0

The Cuba connection

Castro gave Trudeau the biggest reception since Leonid Brezhnev, but there was never any doubt as to who was the star—and who was the supporting actor


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

Rosafe Signet died 10 years ago but, through the miracle of refrigeration and artificial insemination, he continues to sire Holsteins that make milk while the sun shines. “I’m sure,” said the Cuban, “that Rosafe preferred it the old, natural way, but now economic reasons prevail, not passion.”

Passion and economics dominated Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 76 hours in Cuba, but Fidel Castro prevailed. The gregarious commandante seemed to be at the PM’S side every waking minute—and during some sleeping ones, too. When, for instance, Pierre, Margaret and their infant son, Michel, retired overnight to an old house on a miniature coral a toll near the Bay of Pigs, Castro slept nearby in a boat. The next night, following an election-style rally in the south coast city of Cienfuegos, Castro and his retinue literally took over the Spanish colonial mansion of Canadian ambassador James Hyndman. At the end of the evening, two hours after the party was supposed to end, he was still holding forth for the press, tapping cigar ashes on the ambassador’s off-white rug. “This is not my house,” he said, “but I have asked the ambassador to lend it to me for 10 minutes for a press conference.”

Castro gave Trudeau a welcome that was said to be only slightly less enthusiastic than the reception the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev was accorded in 1974. The crowd scenes in downtown Havana and Cienfuegos, reminiscent of the throngs that greeted Charles de Gaulle when he visited Quebec in 1967, would have sent a tingle down the spine of Keith Davey, the Liberal Party’s chief election organizer. The theme, proclaimed in trilingual banners and Spanish chants, was “Viva la amistad” (long live friendship). Trudeau’s celebrated response, “Viva Cuba...” rattled teapots back home, but it was little more than a public acknowledgment of a relationship that has far more to do with trade than ideology. (Cuba’s purchases of $200 million a year have made it one of the four major Latin American markets. Canada spends about $70 million a year in Cuba.) For Castro, Trudeau's visit was an occasion to express his gratitude to Canada for maintaining diplomatic relations with his new revolutionary government in 1959. It was also a golden opportunity to remind the United States (ABC-TV and Time magazine covered Trudeau’s visit) that 90 miles from the Florida coast Castro-style capitalism is alive, if not exactly thriving.

It was, from start to finish, Castro’s show. Wherever he went people put themselves out for him. In Cienfuegos spectators waited five hours in scorching sun to hear him speak. As Trudeau prepared to leave for Caracas, the Cuban premier showed up unexpectedly at the Canadian Embassy and hustled Pierre and Margaret off on a 20-minute tour of Havana. Trudeau rated Castro “A-one” as a public performer. “I’ve never seen a charismatic leader before,” he noted ironically.

Trudeau and Castro clearly enjoyed each other. When the Prime Minister left Havana, Castro gave him a bear hug and a buss on the cheek. Trudeau liked Castro’s intensity, his thrift of movement—and was surprised at his skin diving style. “I thought a man who. smoked that many cigars wouldn’t be any good.” Indeed, the only major point of contention between the two leaders was Cuban intervention in Angola. Said Trudeau: “We don’t think intervention by outside countries in conflict is a good thing.” Naturally, Castro disagreed. Trudeau seemed remarkably understanding about Castro’s position, remarking that “in his own ideological framework he is a man of world stature. He did not talk like a fanatic about Africa.” Castro returned the compliment: “I respect Prime Minister Trudeau’s position and he respects our position.”

Shortly after Trudeau’s departure, however, Cuba’s Angolan involvement caused a mild furor in Ottawa with reports that Cuban transports had made two midmonth fueling stops at Gander. Newfoundland. on return flights to the African country. While there is no confirmation that the flights carried troops or supplies, External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen said Canada had the right to inspect and possibly stop any military flights.

Before leaving Cuba, Trudeau had some good words for the Castro government, citing dramatic improvements in health, housing, clothing and education since his previous trip to the island as a student. Among Cuba’s student workers he perceived a proletarian version of the work ethic. “I’m tempted to say it wouldn’t be a bad thing if students in Canada were obliged by the system to take a greater part in the physical work of their country.” But the niceties of the state visit prevented the Prime Minister from talking about the glaring drawbacks of Cuban life. Although the climate makes Communism appear less oppressive than it is in the Soviet Union, the customary signs of herd mentality are all in evidence and there is a truly infuriating bureaucracy. At times Cuba seems like a land of peso passers, none of whom wants to make decisions on even the most trivial matters. Security agents play their ham-fisted role with glum abandon. A Cuban woman who was overheard making remarks critical of the regime was ordered to turn back gifts she had received from a member of the Canadian party. Life in the faded pastel streets is dismal. Shop windows are often empty because of shortages. Everything except eggs is rationed. At a newsstand I watched a man dig into his pocket for change to buy a paper, count his centavos, and then throw up his hands and walk away empty-handed.

For all of Cuba’s professed independence from the Soviet Union, which subsidizes the island republic to the tune of one million dollars a day, Soviet culture is making inroads. There are Russian songs on radio and Soviet movies in the theatres. Even so, intriguing differences endure. At Cienfuegos airport, Aretha Franklin’s soulful version of Let It Be blares from loudspeakers. Cubans have seen The Godfather, parts one and two. Despite the commitment to women’s liberation, Cuban men still have an eye for a well-formed thigh, which is amply visible in Cuba because of the pervasive miniskirt. “I hope it stays,” says one government official of the mini. “That way there are no surprises.” What does Castro think of short skirts, I asked. “He approves,” he replied. “It’s more economical,” alluding to the textile shortage. The Cubans also have maintained the custom of allowing couples who live with their large families in cramped quarters to check into a motel, no names asked, at one peso ($1.22) per hour. Contrasts with the Soviet Union, of course, go beyond differences in the Russian and Latin temperaments. Castro is a proud man, seeking to build his country as best he can. Says Ivan Head, Trudeau’s personable adviser on external affairs: “The Cubans are not being used by the Soviet Union in Angola.” Of Castroism, he says: “This is a departure from classical Communism. There is an opportunity to work with these guys in the multilateral field,” each country offering the other the possibility of relations with its respective global friends.

Canada’s connection with Cuba began about the time the Royal Bank established branches in Cuba after the Spanish American War. It wasn’t long before the Bank of Nova Scotia followed suit. When Castro took power in 1959 the banking industry was nationalized, but the Royal and Nova Scotia, unlike many others, were compensated. The Diefenbaker government’s decision to maintain diplomatic relations was a factor. “We took this into account,” Castro now acknowledges, “and gave special treatment to Canadian investors.” Howard Green, Diefenbaker’s External Affairs secretary, concedes that if Cuba had nationalized Canadian interests “We would have had to move.”

The decision, often attributed to Diefenbaker’s nationalism to maintain a presence in Cuba despite the Americans’ withdrawal, is still celebrated by the Cubans, although in truth not much transpired between the two countries until the Seventies. Cuba’s new links with the Soviet Union, the missile crisis and the export of revolution tended to make relations with the Diefenbaker and Pearson governments correct but not close. Another inhibition was the Cubans’ confiscation of individual Canadian assets in the form of bank deposits, real estate and securities. Today, $25 million in outstanding claims are still under active negotiation by External Affairs, a pittance compared to the estimated two billion dollars owed to Americans. It was rising sugar prices and, ironically, signs of a thaw in the Cuba-U.S. relations that eventually spurred Canadian-Cuban trade. Says one senior trade official: “We have to assume the Cubans will normalize in their position with the Americans. It is no secret that we want to consolidate our position before that happens.” Adds an External Affairs officer: “We certainly wouldn’t benefit by U.S. competition.”

One of the most visible signs of the increase in commercial activity between Canada and Cuba is the office of the Cuban trade commissioner in Montreal. The old grey mansion on Pine Avenue, overlooking downtown Montreal, looms like a fortress, with its electrically operated wrought iron gate and a remote-control television camera. Enrique Martinez Noa, commercial counselor and trade commissioner, is a dark, trim and well-tailored figure, surprisingly youthful (39) for his position, a reminder of the flight of some 500,000 professionals and business leaders after the revolution. Near Noa’s office is the old chapel once used for vespers by the Pères Trinitaires, from whom Noa bought the mansion. In small offices off the main corridor, officials representing the interests of various Cuban trading companies shop for Canadian goods and expertise. Noa says that in one recent two-month period he hosted 207 visitors from Cuba. In the past five years, he says, the Cubans have dealt with 780 Canadian companies. The building also houses a wireroom with two telex machines for communication within Canada, a direct teletype link to Havana and a spanking new printer feeding the Reuter business news service to the Cuban capital. Montreal, apparently, is an important listening post.

But what really interests the Cubans, apart from intelligence, is the increasing desire on the part of Canadian business to talk turkey—more accurately, wheat, skim milk and cattle, which Canada exports to Cuba in return for sugar, seafood and cigars. Recently, the Cubans have shown interest in the purchase of industrial goods and Canadian know-how as well, part of the big push in the current—and first— five-year plan to modernize, mechanize and industrialize their country. The total estimated investment is $14 to $15 billion, most of it to be spent in the Soviet Union and eastern European satellites. Last year former trade minister Alastair Gillespie took a trade mission, including 25 businessmen, to the three countries visited last month by Prime Minister Trudeau. During the Gillespie trip, Banco Nacional de Cuba, the one and only Cuban bank, signed an agreement with the Canadian Export Development Corporation (EDC) under which Canada made $ 100 million in credit available for the purchase of Canadian goods and services.

John Byrne, marketing vice-president of MLW-Worthington Ltd., recalls the first sale of locomotives to the Cubans under EDC credit. “We find,” says Byrne, “that they know exactly what they want and exactly how to go about it. They’re patriots. When you bargain with a guy, he is bargaining for his country.”

Last fall EDC signed further loans of $20 million that covered the sale of more MLW locomotives, the purchase of ore cars from Hawker Siddeley Canada Ltd. and a $ 1.5million plant to make egg cartons. Canadian officials hope to develop new trade in so-called “turnkey” projects, plants which are ready for production on completion. Two early examples are Cuba’s purchase of a five-million-dollar, ready-to-extrude aluminum plant from Alcan and a fivemillion-dollar refrigeration warehouse for butter storage. Canadian officials are acutely conscious of the importance of these projects since, as one trade expert puts it, “you have to wonder how long a nation of nine million can continue buying $200-million-a-year worth of consumable items.”

The Cuban approach to these projects poses problems for Canadian businessmen accustomed to doing business their way. The Cubans set rigorous terms. Unconcerned about unemployment or inflation—they do not admit to the problems— the Cubans routinely insist on fixed price contracts, which makes Canadian businessmen, who can’t ignore unemployment, inflation or cost overruns, understandably jumpy. Uncompetitive bids already have cost Canadian companies a $60-million contract for three thermoelectric plants (to Japan) and a $40-million fish processing installation (to Italy). “Canadians as persons are very kind,” says trade commissioner Noa, always the diplomat, “but they must be more aggressive, like the Japanese. To compete against the Japanese, they must be less conservative.”

On an individual basis, the Cubans can be more accommodating. The experience of Vancouver’s Swan Wooster Engineering Co. Ltd., the largest Canadian ports and harbors consultants, is a case in point. The Cubans have hired the company to produce a study that is part of a broader, $60-million scheme to modernize inadequate facilities in Havana and other harbors. (It is not uncommon for ships to sit off Havana for as much as a month, waiting for goods to be unloaded at barely mechanized docks.) Lor Swan Wooster president Ian Ross, the daybreak-to-dark negotiation sessions, the rum and cigars at midmorning meetings, are worth the effort. “We have never been treated so well by any client,” he observes. “They’re firm and you know where you stand.” Ross is particularly happy about the elimination of the kind of corruption that marks his dealings with some other countries. “There isn’t even a hint of payoffs,” he marvels. “We were negotiating in Central America for a contract and, suddenly, we were presented with a demand for a big chunk of money to be paid that was quite outside the terms of the contract.” Concludes Ross: “I’m not a Communist by any means, but Cuba has eliminated the Mafia.”

With $14 million in loans and grants from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Cubans are beginning to shop for Canadian expertise and social services. One of the most imaginative projects, run for CIDA by the Canadian University Services Overseas (cuso) is the training of engineers at Havana University’s faculty of technology. Started as a pilot project in 1971, and now in its final year, the program aims to produce 600 masters graduates. Two hundred Canadian university professors have gone to Havana to teach and do research for periods of three weeks, while 100 Cuban students, most of them faculty members, have made short study trips to Canada. In Havana the Canadians live in a rambling old house dubbed “the mansion.” Housework is attended to by a Cuban cook and maids, and Cuban students serve as official hosts for tours to the countryside on weekends. Says Gerry Zorb, an agricultural engineer at the University of Saskatchewan, who spent three weeks in Cuba last summer: “I felt safer there than in Chicago, safer even than in Saskatoon.” As the Canadians learned, however, crime has not been totally eradicated : six people once broke into “the mansion” and ran off with the Canadians’ clothing.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Cubans are more interested in learning than in Levi’s. A case in point is a new breed of cattle, a cross between Canadian Holsteins and hunchback Cuban Zebus. It can withstand the hot Cuban climate better than a Holstein but produces more milk than a Zebu. Since the revolution the Cubans have been trying to boost milk consumption among children, 90% of whom went without it under the old regime. To that end they have also imported Canadian Holsteins—3,645 last year—and, after acclimatizing them in air-conditioned barns, expanded their pure breed herds. The Picadura Valley Farm is Cuba’s showcase, an oasis of green grass and white fences overseen by Fidel Castro’s older brother, Ramon. Once owned by the wellto-do Castro family, it was the first farm confiscated after Castro came to power. Less dramatic but important advances have been made under a program that sends Cuban farmers to work for a year on farms in Ontario, learning how to manage with fewer hands than is customary in Cuba. At the moment 10 Cubans are in Ontario, under the auspices of the Holstein-Friesian Association of Canada, cuso and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. George Darrach, the manager of Oakridges Farm, north of Toronto, oversees one of the finest Holstein herds (370 cattle) in thp world. Oakridges ships cattle to Cuba nearly every month. Working alongside Darrach is Pastor Santiago Ferrer, a 33-year-old farmer whose wife and three children are back in Cuba while Santiago puts in his year. “They do whatever you ask them,” says Darrach of the Cubans! “They’re real good boys.”

But the most enduring aspect to the trade in cattle between Canada and Cuba is frozen semen. For example, Rosafe Signet, a Brampton, Ont., bull died in Cuba 10 years ago, but because of the quality of his progeny he is still referred to respectfully as “the genetic giant.” So gigantic, in fact, that Gerry Mueller, a chemical engineer at the University of Waterloo, recalls a weekend visit to the deserted Varadero beach, 80 miles east of Havana, in 1973. Down the beach was a group of Canadian cattlemen, who were in Cuba to buy frozen semensemen produced by Brampton’s very own Rosafe Signet.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 

Sign in to comment.