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Nahon-Serfaty: Canada should end its tolerant stance toward Cuba's dictatorship

'Why should Cubans have fewer rights to a freely elected government ... and the guarantees of a democracy than Canadians?'

In this file photo taken on July 11, 2021, a man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana.
In this file photo taken on July 11, 2021, a man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana. Photo by Yamil Lage /AFP via Getty

Cuba, the country with the longest dictatorship in the western hemisphere, is for most Canadians a Caribbean paradise of sun and beaches. Before the pandemic, more than a million Canadians visited the island in 2019. The reality for most Cubans is very different. They suffer human rights abuses, live in poverty and, and when trying to protest for freedom, are harshly repressed. According to Amnesty International, the Cuban authorities imprisoned hundreds of Cubans during the protests of July 2021.

The Cuban regime has played a disruptive role in the geopolitics of Americas since Fidel Castro grabbed power in 1958. First, in the context of the Cold War as ally of the Soviets spreading the revolution in Latin American. The cases of Venezuelan guerrillas in the ’60s, the Che Guevara failed campaign in Bolivia, and the influence on the Chilean socialist Allende are the best examples of such tragic interventions).

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Second, the role Cuba has played in supporting the authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua. According to a recent report by the United Nations’ Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Human Rights abuses in Venezuela, former officials of the Venezuelan General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) confirmed that “agents of the Cuban State have instructed, advised and participated in intelligence and counterintelligence activities with the DGCIM.”

Third, Cuba remains a close ally of Iran, Russia and China, relaying the propaganda and misinformation of these governments in the Americas (including Canada) through its television channel Cubavisión Internacional, its news agency Prensa Latina and a network of indoctrinated scholars, journalists and commentators. The political analyst Armando Chaguaceda has qualified this disproportionate influence of communist Cuba as the “complicity of the progressive hegemony.”

Canadian governments (both Liberal and Conservative) have played an ambiguous, sometimes contradictory role, in their relationship with the Cuban regime. With the aim of doing things differently than the United States, the Canadian position has been to maintain full relationships with the Cuban dictatorship, promoting business and tourism. The question one should ask: Is this consistent with a democratic country like Canada that declares it defends human rights and freedoms in the world?

Sarah Teich, a Canadian attorney and fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, introduced at Global Affairs Canada a petition asking the Trudeau government to implement individual sanctions against Cuban officials involved in violations of human rights. These targeted measures would serve to freeze assets in Canada of the individual officers who committed rights violations, and use them to compensate the victims. In a recent visit to Ottawa, Rosa María Payá, founder of the initiative Cuba Decide, and the daughter of the human rights activist Oswaldo Payá, allegedly killed by the Castro regime in 2012 in opaque circumstances, expressed her hope that the Canadian government would change its position regarding the Cuban dictatorship.

During a discussion panel at the institute, Payá was asked by a former government security adviser of the Canadian governments if it would better to change the “hook” and talk about reform within the regime instead of “regime change.” The young Cuban human rights advocate answered: “Why should Cubans have fewer rights to a freely elected government in a multiparty election and the guarantees of a democracy than Canadians? We are also human and we have the same rights as any other human being.”

Last year, in the midst of the protests in Cuba, Cuban-Canadians introduced a petition in the House of Commons requesting the government “Call on the Cuban regime to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained and imprisoned for the exercise of their freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” The response of the foreign affairs minister, besides repeating hollow rhetoric about the “deep concern” of the Trudeau government about human rights abuses, also followed the narrative of the Cuban dictatorship by saying that “Canada also understands that the U.S. embargo has a negative impact on the living conditions of the Cuban people and on Canadians conducting legitimate trade and investment in Cuba.”

A shameful declaration from a government that claims to respect human freedoms and rights. Cubans deserve better from Canada and Canadians.

Isaac Nahon-Serfaty is an Associate Professor, University of Ottawa.