Cuba and Canada – Friends or Enemies?

On November 25th 2016, Fidel Castro passed away in Havana, Cuba. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement expressing his “deep sorrow” with the death of this “legendary revolutionary” and “remarkable leader” who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”

This statement produced an outcry from Conservative politicians, leading Trudeau to cancel his attendance at Castro’s funeral in favour of Canada’s Governor General. However, looking historically, such statements by a Canadian prime minister are not unusual. The relatively cozy relationship between Canada and Cuba has led people to believe that the Canadian government is a friend of the Cuban people and, in opposition to the actions of the Americans, has not been trying to undermine the Cuban revolution. But is this really the case?

The History

Fidel Castro Washington 1959 - Photo: Public DomainIn 1959, Fidel and his guerrillas took power after the US backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar collapsed. By 1961, Castro had expropriated all American businesses in Cuba (the majority of the economy), de facto eliminating capitalism on the island. This led to some major advancements for the Cuban people. For example, the Cuban revolution succeeded in abolishing illiteracy and child malnutrition. On top of this, according to the World Health Organization, life expectancy in Cuba stands at over 79 years, one of the highest in all of the Americas, virtually equal to the United States and most advanced capitalist countries. When compared with most other Latin American countries, Cuba is far in advance.

This situation enraged the American imperialists as they were not prepared to sacrifice their profits for the well being of the Cuban poor. For over 50 years they have tried everything in their power to strangle the revolution and re-establish capitalism in Cuba. From the economic embargo, to hundreds of assassination attempts on Fidel's life, to outright invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the US imperialists have stopped at nothing to try to suffocate the Cuban revolution. But how have Canadian governments dealt with the Cuban government since the revolution of 1959?

The approach the Canadian government took towards Cuba after the revolution was always markedly different than that of our American neighbours. While Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at the time joined with the American government in denouncing Castro as well as in supporting the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the Canadian government never broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba and did not support the US trade embargo of the island. In the 1976, relations got cozier with Pierre Elliott Trudeau being the first western leader since the 1950s to visit Cuba. This controversial visit saw Fidel Castro discussing and laughing with Pierre and Margaret Trudeau and holding their youngest son Michel in his arms. It was during this visit where Pierre Elliott Trudeau spoke to a crowd of 25,000 Cubans and proclaimed, “Viva Cuba and the Cuban people. Viva President Fidel Castro! Viva the Cuban-Canadian friendship!” The two leaders developed such a close relationship over the years that Fidel Castro was an honorary pallbearer at Trudeau’s funeral in 2000.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Canadian governments, both Conservative and Liberal, maintained relatively good relations with the Cuban government. Even the right-wing Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney maintained cordial relations with the Castro government during the 1980s. In the 1990s, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was the first western leader to visit Cuba in 10 years and was very friendly with Fidel Castro. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Canadian businesses led the way in establishing operations on the island and the Canadian government expanded economic relations with Cuba. Currently, Canada exports over $500 million worth of goods to Cuba. For some, this may seem proof that Canada is helping Cuba, in opposition to the US’s attempts to strangle the revolution. But is this all being done in the interests of the Cuban people? Have there been no nefarious aims behind the economic relations, friendly visits, and diplomatic niceties?

Different Approach - Same Aim

Justin Trudeau commons.wikimedia.org wiki FileCOLONJustin Trudeau 2016.jpgAt first glance, it can seem like the Canadian position has been in complete contradiction to that of the United States. But upon closer observation it becomes clear that while the approach has been different, the objective is fundamentally the same – the re-establishment of capitalism on the island and the liquidation of the gains of the revolution. For the Americans, their approach has been principally driven by rich gusanos and expropriated American capitalists who desire to crush the revolution and reclaim their lost property. For the Canadian capitalists, who were not expropriated by the revolution, they sought to keep their options open to potential business opportunities.

As well, while the United States was trying to directly strangle the Cuban revolution, declassified documents have shown that secretly they were advising Canada to not break off diplomatic relations so that the Canadian embassy in Havana could be used for intelligence-gathering purposes. According to John Graham, who was a Canadian envoy and spy in Cuba in the early to mid 1960s, Canada’s role in spying for the CIA in Cuba continued for many years, even under the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Economically, the Canadian approach to Cuba has done much more to re-establish capitalism than the American one. Blinded by their own anger, the US ruling class pushed Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union and entrenched the Cuban leadership. Meanwhile, the Canadian government took a more open approach and has managed to lead the charge in the promotion and establishment of capitalist relations on the island. Today, Canadian companies are heavily involved in Cuba’s mining, travel and tourism industries. As well, Canadians are the single largest group of tourists, with more than 1.3 million Canadians visiting the island in 2015 according to Statistics Canada. This is obviously a huge opportunity for Canadian and Cuban businesses. Anyone who visits Cuba can witness the establishment of a local market economy and growing wealth differentiation, with many Cubans now owning businesses and making a significant amount of money. This is the path, not towards the strengthening of the revolution, but towards the growth of capitalist elements. This process can take on a logic of its own and lead to the reestablishment of capitalism and the liquidation of the gains of the revolution.

The intentions of Canadian imperialism were made very clear in an interview that former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien did for CBC’s The National after the death of Fidel Castro. Chretien told a story about speaking to a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in New York, “I said to them 'You will normalize your relations with Cuba, but don't do it too fast.' They were surprised. I said 'Don't do it too fast because by the time you'll arrive, you will all be welcome in Canadian Hotels.'” Here we can clearly see the interests of the Canadian capitalist class. More recently, Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal foreign affairs minister in the Jean Chrétien government, told the Star that Trudeau’s visit is important to advance long-standing trade ties in the region and to continue to “try to bring Cuba a little bit more back into the community of nations; they can be very difficult at times, but I think you keep working at it.” By “community of nations” Axworthy means the community of capitalist nations.

Photo: Carlos LatuffIn this context, the American government under Obama was forced to recognize the complete failure of their strategy with Cuba. Interestingly enough, it was Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who facilitated meetings between representatives of Obama and Raul Castro over the course of 18 months at secret locations in Ottawa and Toronto. When asked about this by CBC News, Harper said that “We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways of normalizing the relationship.” Does anyone seriously believe that right-wing ex Prime Minister Stephen Harper was driven by the best interests of the people of Cuba?

It would be a grave error to think that the US normalizing relations with Cuba means that the threat to the revolution is over. In fact, this is simply a change in tactics to achieve the same aim. As the statement released by the US government made clear: “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies… Today, the President announced additional measures to end our outdated approach, and to promote more effectively change in Cuba that is consistent with U.S. support for the Cuban people and in line with U.S. national security interests.” They continue by saying: “The policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector. Additional options for promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba will be explored.”

For many years now, there has been a debate in Cuba about what is the best way forward. The isolation of the island after the collapse of the Soviet Union, compounded with the effects of the global economic crisis of 2008, has created big problems for the Cuban economy. A section of the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party has been pushing for Cuba to follow the “Chinese road,” and unfortunately, it looks like the country seems to be moving in this direction. In 2010, the government announced sweeping economic measures, cutting 500,000 public sector jobs and offering licences for them to own businesses in the private sector. As well, for the first time, businesses in Cuba have been allowed to hire wage-labour, which amounts to making profit off of the labour of someone else. Following Fidel's death, Raul Castro stated that “We are not going towards capitalism, that is completely ruled out.” However following this he added, “but we must not be afraid of (foreign capital) and put obstacles in the way.”

It is therefore not surprising that in this context, the United States has moved to normalize relations with Cuba. First off, their attempts to outright strangle the revolution have failed by their own admission. Secondly, the Cuban leadership is moving to open up their market and US capitalists do not want to miss out on favourable business opportunities. Finally, the more intelligent wing of the American ruling class headed by Obama realized that the aim of re-establishing capitalism on the island is best achieved by an approach similar to that of the Canadian government. The goal of both Canadian and American imperialism has always been the same, and Obama moved to align their tactics. However, it remains to be seen whether Trump will follow the same path.

What way forward?

It is clear that under the pressures of the isolation of the revolution, the Cuban government has been implementing Chinese-style market reforms and has been welcoming investment from imperialist countries. The Canadian government has been leading the charge to push this process along. It would, however, be a mistake to think that these market reforms are going to lead to a huge economic boom like we saw in China. Contrary to China, Cuba does not have massive reserves of cheap labour, which has been the main engine behind the growth in China over the past couple of decades. As well, the world capitalist system finds itself stuck in a deep crisis. Even if Cuba somehow managed to become a Caribbean economic tiger through the implementation of pro-capitalist reforms, this would inevitably be accompanied by massive polarization of wealth, the impoverishment of a large layer of society and ultimately the destruction of the gains of the revolution, as has happened China. With the passing of Fidel and the normalization of relations with the United States, this process will most likely accelerate, threatening to destroy the revolution and re-establish capitalism in Cuba.

There are those who argue that normalizing relations with the US and opening up of the market to foreign capital is a “win-win” scenario. It is said that there is no other way, that because of its isolation, Cuba is forced to open up the market and in this venture, Canada has been objectively helping the revolution. This is a big mistake. It is true that the Cuban revolution faces massive challenges, but is pro-market reform the only way to go?

It is true that the principal danger facing the revolution flows from its isolation, surrounded by the world capitalist market. In the past this was overcome by relations with the Soviet Union, and more recently Venezuela gave the Cuban revolution a lifeline for another decade or so. This wasn't only in the form of Venezuelan oil that was exchanged for Cuban doctors, but more importantly the Venezuelan revolution re-energized large sections of the Cuban population and acted as a push back against those wanting to go down the Chinese road. This example shows that the best solidarity comes not in the form of foreign investment from Canadian firms and flowery statements from Justin Trudeau, but class solidarity in revolutionary struggle against capitalism in Canada and against those who wish to re-establish it in Cuba.

In November, Raul told Trudeau that despite Canada's desire to open up more trade opportunities, pro-market reform would not be implemented any faster. This shows the pressure of the masses who will resist the attempts to take away the gains of the revolution from them. As the crisis of capitalism continues, class struggle will be on the rise in every country around the world. The rise of revolutionary movements will have a dialectical effect on the Cuban revolution and will enthuse and bolster those fighting against the re-establishment of capitalism in Cuba. In Canada, the best solidarity that we can offer to the Cuban revolution is to expose the real aims of Canadian imperialism in Cuba and fight for socialism in Canada!