Canadians and other tourists a lifeline for cornered Cuba


Canadians and other tourists a lifeline for cornered Cuba




President Barak Obama has thanked Canada for its role in bringing the United States and Cuba together after 50 years of feuding. But, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated, Canada only provided a venue where diplomats from the two countries could talk. It is Obama who courageously changed a policy that made no sense.

The US is Canada’s closest neighbor and biggest trading partner.  But it also maintained excellent relations with Cuba. When the US imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and cut diplomatic relations following Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959, President John Kennedy pressed Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to follow the US lead. Most Latin American countries succumbed to US pressure but Canada and Mexico refused and maintained relations with Cuba.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited the island in 1976 and developed a warm friendship with Castro. When Trudeau died in 2000, Castro flew to Montreal to attend his funeral though he was himself in poor health.

  About a million Canadian tourists are among the three million or so tourists who visit Cuba every year bringing in two to three billion dollars, a huge boost to that country’s wobbling economy. On a recent visit to Cuba we met tourists from several countries. The majority were Canadians, lured by the sun, lovely weather, excellent beaches, reasonable prices and the lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere. Violent crime is rare. Drug warlords and murderers are not tolerated. Pornography and drugs are banned. Prostitution, especially child prostitution, is discouraged. You have to watch out, though, for petty crimes and you occasionally meet a beggar asking for money for food.

We spent most of our time in a tourist resort. There are several in Cuba and more are under construction. We took excursions to three cities and mingled with people. Their education level is high. We met average folks who were MAs, PhDs and medical doctors who were also doing other jobs to supplement their meagre income.

In Cuba health service is free. So is education, even at the university level. Cuban doctors and educators assist all Latin American countries. Some 20,000 foreigners — Europeans, Canadians, Americans but mostly Latin Americans — go to Cuba every year as health tourists. They get first-rate treatment at a reasonable cost.

You also see poverty. We saw long stretches of roads that were dark but busy with bicyclists, pedestrians and traffic. The transportation system is poor and people hitch-hike to get around. The cars are mostly decades-old American models.

Cuba had been hit hard by the US embargo. It lacks major resources. Cigars, sugar-cane and fishing provided most revenues. But the Communist system imposed rigidities and stifled creativity. Cuba needed subsidies and received them from the Soviet Union and later Venezuela. But tumbling oil prices hit those countries and they cut their help to Cuba. So tourism has become a lifeline.

Cubans are dignified and have a sense of humor. On our way to the resort from the airport, the guide welcomed us and said we would feel at home because heavy snow and ice storms had been predicted for Cuba for that week. We laughed. I told one Cuban that I was struck by how cheerful and friendly the people were. He responded that Cubans are easy-going and they know that their harsh conditions are not going to change anytime soon and that they might as well laugh and make the most of it.

Though life is tough, you don’t see the obscene disparities in income and wealth you see elsewhere. Everyone, it seems, is in the same boat — receiving government subsidies for food, education, health and similar facilities. But this is not enough and people scramble to make extra money to make ends meet. My wife saw a doctor for a minor problem and paid the fees. She asked the doctor if it was OK for her to give her a tip (tourists are encouraged to offer tip for services). “It’s up to you. If you like, sure,” she said.

Cuba has other positive features. One is that women are not raped and killed in Cuba on the scale that they are in North America and other places. Also, Blacks, who constitute 20 percent of the population, are not targeted by the white police, as they are in the US. The crime rate is low and you are generally safe.

People we talked to said that most Cubans welcome Obama’s initiative and hope it would translate into good relations with the United States and a better life for them. They said no Cubans would agree to give up on the education, health services and government subsidies they receive. But these are not adequate and they hope that dialogue with the US and reforms in the country would ease their hardships.

The hard-working and dignified Cubans deserve better. They need flexibility and imagination from their government — and respect for their freedom from their giant neighbor, the US, which punished them for more than 50 years but could not break their spirit.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.