Latin America will not be at the top of Barack Obama's priorities when he takes office on January 20. But there is little doubt that within the western hemisphere, the "Cuban question" will be a foremost concern.

On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled on drawing a balance of its accomplishments and failures. Important as this is, the real challenge is to look ahead, to look for ways Cuba can return to the fold and normalise its relations with the rest of the Americas. At a time when China and Vietnam are courted by foreign investors and international financial institutions, to continue to wage ideological warfare on Cuba because of what happened or did not happen there decades ago is an anachronistic exercise in self-indulgence.

Making a breakthrough on Cuba has always been difficult. Often, the Cuban government has been its own worst enemy. It is not for nothing that 10 US presidents in a row have failed. Yet, half a century after Fidel Castro and his ragtag band of guerrilleros marched into Havana and Fulgencio Batista fled to Spain, the stars seem to be aligning themselves for change.

For all its faults, Cuba never ceases to surprise and confound foreign observers. For decades, the standard question was "What will happen after Fidel?", on the assumption that mortality would eventually catch up him. The hopes were thus set on a "Big Bang" approach to change in Cuba. The notion that Fidel would give up office, for whatever reason, and a successor appointed to replace him was never considered. But it has happened, and Raul Castro is now president of Cuba. This opens new possibilities.

The effect of this can be gauged from the recent Latin American and Caribbean Summit held in the resort town of Costa de Sauipe, in Brazil, on December 16-17. One of the largest such summits ever held, with 33 heads of state and government from the hemisphere (with the notorious exception of the US), it gave a warm welcome to Raul Castro on his first foreign trip after taking office.

As the host, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Latin America's most influential and popular leader, was beaming.

Cuba was formally invited to join the Rio Group, one of several regional entities that have enhanced political co-operation in the Americas since 1990. A letter requesting an end to the US embargo on Cuba was signed by all participants. Progress was also made on other fronts. As pro tempore chair of the Rio Group, it was Mexican President Felipe Calderon who welcomed Cuba to the group, underscoring the improvement of Cuban-Mexican ties, which had deteriorated during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-06). And a half-hour meeting with the head of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, should have cleared some underbrush for the eventual return of Cuba to that body.

After the summit, there has been a real avalanche of presidential visits to Cuba - this month alone, Martin Torrijos of Panama, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, while Michelle Bachelet will undertake the first presidential visit from Chile in 37 years next month.

This is something Obama ought to keep in mind as he crafts a new policy towards Cuba. He is in a privileged position to do so. Having won Florida, partly through a majority of the Hispanic vote, but not being beholden to the Cuban-American electorate there (which went for John McCain by a small margin), he is well-positioned to move forward. Moreover, younger Cuban-Americans are changing and no longer cling to the hard-line anti-Communism of their parents.

Obama has promised incremental changes, including lifting the limits on remittances from the US and on travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. Replacing the cash-upfront requirement for Cuban purchases of US agricultural goods and medicines for regular supplier's credit would be another useful step. The embargo will not be lifted overnight.

An impasse of half a century will not be solved in weeks or months. Rather than a "Big Bang", creationist approach, what is needed is an evolutionary one, a gradualist policy leading to predictable, controllable outcomes.

This means a series of steps in which the changes taking place in Cuba are matched by adjustments in US policy and Cuba's return to institutions such as the Organisation of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank. Direct talks, without preconditions, between Washington and Havana would be an important catalyst to get things moving.

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