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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The unstoppable transformation of Cuba accelerates this week with the arrival of two of the world’s most famous people: Barack Obama and Mick Jagger.

On Sunday, Obama landed in Havana aboard Air Force One. The first U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years, he’ll meet with Cuban officials and dissidents, and give a speech before a crowd of 1,000 at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso.

Jagger and the Rolling Stones, who have their own very nice jet, fly in a few days later to perform a free concert at Ciudad Deportiva. More than 400,000 fans are expected to show up.

Obviously, this is not Fidel Castro’s Cuba anymore.

An American president is being welcomed, and his words are expected to be broadcast directly to the Cuban people. Such a thing was inconceivable not so long ago.

No less historic is the Cuban regime allowing huge throngs to gather and rock out. In the past, such masses were usually assembled to hear one of Fidel’s gruelingly long speeches, or to celebrate some foggy anniversary of the revolution.

On March 6, a huge electronic-dance music concert was staged near the U.S. Embassy on Havana’s waterfront. The headliners were Diplo, a wildly popular American DJ, and his group Major Lazer. News reports estimated the ecstatic crowd at 450,000.

Cuba is opening up, and loosening up. It’s far from being a free country, but the people are finding more freedom in their daily lives.

Thousands still flee because the economy is in shambles, but those who stay are mostly optimistic about the promise of good relations with the United States. I heard this often while I was in Havana in November.

Obama’s visit has been condemned by hardliners in this country, but their day has passed. The U.S. embargo, a stupendous 50-year flop, is destined to be mothballed by a future Congress.

The isolation of Havana is unofficially over. Done.

American tourists are streaming in. Charter flights are packed with Cuban Americans coming to visit relatives. Major airlines are jockeying to schedule daily flights. The cruise lines are locking up harbor space.

And major American banks and companies are lined up and waiting to do business.

Nothing will bring more dramatic change to Cuba than open commerce and contact with the United States. It won’t lead to instant democracy, but the impact on many working people there will be life-changing.

What’s happening now between the two countries was inevitable. Obama has certainly pushed the detente process along but — to steal a line from Jagger and Keith Richards — time was on his side.

Fidel is frail and no longer in command. Most younger Cuban-Americans here favor friendlier relations.

And, not least importantly, major U.S. corporations with heavy political clout are lobbying for trade opportunities.

But even with a flood of U.S. dollars, Cuba will look the same for a long time. Solving its cash crisis and rebuilding its decrepit infrastructure could take decades.

A more intangible change will happen faster, the energy of hope.

Obama’s itinerary in Havana includes meetings with American corporate executives, Cuban entrepreneurs and Cuban Americans whom he has invited on the trip. He’ll also attend a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

The president isn’t scheduled to sit down with Fidel, but he and Raul Castro will meet on Monday for a discussion that will include the serious and prickly subject of human rights.

Cuban citizens who speak out against the communist government still get thrown in jail. It’s naive to think that stern words from Obama, or any foreign leader, will suddenly sway Cuban leaders to be tolerant of dissent.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any new U.S. strategy having less influence on human-rights reform than the embargo has.

Obama’s trip, which culminates with a state dinner at the Revolutionary Palace, is bound to affect the people of Cuba more than the government’s policies. The sight of an American president riding along the Malecon — the very idea of it — must be mind-boggling and surreal, after half a century of estrangement.

For Cubans, long accustomed to disappointment and dashed hopes, their world finally seems to be moving forward.

On Tuesday, they’ll watch Air Force One take off from the island.

And on Friday they’ll go to a sports stadium and listen to Mick Jagger sing about satisfaction, of all things.

Who would have imagined it?

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2016, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A tour guide (C) raises a Cuban national flag to regroup foreign visitors she is taking through Old Havana March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini