In the early hours of New Year’s day 1959, the dictator Fulgencio Batista stole away from Cuba. His ignominious departure, entirely in keeping with the manner in which he had ruled, opened the way for the headstrong son of a prosperous farmer to take over the country.

On Wednesday, the farmer’s son, Fidel Castro, leader of a scruffy group of rebels who overcame the odds to destroy Batista’s army, celebrates 50 years in power. He is no longer president, having passed the title to his younger brother Raúl in February but, despite his poor health, he is still assumed to guide the country from behind the scenes.

It is hard, even now, to separate Mr Castro’s myth from his achievements. For some he remains a revolutionary hero, standing up steadfastly to Washington, a survivor for half a century of US efforts to assassinate and ostracise him.

It is true that Cuba has seen great change under his leadership. It boasts universal healthcare and education, and no longer suffers the wide disparities in wealth and income so common in Latin America. It is also a country that many Cubans say has gained its dignity, one that is no longer a satrapy of the giant empire to the north.

But it is also a country that, because of a lack of prospects, loses thousands of its most enterprising young people every year to foreign countries, including the US. It is a society in which people suffer severe restrictions on freedom and human rights, where they struggle for housing and lack access to technologies such as the internet and mobile telephony now commonplace elsewhere. Many make their livings on the margins of Cuba’s tourist industry, scrambling for hard currency. Where is the dignity in that?

It is also an economy that has been dependent on the handouts of others: from the Soviet Union for 30 years, which association brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962, and more recently from oil rich Venezuela.

It cannot be denied, however, that one reason for this economic hardship is the US embargo of Cuba. first imposed in 1962. As economic sanctions go, this must be one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful efforts in history. Indeed, the embargo – the “blockade” as Cubans call it – has been a gift to Mr Castro, allowing him to blame the consequences of his chronic economic mismanagement on the gringos. That it remains, in spite of its failure, is testimony to the effectiveness and stubbornness of the hardline Cuban-American lobby and lack of courage of US politicians.

But times are changing. Mr Castro is ailing. The first cohort of Castro-hating exiles is dying out, and opinion polls show their descendants are more amenable to thawing relations with Cuba. Most significantly, a new US president has arrived in the White House with new ideas about how the US should handle hostile regimes.

Cuba, it is true, is unlikely to be one of Barack Obama’s top priorities. The political costs of lifting the embargo, even now, may outweigh the advantages. But there is much short of that his administration can do, including lifting restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba and even opening discussions with Havana.

One benefit of a new approach may be an improvement in Washington’s relations with other Latin American states, the deterioration of which under George W. Bush has allowed other actors such as China and even Russia and Iran to step in.

More importantly, these opening steps should be used to lay the groundwork for a new US policy towards Cuba, one that looks to the future of their relationship after Mr Castro dies. In such a policy, Cuban exiles in Florida should be encouraged to play a role, since their skills and capital can be critical in helping to regenerate the country.

It is in neither country’s interest for Mr Castro’s death to be followed by economic and political turmoil in Cuba. The US must now begin planning to avoid it.

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