly elected president Raúl Castro. This comes upon the heels of last Friday's announcement that all Cubans would finally be officially allowed to have cell phones and buy computers for the first time. Granted, their cost will still keep them out of the reach of most locals -- as, indeed, will the prices at most hotels and restaurants designed for foreigners. And naturally, for U.S. embargo-industrialists like my Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, developments like this -- along with any others short of Castro and company relinquishing power -- will never be enough to merit any change in U.S. policy. "It's pathetic," she sneered in response to yesterday's announcement.

But in what looks like the baby steps of a slow process of easing into changes that Raúl and his people realize are unavoidable if they're going to adapt and survive, yesterday's milestone signals that indignities like tourism apartheid may become a thing of the past, and cannot but prime Cubans to expect more libertad. And so what might be starting out as little more than window-dressing could well be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and one that'll be particularly welcome this sultry summer in Cuba -- if not among the intransigentes of Miami and Washington DC, who are still managing to make hay and comfy careers out of the longest-running failure in U.S. diplomatic history.