It is not often that the United Church of Canada, the (Anglican) Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, Oxfam, and the Communist Party of Canada join to lobby the Canadian government. But that is what they have just done.
Together with 27 other Church groups, unions, development agencies and civil society groups in mid-April they wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, requesting humanitarian aid for Cuba, and asking Canada to lobby Washington for a change in its policy towards Cuba.
What unites this broad alliance is their shared concern about Cuba’s current social and economic crises and the continuing impact of a US policy of aggression against Cuba.
Cuba is in desperate shape, with major shortages of food and medicine. The shelves in the pharmacies and grocery stores are empty. There isn’t enough fuel to transport fresh produce to the cities. The inflation rate is 44 percent. The price of food and non-alcoholic beverages in March 2022 cost 72 percent more than the same period last year.
I (Kirk) was in Cuba in December 2022 and again in April this year. I saw first-hand how desperate life is for ordinary Cubans.
A friend who is a dental surgeon in Havana told me that he had been unable to perform surgery for three months because of a lack of anesthetics. Another medical colleague, head of the emergency department at a large hospital, told me that they were badly in need of everything from antibiotics to bandages, painkillers to Band-Aids.
There are also nationwide fuel shortages which, combined with ancient power generator infrastructure, have resulted in massive blackouts—some lasting days.
In late April 2023, fuel was only guaranteed for tourist activities, public transportation, ambulances and hearses. University classes in five provinces had to go online. A lack of fuel resulted in a concert by the national symphony orchestra being cancelled, as was the traditional annual May Day parade—for the first time since 1959.
Food rations—including essentials such as basic grains and cooking oil—often arrive late and are incomplete. The 2022 sugar harvest—historically the mainstay of the economy—was the worst in over a century, reaching only half its target. This year’s is predicted to be worse.
While tourism has increased 139 percent over the same period last year, it is still far behind the pre-COVID numbers (4.2 million for 2019).
Cuba is in crisis, and in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Hence the alliance of these 35 groups, and the letter to the Canadian government.
What is happening in Cuba?
There are several explanations for the current crisis. The pandemic decimated Cuba’s critically important tourist industry for the past two years. Moreover, the country’s traditional top-down economic management system also hamstrings innovation and efficiency. Worst, of course, is the US embargo—the longest in contemporary history. Its screws tightened during the Trump presidency and barely loosened since—wreaking havoc with every sector of the economy.
Nature has also caused major damage to the island. There is widespread drought, with 400,000 people affected in March. Hurricane Ian, with winds of 220 kilometres an hour, devastated western Cuba in late September 2022, damaging 63,000 homes, and destroying several thousand. A month earlier fire destroyed half of Cuba’s only supertanker oil storage facility in Matanzas.
It is not surprising that some 280,000 Cubans left the island for the United States in 2022, the greatest exodus in decades.
Ultimately, however, the causes are less important today than the reality—and the massive humanitarian needs of the Cuban people.
In the early 1990s during a similar humanitarian crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Canada stepped up aid to the Cuban people.
This 35-member alliance wants the Canadian government to not only support Cubans with increased humanitarian (food and medical) aid but also to use its good offices to lobby the Biden administration to drop the debilitating trade embargo on Cuba, in effect since 1962.
The embargo was once again condemned at the United Nations General Assembly last year, with 185 countries (including Canada) supporting Cuba, and only two (the United States and Israel) supporting it.
The alliance also wants Ottawa to press Washington to take Cuba off the list of countries that allegedly support terrorism. This designation, unsupported by evidence, was overturned by Barack Obama, but slapped back on by Donald Trump, and remains in place.
Being on this list (along with North Korea, Iran and Syria) has significant consequences. International banks are unwilling to process Cuban payments and have frozen accounts for businesses and individuals seeking a normal commercial relationship with Cuba. It has a chilling effect on bank transactions, academic exchanges, investment and trade. It has also made it difficult for faith-based groups to send food to the Cuban people.
This all has a major human cost on the Cuban population, resulting in widespread food and medicine shortages—as the government faces obstacles in importing badly needed supplies.
The group’s letter to Ministers Joly and Sajjan reminds them of the close historical ties between Canada and Cuba. Canada and Mexico were the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere not to break relations with Cuba in the 1960s, and Pierre Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO country to visit Cuba. For its part, Cuba was the only country in 1970 willing to accept the FLQ terrorists from Québec. It is still Canada’s principal market in the Caribbean/Central American region, and Canadians currently make up 51 percent of tourists to the island.
Cuba desperately needs food and medical aid now. It also deserves an end to the longest-standing embargo in modern times.
Canada can play a major role in promoting both outcomes. By doing so it will provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance, but will also enhance its own role in the region where Cuba, because of its medical aid to dozens of countries, plays an outsized role. The ball is now in the court of Ministers Joly and Sajjan.
Stephen Kimber is an award-winning journalist and the author of 13 books, including What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.
John Kirk is Professor Emeritus of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University and the author and co-editor of 18 books on Cuba.