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Dr. John Kirk of Dalhousie University speaking with Ambassador Ernesto Sentí Darias
TO OUTSIDE EYES, Cuba is a dichotomy. A nation identified with warm, tropical weather, beautiful beaches and a rich cultural heritage, it is a favourite destination for tourists, especially Canadians, over 600,000 of whom have visited the island republic. But it has also endured an American-imposed economic, commercial and financial blockade since 1962.

The Cuban Ambassador to Canada, Ernesto Sentí Darias, addressed this dichotomy on November 23rd at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a lecture called "Cuba: Beyond the Beaches." It's an evocative metaphor for a talk, organized by the Nova Scotia-Cuba Association, and billed as an opportunity to learn about Cuba, its foreign policy and the future of the revolution in a non-biased environment. Nova Scotians filled the small auditorium to overflowing, with many youth sitting in the aisles, for the two-hour-plus function.

Ambassador Sentí Darias, who has a background in international law, belies stereotypes of great power diplomats. The seemingly unpretentious Cuban ambassadors, when visiting Halifax, stay in a B & B.

"Cuba was known for many years for the beaches, rum, cigars, women," said Sentí Darias. "But now Cuba is well-known for [the] educational system, for the health care system. We share our little wealth with everybody."

In fact, Cuban infant mortality in the Americas, a figure of 5.3 per 1,000 live births, is only topped by Canada and amongst the top thirty in the world.

80th birthday greetings a Cuban woman watches Fidel Castro on television during a visit in August, 2006 with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (AFP)
Thousands of volunteer Cuban doctors carry out assistance abroad for minimum renumeration. Cuban physicians working in Bolivia, for example, have attended 2.8 million people in just under a year, representing 30 per cent of the country's population, many of whom received medical care for the first time. Bilateral Cuban-Bolivian agreements has resulted in the construction of 18 hospitals.

Like most Canadians, what I know about Cuba is based on snippets in the news and bits of popular culture, 85 per cent of which is produced in the United States, says the ambassador. We hear things about it, both good and bad, but are never sure what is truth and what is fiction. I attended this talk hoping to have some of the myths about Cuba either confirmed or debunked.

The Ambassador repeatedly emphasized Cuba's right to exist as a nation with dignity, regardless of ideology, a point with which few in attendance seemed to disagree. While Sentí Darias' lecture, and the question and answer period that followed, gave new context to a nation few can claim to truly understand, I was naturally left with many more questions when it ended.

Sentí Darias did highlight Canada's economic ties to Cuba, noting that Canada does one billion dollars in trade with Cuba each year, a product of both countries' efforts to pursue a normal relationship. Canada is Cuba's third-largest trading partner - the country's main trading partners are Venezuela, China, Spain and Canada - and fourth-largest foreign investor. Cuba is particularly interested in joint ventures that will enhance the local infrastructure, while transferring skills to citizens. One concern, however, is the extra-territorial application by the United States of its Helms-Burton Act to Canadian concerns, an intrusion into Canadian sovereignty. [1] Former Cuban president Fidel Castro has cited Canadian-Cuban relations as a model for countries with radically different political ideologies.

As for travel, in spite of fewer US visitors, tourism has increased. The blockade is then a futile gesture, argues Sentí Darias, who himself has relatives living in the United States, with those hurt most being Cuban-Americans who are now restricted by the United States in visiting their relatives on the island to one trip every three years. In spite of the risk of fines up to $65,000, reports the Los Angeles Times, "many" Americans fly to Havana through the back door, from Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas or Mexico. At least 500 Americans were fined last year for traveling to Cuba, according to the Times.

"We only pretend to have the same right to live as equals," said Sentí Darias. "We are fighting with all our hearts for the future of our kids. That's the scene of the Cuban revolution."

Legacies of the Special Period

I had read an article in the July, 2006 edition of The New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. In it, he noted that "most [Cubans] do not earn enough money to eat well, much less live comfortably." Most, said Anderson, have some form of contact with the black market.

The Ambassador didn't directly address such an assertion but he did say his government tries "to keep a minimum for every single Cuban, no matter who you are, how much you earn and which possibility each has."

Prof Isaac Saney with Antonio Pubillones, former political counsellor of the Cuban Embassy, in November, 2005
I visited with Isaac Saney who teaches in the College of Continuing Education at Dalhousie University and International Development Studies at St. Mary's University, authored the book Cuba: A Revolution in Motion (Fernwood), and had just returned from a two-week public lecture tour of the United States on the subject. He says that Cuba has to be placed in a third world context when considering its economic standing.

The idea that Cuba is utterly impoverished "is an idiotic conception," he says. "When you look at it in the case of the third world it's important to understand that Cuba compares extremely favourably," says Saney. "It's no coincidence that Cuba is leading the Non-Aligned Movement." Saney points out that this movement comprises almost two-thirds of the states in the United Nations and "the vast majority of humanity."

"Cuba looks very different when you're flying in from Halifax [or] Montreal than if you're flying in from Lagos, Guatemala City or Philippines."

I was also curious about the lasting effects of Cuba's so-called Special Period on its population. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, subsidies to the Cuba ended. Cuba's GDP dropped by 35 per cent, sending the country into an economic depression. There was a stark decline in the living standards of Cubans and many pundits predicted the end of the revolution.

The crisis forced the Cuban government to allow more non-socialist economic and civil policies, such as the legalization of the American dollar, limited private enterprise and opening the country to mass tourism. The moves saved Cuba.

Since then the Cuban government has successfully eliminated the US dollar from transactions on the island preferring other currencies like the Euro, British Pound and the Canadian Dollar. The economy has registered steady growth, including a 12.5 per cent improvement in gross domestic product in 2006, surpassing the island's 11.8 per cent growth in 2005.

Farmers' market in Havana (file photo)
Again that dichotomy: the US blockade cut Cuban agriculture off from its source of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, forcing it to innovate. Now Cuban organic farming together with its urban farms and markets are the envy of American environmentalists. Ambassador Sentí Darias underlined that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), based in Switzerland, recently cited Cuba as the only nation in the world that meets the minimum requirements for sustainable development. Its report stated that Cuba uses resources at a lower rate than the per capita capacity on the planet, and is above the human development index established by the United Nations. Cuban environmental policy combines equitable economic and social development with environmental protection, in a concept of sustainable development that includes all citizens without economic distinction.

However, when the Special Period came to an end in the mid-1990s, a generation of Cuban youth had come of age in a era of stark contrast to the ideals of Castro's revolution. "It introduced a level of inequality in Cuba," notes Saney. "There were those who had access to material items and those who didn't."

Subsequently, Cuba now finds itself in "the Battle of Ideas," a conflict between what Saney calls the ethos of having "how many things one can acquire" and the ethos of being, "the creation of a new being defined by his or her capacity to extend solidarity to fellow human beings."

Saney says that the disaffection many from this generation feel to the revolution is a significant problem, but it is being addressed. The government has enacted a series of social, economic and ideological campaigns aimed at the people alienated from the revolution. "They understand that it is the only project that can guarantee social justice and independence."

Sentí Darias, openly invited journalists to interview a delegation of Cuban youth visiting Amherst and Truro, Nova Scotia on an exchange visit with Canada World Youth as to their impressions of Cuba. However, by the time this journalist contacted Canada World Youth a week later, the youth had just departed for home.

A nation prepared?

A short time into Sentí Darias' question and answer period, the inevitable question regarding Fidel Castro's health came up: is Cuba ready for such a monumental shift in its government?

Organic farm on the outskirts of Havana (file photo)
"Yes, we are ready," Sentí Darias responded. "We must be ready," adding that "Fidel has given Cubans their dignity." The statement garnered a sympathetic round of applause from the audience.

Sentí Darias quickly pointed out though that the recent exchange of power from Fidel to his brother Raul Castro, which has been painted as a quasi-dynastic transition by some, is simply part of the political process. Raul holds the position of vice-president and in the Cuban constitution, like in the United States, if the President is unable to fulfill their duties, the vice-president steps in their place.

This might be true, but by seemingly playing down the transition, is Sentí Darias just towing the party line?

There has always been collective leadership in Cuba, says Saney. Policy goes through a series of debates in the National Assembly. "It's not a rubber stamp."

The transition from Fidel to Raul will be smooth. It's something that even the CIA admits. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which stipulates that the United States cannot have any relations with Cuba, applies to any government, not just one headed by Fidel Castro.

Fidel carries a lot of weight, adds Saney. He is a transcendent figure due to his historic role in the revolution and his charisma. But contrary to popular belief, he does not rule as a dictator. "The image that the revolution is led by one man is unsustainable.

"Among friends and enemies, there is no discussion that Fidel is a great man," said Sentí Darias. I don't mean that you must share his views. He's a personality in history, you can't deny that."

Reports from the Cuban government are that Fidel Castro is recovering and Saney takes those reports at face value. But both Saney and Sentí Darias say that at the age of 80, his death is certainly an impending inevitably.

According to Saney, if the revolution were to end, it would have done so when the economy collapsed during the early 90s economic crisis.

"Is it a perfect society? No. Does it have a long way to go? Yes," says Saney.

"But you can say that for every other country."

"Many countries in Latin America," said Ambassador Sentí Darias, "they live the way Cuba used to live before 1959."

Some countries are poor, he underlined, but they have schools and they have health care.

"I prefer to live quiet in my country."


1 In July, 2006 the Bush administration vowed to crack down on nickel exports from Cuba, at least half of which are accounted for by Canada's Sherritt International Corp. But Sherritt's chairman, Ian Delaney, immediately labelled the proposed actions as "nothing new" and said that the continuing U.S. embargo on the island Republic is simply "nonsense." Sherritt operates a joint venture with the Cuban government that last year produced 34,000 tonnes of nickel. A current expansion of the facility at Moa Bay in Holguín province, a joint venture, is expected to increase output by about 50 per cent. Sherritt also produces cobalt at the same facility and is involved in oil and gas and soybean operations on Cuba as well. Nickel is produced as a concentrate in Cuba, shipped by sea to Halifax and by rail to Sherritt's refinery in Fort Saskatchewan, where it is refined into metal and then sold internationally, primarily in Europe. The Helms-Burton act makes it illegal to sell it to the United States, either in pure form or included in end products. Mr. Delaney, Sherritt's chairman, said the proposed crackdown was the "same nonsense that's been touted for years.

"There's always been more heat than light in this discussion," Mr. Delaney continued, arguing that the idea that Cubans are hiding assets abroad is a "ludicrous joke."

"We're dealing with a country [Cuba] that really has the moral high ground," he added. (Source: Cuba Journal, 11 July 2006)

On the other hand, the Bank of Nova Scotia, invoking the U.S. Patriot Act to which it has submitted, has recently announced via its Jamaican branch that it will no longer provide its monetary transaction services in U.S. dollars to Cuba, thus provoking a debate in Canada regarding the legality of a Canadian institution yielding in such a manner to foreign legislation that goes against national interests. The Canadian Network on Cuba, a solidarity network with Cub, has informed Scotia Bank that it will ask its 55,000 members to end their relationships with the bank and to inform their MPs of the situation.

On the Internet

Nova Scotia Cuba Association

Granma International English edition

Granma Daily

New Year's Message from Fidel Castro Ruz to the Cuban People

*With files from Tony Seed. Ian Gormely is an intern with shunpiking magazine and a student in the Department of Journalism at the University of King's College, Halifax.

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