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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Crisis in Cuba: a role for Canada?

It is time for Canada to increase food and medical aid through direct bilateral channels

Canadian PoliticsLatin America and the CaribbeanSocialismUSA Politics

Hand painted mural showing the Cuban flag and Che Guevara in the neighbourhood in Old Havana, Cuba. Photo by Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress.

Cuba is facing its most significant humanitarian crisis in more than 60 years. Where to start in describing the many shortages faced by the average Cuban?

The much-vaunted health care system in Cuba is facing major challenges. Medicine production is down by 40 percent, and 12,000 doctors have left the system in the last two years, either working in the private sector outside medicine, or having emigrated. Pharmacy shelves are bare, and patients are often asked by physicians to request medical supplies from family members abroad.

Food shortages are startling. The ration system has traditionally helped to ensure that all—and especially the most vulnerable—had sufficient food.

But now there are delays in providing these essential supplies, and occasional shortages have resulted. Milk powder supplements for young children and seniors fell short this year, and for the first time the Cuban government had to seek external support from the UN World Food Programme.

It is estimated that Cubans spend 70 percent of their income on food. The minimum salary in Cuba (2,100 pesos per month) is equivalent to about USD$8—just about enough to buy a tray of 30 eggs. Senior citizens (with a minimum pension of 1,528 pesos per month) face even greater difficulties and rely upon government soup kitchens to supplement their rations.

Taking up the slack in terms of providing food are the small- and medium-sized enterprises which sell imported food—either bought locally with family remittances or via online purchases placed by family members abroad. It is not known how much food is provided in this way, but it has become a necessary supplement to Cuba’s domestic food system.

The inflation rate has varied between 30 and 45 percent in the last two years, making living conditions extremely challenging. The difference between official exchange rates and the street is significant: officially set at 120 pesos to the US dollar, the going street rate is 350. Cuba is now firmly in the midst of a dollarized economy.

There are frequent power outages throughout the island due to shortages of fuel and badly outdated energy-generating facilities. The extremely low cost of gasoline recently increased by over 400 percent, resulting in a major decrease in transportation across Cuba.

Faced with these major challenges and shortages, and an uncertain future, many Cubans have left for the United States—some 425,000 in the last two years alone. These tend to be the youngest and brightest risk-takers. Left behind is a large ageing population—with 22 percent over 60.

Causes of the crisis

There are two major causes of this challenging situation. On the one hand is the nature of the system. Government control, excessive bureaucracy, and lack of financial incentives have made for an inefficient economic structure. This is seen clearly in terms of agriculture, given that 80 percent of food is imported. While 20 percent of the workforce is now in the private sector, government restrictions have hindered the full potential of businesses as catalysts for sustained economic growth.

Even more significant is the role of the United States, which has imposed a punishing embargo on the island since 1962. US sanctions have been strengthened by additional draconian bills passed in 1992 and 1996. In April 1960, senior State Department official Lester Mallory outlined US goals: “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Apart from the administration of Barack Obama, isolation and economic warfare has been the objective of Washington for more than six decades. The Trump years were particularly damaging for Cuba, as they introduced new restrictions on Americans’ travel to the island nation. Family remittances from the US virtually dried up under Trump, and some 420 Western Union offices in Cuba closed.

Travel to Cuba was severely limited under the Trump administration: cruise ship traffic was closed down, hotels were declared off-limits, and Americans were denied the right to visit Cuba unless their visit was made under 12 broadly defined categories. US investment was stopped, and cultural and academic exchanges were severely limited. In his last week in office Trump added Cuba to a list of state supporters of terrorism, making the simplest of commercial exchanges a challenging prospect. The Biden administration removed Cuba from its list of countries “not fully cooperating” with anti-terrorism efforts last month, but has done little to signal a wider rapprochement.

Does Canada have any interest in the Cuba’s plight?

In November of last year, Canada joined 186 nations at the UN General Assembly to condemn the American economic embargo of Cuba (only the US and Israel supported it, while Ukraine abstained). This move reflected a long history of cooperation with Cuba. Along with Mexico, Canada was the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to break relations with Cuba in the 1960s. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited the island in 1976—the first leader of a NATO country to do so.

Conservative leaders have also played a major role in developing bilateral relations. The government of John Diefenbaker steadily refused US pressure to break with the revolutionary government after 1959. Stephen Harper supported secret meetings between US and Cuban officials that resulted in Raúl Castro and Barack Obama restoring diplomatic relations in 2015.

There are also deep people-to-people ties. Since the 1990s Canadians have been the largest group of tourists to the island (an estimated 40 percent are repeat visitors). Outside Canada the largest number of participants in the Terry Fox Run are Cubans, and Fox is a national hero for Cuban children.

One of the largest foreign investors in Cuba is Sherritt International, specializing in mining and energy. Cuba is also Canada’s largest trading partner in the Caribbean, with two-way bilateral trade topping $1 billion annually.

At the government level we have cordial diplomatic relations, and can gain from closer ties. Given Cuba’s strong role in the Global South (as the most recent leader of the G-77 Movement, encompassing 134 countries) it is in our international interests to develop such strategic ties. Cuba punches above its weight in international politics, in no small part because of its medical support for countries in the Global South—where some 26,000 medics are working in 58 countries.

For decades Canada had maintained an independent foreign policy, refusing to bow to US pressure. As Canadian foreign policy seeks to reassert itself following diplomatic difficulties with China, India, and several countries in the Middle East, and in the wake of our second failed attempt to become an elected member of the UN Security Council, Ottawa would gain substantially by forging stronger strategic relations with Cuba.

What role for Canada?

In March, when the World Food Programme requested funds to buy milk powder for Cuban children, the first country to donate was Canada, offering $540,000 to buy 150 tons. This gesture, along with ongoing development assistance, is an example of constructive aid. Canada has other successful projects that are worth noting. In all, $22 million has been invested in projects in recent years to improve food security, support women’s leadership in the renewable energy sector, provide innovative food management, and work with the Cuban Women’s Federation to combat gender-based violence.

These are examples of pragmatic support, provided at a reasonable cost, that directly assist many thousands of Cubans. But they were instituted before the crisis really hit. Now, as conditions continue to deteriorate, it is time for Canada to increase food and medical aid through direct bilateral channels. There is an urgent need for milk powder, grains, and antibiotics.

Canada could also use its influence with Washington to ease sanctions on Cuba—and to revert to the late years of the Obama administration—a period which brought significant benefits for both the United States and Cuba.

Canada could also lobby the Biden administration to remove Cuba from the list of countries that allegedly support terrorism. Cuba was placed on that list during the last week of the Trump administration because Cuba was hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and one of the guerrilla groups operating there. That designation is a particularly mean-spirited and unwarranted gesture.

Cuba is facing its worst crisis in more than 60 years, with limited prospects of improvement in the near and middle future. Given the tradition of solid bilateral relations between Canada and the island nation, Ottawa could gain by aiding Cuba at this critical moment. An imaginative approach would improve substantially the lives of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, while burnishing our own international prospects in the Global South. It would also reinforce our traditional independence in foreign policy.

The question is: do we have the political will to help the Cuban people?

John M. Kirk is emeritus professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University, and author and editor of several books about Cuba.

Jim Hodgson has worked among churches and other non-governmental organizations in Latin America since 1983.

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