Everything about Cuba is political – which is something I learned the hard way before even moving here last summer.
After a decade of writing headlines at The Globe and Mail, I was suddenly making them when a Sun News commentator took a swing at me. My move was proof of left-wing bias in the media, Ezra Levant fumed, calling me a hypocrite and accusing me of propping up the Castro regime.
Then Tony Clement weighed in. Fresh off unveiling a revamp of the museum dedicated to Maoist physician Norman Bethune, the Treasury Board president chastised me for choosing “to live in a communist country.”
Cuba is often discussed in McCarthyist black and white, even if ministers of the Crown prefer grey when portraying China. And though the United States tightly controls and usually prohibits doing business with Cuba (which it still considers a state sponsor of terrorism), Canada has maintained a presence here since John Diefenbaker refused to join the American embargo after the revolution swept to power in 1959.
This charged atmosphere affects everything in Canada’s and Cuba’s extensive economic relationship – and even explains how I got to Havana. In July of 2012, I left my editing job and relocated with my wife, who took a posting as head of CARE International’s office. CARE U.S. manages most of the aid agency’s operations in Latin America, but it’s CARE Canada that oversees its work here.
The move has given me a front-row seat as the Revolution evolves and Cuba re-engineers its creaking command economy. So when Report on Business magazine asked last fall what the changes now under way mean for the country, I applied for press accreditation, started reading (via 56-kilobyte-per-second dial-up) and made a few calls. Then, most important, I hit the streets to find out.
We hadn’t even gotten out of bed when I first heard the radio announcement one October morning. Moments later, the phone rang: A Cuban friend was calling, excitedly, to make sure we hadn’t missed the news. When I passed by vendors before 9 o’clock, the daily state newspapers – Granma and Juventud Rebelde – were sold out. At the University of Havana, where I was taking Spanish, students were poring over a 30-page edition of the Gaceta Oficial.
Cubans, they learned, would at last be allowed to travel freely. Which is no small thing for a country that has seen tens of thousands flee illicitly over the years. Now, the state would no longer require citizens to obtain a dreaded tarjeta blanca – a process that was always costly and bureaucratic, and sometimes fruitless and humiliating. And the state was also making it easier for Cubans to come back. The reform extended the time citizens can spend off the island to a renewable period of two years, effectively eliminating the salida definitiva (definitive departure) stamp that required anyone leaving for the long term to surrender their property.
As the January implementation date approached, word came down that even doctors – Cuba’s most-prized professionals – would be able to come and go as they please.
The country has seen a continual loosening of rules since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing older brother, Fidel, in 2006. And in 2011, the Communist Party approved a five-year plan to redefine Cuban socialism by increasing food production; creating a robust (yet controlled) private sector, complete with a tax system; and shrinking government – through layoffs exceeding one million workers, or one-fifth of the workforce. All so the state can sustainably continue to deliver free health care, education, housing and other basic services.
But for all this, the scope of the travel change was surprising. “No one expected the wide-open policy the government has taken,” says Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian lawyer (with Heenan Blaikie) who has called Cuba home for 20 years. “It’s a huge leap of faith.” Results were immediate. Urban professionals rushed in large numbers to obtain passports (often to have one just in case), which the government usually issued within days.
Philip Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center, suggests Havana’s biggest concern is the potential for brain drain. “One could imagine they would have done migration reform last so they would be able to show they have done a lot to create new sources of employment,” he tells me by phone from Washington. “That they took this step at the start clearly indicates they’re making a bet that a great many Cubans have a desire to leave Cuba and come back.”