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The Cuban Economy: After the Smoke Clears

For most Cubans, life remains a slog. But here's the surprise: There's plenty of potential for growth in everything from oil exploration to upscale tourism
The Cuban Economy: After the Smoke Clears
Illustration by Hellovon based on photography by Wally McNamee/CORBIS

Roger Johnson knew that Fidel Castro would step down eventually. But the Cuban leader's Feb. 19 retirement announcement, while Johnson was in Havana, added an unexpected bit of drama to an otherwise routine visit. As North Dakota's agricultural commissioner, he was on his seventh trip to Cuba in as many years, signing a contract to sell $7.5 million worth of peas and lentils.

Wait a minute. What was a North Dakotan doing peddling beans to a country that Americans aren't supposed to trade with? He was taking advantage of rules that, since 2000, have allowed U.S. companies to sell food and agricultural products to Cuba. And he's far from alone. The U.S. shipped $438 million in such goods there last year. "We have a lot of commodities that Cuba wants," Johnson says.