If someone would have told me a month ago that I'd spend my recent trip to Cuba obsessing over a missile crisis I would have told them I'm not that kind of historian. But there I was in Old Havana in early July, thinking about whether another missile crisis half way around the globe would lead to the world war that was so narrowly averted here five decades ago.

Of course the missiles in question today are in North Korea, not in Cuba. But the fact that 55 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and over a generation removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba and the United States remain embroiled in conflicts deeply rooted in Cold War politics and mentalities says a lot about the similar state of both societies and the divergent paths on which they are traveling.

Indeed, in many ways travelling through Cuba today is like entering a kind of nexus connecting the past to the future, a continuum also inhabited by Trump's America. On the one hand, Trump's America seems determined to pursue isolationism and return to a mythical past where America was Great and everyone else, whether blacks at home or small island nations abroad, knew their place.

Trump's Americans would, in fact, love Cuba in this regard. With its innumerable carefully preserved 1950s cars and love of baseball and cigars, one can vaguely recall the sensation of what it must have been like before Castro, when Americans, from tourists to corporate titans to the mob, had free reign across the island.

But Cubans, while still ostensibly stuck in a time warp thanks to half a century of American embargo, are clearly pushing in the opposite direction, to open further to the world as the revolutionary era comes to a close with the approaching end of the Castro dynasty.

Far more important than the pride in the past and present is the unmistakable desire to move forward into the future. You can see it not only in the rapid expansion of the internet, despite the relative expensiveness (about $2-4 an hour, seemingly without any restrictions on searching) and in the entrepreneurial spirit to generate extra income from tourism, but also in the Cubans' desire to use the skills they've acquired thanks to the still robust education system to build the local economy rather than go abroad to prosper. 

Cubans rightly boast of their country's impressive levels of human development and low levels of inequality and crime compared with so many other countries in the region.

 

You can feel the frisson towards the approaching post-Castro future in the country's amazing arts scene. Whether it's the increasingly political hip-hop scene, which in the last decade has sparked periodic crackdowns) or even more aesthetically impressive, the innovative art from major galleries like the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, where large scale erotic canvases mix with intensely hybrid American-Afro-Cuban dance bands, to store fronts with still largely unknown artists old and young.

Indeed, I was not the only American veering between rumba and Armageddon in Old Havana, moving between salsa cafes and graphic arts studios. Even with the new travel restrictions announced by the Trump Administration (which, bizarrely, are supposed to encourage greater freedom for the Cuban people by restricting direct contact and relations with Americans), Havana and other major tourist towns are crawling with happy American tourists. While Cubans are mostly mystified at the Trump phenomenon and his policies, they remain excited to have more American visitors and more opening with the US.

They also are desperate not to become like other Latin American neighbours; that is, countries rocked by massive poverty, inequality, violence, and corruption. And here is the most important issue facing Cubans today. They know full well the myriad limitations and failures of the communist system. But they are justifiably scared of what will happen after Raul Castro is gone, if the US, led by the uber-conservative and rabidly anti-communist exile community in Miami, took charge of the inevitable transition in the coming years.

Cubans rightly boast of their country's impressive levels of human development and low levels of inequality and crime compared with so many other countries in the region. This despite decades of a full US embargo.

[Cuba's] 11 million population and relatively good natural resource base, along with highly educated population and significant room for growth in almost every economic sector, have the potential to generate a transformation towards a form of social welfare democracy.

 

Yet if foreign investment in Cuba's innovative pharmaceutical, tourism and other industries continues to grow, the gains in human development could be "easily reversed" in a matter of years with the imposition of a post-Castro "shock doctrine" of neoliberal reforms and "opening" of the country back to the unfettered forces of international, and particularly US, capital.

Equally worrying is the uneasy relationship between the country's African and white populations, as reflected in the clear if not gross segregation of many professions along racial lines. While Cuba's revolutionaries since the time of Jose Marti have tried to downplay or even deny enduring racism, Cuba's history is suffused with the dual savagery of slavery and colonialism, followed in the twentieth century by US imperialism and near feudal autocracy based in good measure on racial exploitation.

The communist government has made strides in tackling the problem, but there are many indications that the openings of the last two decades have disproportionately favoured white over Afro-Cubans, and thus a rapid process of liberalisation and privatisation would once again expose the deep historical chasm between Cubans of European and African descent.

On the other hand, if left relatively alone, Cuba's natural, economic and human potential could lead the country to become a model for others in the region. Its 11 million population and relatively good natural resource base, along with a highly educated population and significant room for growth in almost every economic sector, have the potential to generate a transformation towards a form of social welfare democracy. It would preserve the best gains of the revolutionary era in terms of social development and solidarity while encouraging Cubans' entrepreneurial ethos and already deep links with the global economy.

But such a path would have many enemies. If Trump and the conservative leadership of the Cuban exile community - who were crucial to his Florida election victory - are allowed to hijack the post-Castro process, Cuba could easily descend into economic, ethnic and racial chaos and strife, turning this strategically located island into a hub for narco and human traffickers, money-laundering, cheap labour, and other ravages of unfettered neoliberalism that have so damaged Cuba's Central American and Caribbean neighbours.

And this is the biggest problem facing Cuba. The US under Trump is likely headed down a dark hole of plutocracy and racial, ethnic and class conflict on an unprecedented scale. Cuba has been there before, and very few Cubans want to have that dance again. "Make Cuba great again" means something very different to most Cubans than it does in Trump's America. Cubans have the potential to resist this dark political path and build for themselves a better future. It is increasingly difficult to imagine Americans still having that promise.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at Lund University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.