Canadians generally have nothing but warm feelings for the people of Cuba and their lovely island. Some 400,000 of us vacation there every year.
Unlike the Americans, who have besieged “Communist” Cuba for more than four decades with a misguided trade embargo, we don’t feel threatened by President Fidel Castro’s single-party Socialist state. We conduct $750 million in two-way trade and have invested $600 million there.
But Canadians know, too, that 11 million Cubans are unfree. And Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government shouldn’t hesitate to say so, loudly. While befriending Cubans, we must not be complicit in their repression.
Castro runs the last one-party regime in the Western Hemisphere. He is not a monster. But he is a despot, quick to crush anyone who defies him. At 76, having ruled since 1959, he wants to handpick his successor.
Castro’s latest victims are 75 dissidents convicted in April after brief, closed-door trials of allegedly working with the United States “against Cuban independence.” They received up to 28 years in jail. Three people who tried to hijack a ferry to Miami were unluckier. They were executed.
Many of the dissidents, including Hector Palacios, were involved with the Varela Project, a grassroots Cuban initiative calling for a plebiscite on free speech, multiparty elections and more private enterprise.
The U.S. budgets about $7 million to provide help for reformers, which allows the regime to cynically tar all of them as mercenaries.
However, Amnesty International regards the 75 as prisoners of conscience. “The Cuban government has no respect for the free and peaceful expression of one’s political or religious beliefs,” declared Amnesty’s Eric Olson. Some were jailed, Amnesty says, merely for giving interviews to American media, or supplying information to rights groups.
The World Association of Newspapers, representing 18,000 newspapers in 100 countries, agrees. The Paris-based group has condemned the jailing of journalist Raul Rivero and 25 colleagues as “unfounded . . . unfair . . . unjust.” They were thrown into prison for “exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression,” the association says.
While Ottawa rightly shrinks from severing diplomatic ties with Castro, or imposing economic sanctions that would further impoverish his people, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham rightly pushed, though unsuccessfully, for a declaration condemning Cuba at the Organization of American States summit this past week. And Ottawa intends to follow the European Union in scaling back high-level meetings with Cuban political and cultural officials, and stepping up contacts with dissidents. Canada has urged the 34-member OAS to adopt the same approach.
Chretien ordered a similar “frost” in March, 1999, when Castro spurned the PM’s request to free four prominent dissidents who were unfairly jailed. The chill lasted three years until all four were released.
Graham’s approach to this latest outrage is a good diplomatic start. But ordinary Canadians can also challenge Castro’s repression. We can complain to the Cuban embassy in Ottawa. Express our revulsion for Cuba’s unfreedom on our next visit. And support groups that support dissidents.
Castro denounces such protests as the machinations of “a gang, a mafia” in cahoots with “Yankee imperialists” and the “Nazi-fascist” U.S. government. But Castro misreads our sympathies.
Canadians feel for Cubans as any free people feels for those who are not yet free. The yearning for democracy by Cuban citizens engages us.
Castro’s attempt to stamp out those yearnings is outrageous and unacceptable. It is a real setback for Canada-Cuba relations.