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You Won't Catch Me in Cuba

Take a sunny vacation there? Not while there is political repression and no democracy.

Bill Tieleman 1 Feb 2011TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him here or visit his blog.

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Havana lately? Not me.

"I cannot go to Cuba to relax on the beach and keep my eyes shut, while dozens of political prisoners are behind bars there." -- Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, 2006

Each year, over 800,000 Canadians visit Cuba for a sun-filled holiday of beaches, rum and great music.

I have not and will not be one of them.

Unfortunately for the Cuban people, their country is run by a repressive military dictatorship that rejects democracy and severely punishes those who speak out for change.

Even leaving the country is close to impossible for most of its citizens, some of whom still take desperate measures to escape the island on dangerous rafts.

In those circumstances, I cannot in good conscience support Cuba's government by being a Canadian tourist there.

Like Vaclav Havel -- who fought a repressive regime in his own country and was jailed for five years -- I am deeply troubled by the Cuban communist government of former President Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul's flagrant and ongoing violations of basic human rights.

"We cannot pretend that nothing wrong happens in Cuba. A lot of evil occurs there," Havel said. Amnesty International, the respected human rights organization, has not even been allowed to visit Cuba since 1990. That alone should give Canadians pause before jumping on the plane to the beaches of Veradero.

But Amnesty has still documented repeated and severe abuses of Cubans for attempting to exercise basic human rights. Its 2010 Report on Cuba says:

"Civil and political rights continued to be severely restricted by the authorities. Government critics continued to be imprisoned; many reported that they were beaten during arrest."

"Restrictions on freedom of expression were commonplace. The government continued to curtail freedom of association and assembly."

Activists for change

Despite the repression, there are Cubans fighting for change.

Yoani Sánchez is -- somewhat amazingly -- a pro-democracy blogger in Cuba. Her life has been extremely difficult and her courage extraordinary. As Amnesty International stated in its 2010 report:

"In September (2009), Yoani Sánchez, author of the popular blog Generación Y, was denied an exit visa by the Cuban authorities. She had been due to travel to the USA to receive the Maria Moors Cabot prize for journalism at Columbia University."

"She was also denied an exit visa to travel to Brazil following an invitation from the Brazilian Senate to present her book at a conference and address the legislature.

"In November, Yoani Sánchez and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo were forced into a car by state security agents and beaten and threatened before being released." Amnesty said. "The attackers told Yoani Sánchez 'this is the end of it.'"

Sanchez has bravely written about her own situation and those of her fellow democracy dissidents, actually insisting that others not focus only on her.

"Avoid the cult of personality of a single emblematic blogger and take the alternative blogosphere as a phenomenon in which a growing number of Cubans are participating," Sanchez writes in a "how to help" section. "Don't repeat in the virtual world the adoration of individuals that does so much damage in the real world."

Sanchez is indeed not alone as a democracy dissident in Cuba. Last Friday Guillermo Fariñas was arrested by police for the third time in 48 hours and then released.

Fariñas was honoured by the European Union last year with its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- but he was also prevented by Cuban authorities from leaving the country to receive it.

And in December, Amnesty International said that: "Between Dec. 9 and 10, at least a hundred human rights activists were temporarily detained in different locations across Cuba by the authorities in what they believe was an attempt to prevent them from attending several acts to commemorate Human Rights Day. They were released a few hours later."

'Country of long shadows'

Being a dissident in Cuba is to be under constant surveillance and intimidation.

In one recent blog posting on Jan. 11 this year titled "The Country of Long Shadows", Sanchez details the situation.

"There are two men on the corner. One is wearing an earphone while the other peers into the door of a building.

"All the neighbours know perfectly well why they are there. A dissident lives on one of the floors of the building; two members of the political police watch who comes and goes and keep a car nearby to follow him wherever he goes.

"They don't try to hide because they want this person, who signs his name to his critical opinions, to know they're there; they want his friends to distance themselves so as not to end up caught in the network of control, in the spiderweb of vigilance.

"It is not an isolated case. Here, every non-conformist has his own shadow -- or a whole group of shadows -- who follow him around," Sanchez concludes.

It's not a picture postcard situation like the cheery scenes the Cuba Tourist Board in Canada promotes on its website.

Lift the US trade boycott

While I will personally boycott Cuba so long as it remains a one-party state, I do not support the continued American boycott of trade with the country. As Amnesty International rightly observes:

"The Cuban government has repeatedly used the embargo as a justification for maintaining restrictions on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," AI stated on Sept. 8, 2010, in criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama for extending the Trading With the Enemy Act boycott provisions, in effect since 1963.

"The embargo and political antagonism with the U.S. continue to be used as a pretext for curbing dissent and criticism of the Cuban government. As a result, independent journalists and political and human rights activists are continuously harassed, intimidated and many face criminal prosecution," AI concludes.

But unfortunately, many decades of trade between Canada, European nations and other democracies has not produced the needed change in Cuba.

That's why individual Canadian tourists can send a strong message with economic impact to the Cuban dictatorship by vacationing elsewhere. Tourism is Cuba's second largest source of revenue and Canada is the number one country sending visitors there.

To be clear, there is no organized tourism boycott nor are pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba calling for it, although to do so would be highly dangerous for them.

It is simply a personal choice, something citizens of Canada and other democracies are privileged to have.

What about Cuba's successes?

The counter argument is that Cuba has many positive accomplishments despite its repressive government. Infant mortality is among the lowest in the world and better than the United States, thanks to its public health care programs, and its medical services to citizens are vastly superior to most developing countries.

Public education is free at every level and Cuba spends 10 per cent of its central budget on education versus four per cent in the United Kingdom and two per cent in the U.S., according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO].

And Cuba's social safety net is in many ways superior to those of many of its Caribbean basin neighbours.

But Cuba's citizens pay a heavy and unnecessary price with the loss of liberty and democracy. And now, with President Raul Castro cutting 500,000 public sector jobs and significantly reducing state subsidies and ration cards for food and other items, that safety net is fraying considerably.

Gays harassed

Cuba also has a long and sordid history of repression of gays and lesbians, personally documented by the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinoldo Arenas in the book and movie Before Night Falls.

In recent years, and despite official public efforts to proclaim Cuba anti-homophobic, reports continue to indicate police harassment of gay activists, including the 2009 jailing of Mario José Delgado Gonzáles, who tried to organize a "Mr. Gay Havana" contest and who is vice-president of the Reinaldo Arenas LGBT Memorial Foundation.

Cuba also voted at the United Nations last year to remove a reference to gays and lesbians in a resolution condemning unjustified executions -- many of the countries that voted with Cuba criminalize homosexuality and five call it a capital offence. Canada voted against it.

And Cuba's history of military intervention to support other dictatorships is odious. Cuba backed the vicious regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s -- a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world at that time.

The romance is over

Cuba supporters will no doubt be outraged at my suggestion that Canadians consider boycotting the country to show opposition to its repressive record and take sun vacations elsewhere.

They prefer to promote the romantic view of the photogenic cigar-smoking Che Guevara and Fidel Castro leading the popular uprising against the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But the early promise of the revolution faded to the ugly reality of another dictatorship that espoused high ideals while replicating repression.

Many of those Cuba supporters will adamantly oppose a personal tourism boycott, but totally supported international boycotts against the apartheid regime of South Africa and the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile when those two terrible governments were in power.

You can't have it both ways -- you either support democracy and human rights everywhere or you don't. I backed South Africa and Chile boycotts, but I don't look away from Cuba's abuses.

Arguments from Canadian-Cuba support groups that say "Cubans want you to witness their country while it remains pristine -- before the impending onslaught of American tourists is unleashed," as a recent email put it, are simply misleading when it comes to democracy and human rights.

"Rest assured that your dollars are not filling the coffers of greedy multi-nationals involved in war, oil and water theft, environmental destruction, sweatshops, human rights and labor violations, or drug and sex trafficking -- all things Cuba decries," Cuba Explorer claims while at the same time avoiding discussing the country's disastrous human rights record.

Forget China, too

Perhaps the best argument for visiting Cuba is to meet ordinary Cubans and see directly what the situation is there. Certainly many Canadians approach the country with that view.

But there is no way of being a tourist to Cuba without involuntarily supporting the government, since it is heavily dependent on that income.

Would ordinary Cubans suffer if tourism dropped? Yes, that would likely be a temporary result and regrettable, but similar to other international boycotts to encourage democracy.

However, even dictatorships must react to internal pressure and some of the recent moves to reduce restrictions have only come because Cubans increasingly demand it -- not because the Communist party has had a change of heart.

Ultimately only democracy can respond to the interests of Cubans, who will then make the decision about who and how they will be governed. If they choose to continue supporting the existing administration, that is their right.

For those wondering, in addition to Cuba I also have no intention as a tourist of visiting China or other countries with repressive military dictatorships.

And I remain ever hopeful that the spread of democracy and human rights will increasingly isolate vicious governments, like those of Egypt and Tunisia, where massive protests may lead to lasting democratic reform.

But it's a personal choice for every Canadian who has the opportunity to travel to decide where they go on vacation.

After all, unlike Cuba, it's a free country.

Postscript: appearance on David Berner

I appear on David Berner's new Shaw Cable TV show on the Basi-Virk/B.C. Legislature Raid case tonight at 10:30 p.m. and other times -- check my blog for more info.  [Tyee]

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