This is a moment when Canada is uniquely positioned to come to the aid of the Cuban people. But this time, it’s important that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government send a clear message that they’re not coming to the aid of the Cuban regime.
For the 11 million people of the proud but deeply impoverished island nation, this could be a crucial moment of change. The huge anti-government protests that swept the island on Sunday, and small but still significant ones on Monday and Tuesday, were by all independent accounts a genuine mass outpouring of rage, the culmination of months of nationwide frustration at the deadly incompetence of the authoritarian regime. Such uprisings are extremely rare in Cuba, where even minor protests are routinely crushed and silenced by the police and military.
As one Cuban engineer told a reporter: “There were people who were not political, not intellectuals. The marginalized. People from different social classes. Everyone, just desperate, just fed up.”
But in providing support, Mr. Trudeau needs to walk a political tightrope – and, ideally, ensure that our allies in Washington do not slip off their even more perilous line and jeopardize any hopes of change.
Before we get excited at the prospect of a popular, broadly democratic-minded uprising after 62 years of single-party, planned-economy rule, we need to remember that Cubans are begging for help – and that they and their cause could be badly hurt by the wrong kind of help.
Cuba has been a dangerously poor and undernourished place since the island’s main source of subsidized imports collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This has been amplified into outright starvation by the corruption and economic malaise introduced by President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who became the first Cuban dictator outside the Castro family after a power struggle in 2018.
On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic not only killed Cubans’ only sources of foreign income by ending tourism, but the virus itself is now running rampant, as the government has failed to secure or distribute vaccines.
It did not help that erstwhile U.S. president Donald Trump reinstated – and his successor Joe Biden has not yet removed – America’s long-standing trade embargo against Cuba. That policy had not only failed to dislodge the Cuban dictatorship after decades, but had turned many Cubans angrily anti-American and probably kept the regime in power decades longer than necessary.
But Cuban observers say the embargo, which exempts food exports from the U.S., had little to do with the current wave of malnutrition and repression. Nevertheless, it means that Washington remains unpopular, even among many Cubans who are turning against their regime.
Though Mr. Biden has voiced support for the uprising, it would be extremely unwise and counterproductive for his government to back the rebellion in any material way. Democracy movements in Latin America have a history of failing when the U.S. becomes visibly involved – as many believe happened in Venezuela after Mr. Trump made ham-fisted moves toward providing military support for the country’s democrats.
Mr. Diaz-Canel made it clear on Monday that he will do anything in his power to make it seem as if the mass uprising is part of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. forces, and that the protesters are therefore un-patriotic.
“We must make clear to our people that one can be dissatisfied, that’s legitimate, but we must be able to see clearly when we’re being manipulated,” he said in a speech. “They want to change a system, to impose what type of government in Cuba?”
It did not help that, for example, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, called the protests an “opportunity for us to change the course of events in Cuba.” There’s no sign that Washington is actually intervening, but that sort of language could jeopardize the protesters’ cause.
Canada’s comparatively robust economic and trade ties to Cuba, and its long history of friendly relations with the island, put this country in a unique position to provide food, vaccines and medical assistance to the Cuban people, through both private- and public-sector channels, without discrediting the movement.
Canada’s peril is the opposite of Washington’s. Because this country’s government, and especially its Prime Minister and his family, have been so close to the communist regime, Canada runs the risk of being distrusted by protesters, and even damaging their hopes, by appearing to be supporting Cuba’s rulers during their most repressive moment.
Mr. Trudeau’s warm relations with Mr. Diaz-Canel, who greeted the Canadian leader at the airport during a 2016 visit to Cuba, and his family’s close history with the Castro regime (Fidel Castro was a pallbearer at the funeral of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau) could be a liability if Cubans continue to rise against their regime.
But those things could be an asset, if Canada is to work with Washington on a constructive Cuba policy. At the very least, this awkward situation could make Canada the more effective conduit for the vaccines and food the Cuban people need so badly.
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