Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't support Castro's island prison

It grates against our national character that Canada continues to do business with Cuba, thereby helping to prop up Fidel Castro's tyrannical regime.

Trade between our two nations is broad, encapsulating resources, mining, agriculture and beyond, but captains of industry are not the only ones who are complicit. During the winter months, many well-meaning Canadians fly, in grinning ignorance, to that imprisoned island for vacations. I say they are ignorant because my countrymen are not sociopaths: The tragic irony of sipping a Cuba Libre beside the pool in a hotel that native Cubans are forbidden from entering under pain of imprisonment, and within walking distance of one of Castro's torture chambers, would dampen the holiday of even the most hard-hearted snowbird, were they aware of the full circumstances by which they came to be clutching that refreshing beverage.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Castro's regime lost US$4.5-billion in annual subsidies and billions more in trade. To make up for this lost revenue, the dictator decided to promote tourism, and Canadians account for the largest percentage of visitors to Cuba.

Certainly, vacations in Cuba are cheaper than other destinations. Slave labour has never been expensive. Vacationers who employ the flimsy subterfuge that they are injecting money into an impoverished economy ought to be aware that their dollars go directly to the sinister state, which pays the locals in worthless Cuban pesos. Private property and enterprise are essentially outlawed and Cubans who own contraband luxuries or approach tourists without permission are dealt with brutally.

A family friend who defected to Canada from Cuba some years ago -- and whose name cannot appear in print for the sake of his loved ones who are still in captivity there -- can attest to the contrast between the two countries. Having leapt to freedom from an airplane that was refuelling on a tarmac in Canada -- one Cuban guard on each arm to break his fall -- it would stun him to learn that citizens of the country he had risked his life to reach use the island prison of 11 million human beings as a relaxation destination.

As Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff put it, in the interests of commerce, Canada has "turned a blind eye to a dictator." Unfortunately, few Canadian politicians of any party share his sober view. There is no shortage of government and academic types willing to tout the miracles of the Cuban health care and education systems -- myths that are routinely exploded by the testimony of liberated Cuban citizens -- and some go so far as to suggest that Canada should follow Cuba's lead. This line of argument will be vastly more compelling when we see thousands of people risking their lives on rafts to get in to Cuba.

The Canadian government's policy on Cuba continues to be "constructive engagement," which is precisely the kind of mealy-mouthed formulation that has been used to justify profit made from misery since time immemorial. Defenders of the status quo insist that Ottawa and Havana have "agreed to disagree" on some issues. How tragically typical of anaemic Canadian foreign policy that our response to tens of thousands of deaths, disappearances and torture carried out over half a century is an emphatic, "We disagree!"

Since 2006, there has been continued speculation as to Castro's health, or whether he is even alive. From time to time, El Jefe has appeared in his track suit to dispel rumours of his demise. But whether or not the despot has gone on to his reward, passing power to his equally brutal brother Raul, tyranny is tyranny and Canada ought to have nothing to do with it.

Canadians are lovers of freedom, and we have made supreme sacrifices in its defence. As pertains to Cuba, our corporate and personal decisions should be more in keeping with our proud history.