UPDATED: Human rights abuse in Cuba: Canadians should be alarmed

Can hunger-strikers bring the world’s attention back to Cuba?



When Canadians concern themselves with human rights abuses these days—if they do at all— their minds tend to turn to jailed Chinese dissidents, to detainees in Afghan prisons, and maybe to Omar Khadr, the young Canadian citizen still held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay.

There’s good reason to worry about any or all of these issues. But it seems strange to me that Cuba, so long a focus of fascination for many Canadians, rarely seems to register on our human rights radar. It should, and maybe it soon will.

It’s taken one dissident Cuban hunger-striker’s death to attract a bit of the world’s attention, and another’s sickness to hold it. Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February and Guillermo Farinas Hernandez has been hospitalized since March.

The hunger strikes create a contentious backdrop for the planned visit of the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Memberti, to Havana next month. The Catholic church is increasingly active in Cuba, as its old Communist regime struggles to counter the recent uptick in international attention to the way it crushes dissent and silences debate.

Earlier this month, PEN Canada, represented by novelist Yann Martel, among others, joined an international “Freedom to Write in the Americas” campaign. Although PEN takes aim at the repression writers face in other Latin American countries too,  it’s hard to miss the fact that of 30 writers imprisoned for their work in the Western Hemisphere, 26 are in Cuba.

Canadians should be at the forefront of protesting that outrage. After all, we know Cuba better than just about anybody: Canada is Cuba’s largest source of tourists, with 818,000 of us traveling there in 2008, nearly 35 per cent of all visitors to the island. That’s a lot of contact. It shouldn’t come without a sense of obligation to speak out and exert pressure.

Some argue that talking too loudly about Cuba’s systematic violation of its citizens’ human rights is counter productive. John Keenan, writing in the Guardian today, reports that two British professors, commenting on the release of PEN’s report Freedom of Expression in Cuba, “called for journalists to tread lightly when highlighting human rights abuses on the island, for fear of strengthening the Castro regime’s argument that the sovereignty of the island is under siege.”

It’s hard to accept that cautious approach when dissidents are starving themselves to death for the right to free expression. And when Human Rights Watch has recently documented and reported on the extent of government repression in Cuba, painting a disturbing picture in this gripping New York Review of Books essay.

For Canadians, I think, proximity matters. PEN reports that “only China, Iran and Burma imprison more writers [than Cuba does] for exercising their right to freedom of expression.” But China, Iran and Burma are a long way off for most Canadians, whereas Cuba is one of our favourite destinations for a week of sun and sand.

On Feb. 25, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon issued a statement decrying  the death two days earlier of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. We can only hope that, behind the scenes, the Canadian government is doing all it can, and not simply waiting for the next dissident to die.


This comes by email from  the office of Peter Kent, the minister of state of Foreign Affairs responsible for the Americas:

“Canada’s position is clear:  we support a free and democratic future for Cuba in which human rights and the rule of law are an everyday reality.  In keeping with these universal values, the Government of Canada calls upon Cuba to release all political prisoners immediately. We strongly urge Cuba to tolerate freedom of expression and other basic human rights.  In the case of Guillermo Farinas Hernandez, we are monitoring the situation closely and receiving updates about his health from knowledgable channels.” (Kent’s office notes that Farinas, a dissident journalist, is not a political prisoner. Farinas began his hunger strike to demand the release of prisoners at his home.)

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UPDATED: Human rights abuse in Cuba: Canadians should be alarmed

  1. Let's sum up all the comments to come: Damn lefty socialists don't care what happens in Cuba because they all love Castro and communism like Uncle Turdeau.

    • If the shoe fits, etc. Although I wouldn't call it an active love of communism at this point, so much as merely knee-jerk lionization of "victims" of the US; it feels like sticking to The Man for a good upstanding Canadian leftist to take a cheap package weekend to Cuba. Whereas if you spend your vacation in Jamaica or the Caymans, it's not really going to tweak the Republican boogeymen in your imagination, so where's the fun in that?

  2. "After all, we know Cuba better than just about anybody: Canada is Cuba's largest source of tourists, with 818,000 of us traveling there in 2008, nearly 35 per cent of all visitors to the island."

    If this is accurate, Canadians have zero credibility complaining about human rights abuses because foreign currency goes right to government/army, the orgs oppressing Cubans. Canadians going to Cuba for their hols fund Cuban government which then oppresses its people so I am far from convinced Cubans will be all that interested in hearing what we have to say since we are paying their jailers.

  3. Canadians, particularly the type who travel to Cuba, don't care much about freedom of expression. We throw writers in jail all the time here in Canada, we fine them, we seize their assets. Many Canadian Liberals ridicule Canadians who object to Human Rights Tribunals and their crackdown on free speech, referring to them derisively as "Speechies".

    We are a libel tourism destination. We ban books and even cartoons too, but the folks at PEN won't tell you any of those facts. Yan Martel is too busy being unbelievably condescending by sending Stephen Harper a book of the month to care about free speech for Canada and Canadians.

    PEN has tacitly supported the imprisonment and fining of Canadian writers for years and therefore have no credibility on issues of freedom of expression.

    • We throw writers in jail all the time here in Canada, we fine them, we seize their assets.


      You know, we really really don't.

  4. My compliments to Geddes on the article.

    It has always disturbed me when Canadians blithely travel to Cuba for a vacation, thus supporting a brutal regime with a murderous history in order to enjoy a little R&R. The US has a much more principled attitude.

    • I'm conflicted about whether or not to engage in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. On the one hand, you are funding a brutal regime. On the other hand, having a strong trade relationship and functioning private economy gives people the resources to overthrow brutal regimes.

      • I am inclined toward engagement, done (as you say) for the purpose of helping them out of the hole they're in. But I really don't think that's what most vacationers are trying to accomplish when they go to Cuba.

    • I assume you own nothing made in China.


  5. Much of Canadian so called morality is politically driven. Simply examine left wing media, such as the Toronto Star, the Guardian, the Observer ( two British papers ) or Jim Reed free lance journalist who's articles appear on the CBC, and you will learn of a very narrow humanitarian concern. Israel is the bad guy, and the Palestinians are the oppressed. Perhaps this is true, but the left , while ignoring Cuba, Iran and Russia, go even further by painting Hamas and Hezbollah as freedom fighters.

    When morality is this selective it's no morality at all!

  6. Lefty Trudeau

    “I grew up knowing that Fidel Castro had a special place among my family's friends. We had a picture of him at home: a great big man with a beard who wore military fatigues and held my baby brother Michel in his arms.” Sasha Trudeau

    From sixty-five to eighty thousand people (men women and children, entire families at a time) have died trying to escape Castro's Cuba
    By Humberto Fontova Monday, December 7, 2009

    A 17-year-old named Orlando Travieso was armed with only a homemade paddle when he was machine-gunned to death in March 1991. His crime was trying to flee Cuba on a tiny raft.

    Loamis Gonzalez was 15 when he was machine gunned to death for the same crime.

    Owen Delgado was 15 when Castro's police dragged him out of the Ecuadorian Embassy where he sought asylum and clubbed him to death with rifle butts.

    in 1986 Cuba's suicide rate reached 24 per thousand – making it double Latin America's average, making it triple Cuba's pre-Castro rate, making Cuban women the most suicidal in the world

  7. Cuba and Torture
    Cuba's treatment of political prisoners in some cases rises to the level of torture http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/cuba/Cuba996-02.h

    Detention Conditions
    Cuba confines its sizable prison population in substandard and unhealthy conditions, where prisoners face isolation and physical and sexual abuse

    “Cubans will always feel privileged that they, and they alone, had Fidel.” , proclaims Mr. Trudeau

  8. Taking the stance that all tourism to Cuba is bad for Cubans is a common problem and the assumption that each tourist is harming reforms is out of whack. I am not the average tourist to Cuba, with my now lifelong friends throughout the island and many years of experience I can offer some sound advice.

    The tourism industry in Cuba is not run by a monolithic state structure as many people have assumed. In Cuba, entities and associations of many different sorts operate branches of business to generate funding for their entity. For example, you can have lunch or dinner at the the Society of Engineers or the Association of Scientists. Staying in people's homes legally at a Casa Particular does offer some Cubans hard currency to get the hard to get items at dollar stores or the black market. The majority of Canadians visit the all inclusive resorts in places like Varadero or Cayo Santa Maria. This is the biggest problem of hard currency going to the state and thus enabling repressive policies.

    I have urged Sunwing to take a look at how they can better select the resorts they do business with and this will lessen direct funding of repression. The solution is actually quite simple, based on ceasing doing business with a company in Cuba called Gaviota. This company is into hotels and transportation. The foreign companies that you identify with that operate the resorts are 50% owned by Gaviota. This company is the operating business arm of the Cuban military. This is the hard currency that enables Castro Inc., and its abilities to administer repressive policies. It is my personal stance that all Canadian tour companies should not do business with any entity that involves Gaviota. I would suggest that Canadians that wish to visit Cuba to tell their travel agent that they do not want to support Gaviota.

    Another tip for people wishing to visit Havana is that the grand old hotels in Havana are operated by a company called Habaguanex. This company is a direct result of UNESCO and the desires of everyone to restore old Havana. Habaguanex is mandated to re-invest in the restoration and is a very good example of good sound investment that has long lasting impact, a self perpetuating solution to a problem.

    • All the companies you mention end up paying the Cuban government because they all belong to Castro Inc, as you call them.
      The best approach is to stay at family homes; this will at least directly benefit the Cuban but the money will always end up in the hands of the government as every single legal business is owned by it.

  9. Oh silly. Residents of foreign countries can't be treated with the same dignity and worth as Canadians, and have the same expectations of humanity.

    why, then we'd have to fund abortions as part of foreign aid.



    • Hey, can I call them or what!

      • Add Colombia to the list – I didn't hear any Conservatives critiizing the free trade agreement with them.

  11. 10% of the USA population is in jail ,many of them for only selling some weed and they get 15 years ( weed that if often transported by the US army ), Canadians had some prisoners tortured in Afghanistan, Canadian mining companies are destroying the habitat of many Latin American countries..etc..

    While Cuba has many issues to fix, WHO are we to judge what they do.. ? The capitalist system is crumbling and you want Cuba to become the same as us? I hope not.

    • I am Cuban. I lived there for 27 years until I came to live in Canada. Let me tell you that if someone is found guilty of selling any kind of drugs in Cuba this person will be imprisoned for at least 25 years. I don't think anyone wants Cuba to become like Canada or any other country in the world. What is a fact, in my opinion, is that suppressing the people's basic rights is in no way acceptable nor is it good for the development of a society regardless of the political system they choose to implement.

  12. It will all be OK once we send doctors to Cuba to perform abortions!

  13. Tiny Cuba is a country besieged by its belligerent superpower neighbour to the north. Amnesty International recently reported that, "The US embargo against Cuba is immoral and should be lifted. It's preventing millions of Cubans from benefiting from vital medicines and medical equipment essential for their health." In November, with the only exceptions of the USA, Israel and a handful of tiny, US island-colonies in the South Pacific, representatives of every nation on the planet voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn these cruel and inhumane sanctions.

    Despite these sanctions, now spanning nearly half a century, Cubans have fought back and continue to maintain the best healthcare system in the Latin America. (The best education system, too.) Their infant mortality rate — the single most reliable indicator of over all public health — has been lower than that in the USA for years now. So says the CIA! Canadian tourists should be proud of their contribution to this struggle.

    • this is all lies.e

  14. Mike T.;
    Having spent the last 10 years living half of it in Cuba and the other half in Canada I find it vital to make people aware that Cuba is a very different place. The revolution has had some positive impact on people's lives, all based on the ideals that framed the revolution. Fifty years later it is quite clear that it is plagued with failures and deviated from the ideals cherished by Cienfuegos and Che. It is quite clear that the current incarnation is a result of survival policies, survival of Castro Inc.

    There was a serious break up of the original revolutionaries that became apparent at the time of the Escambray Uprising. The original revolution and ideals that was agreed upon included many personal liberties and supported freedom of the press (in fact this and other changes forced the Escambray Uprising). I am very certain that Cienfuegos and Che would not support what Cuba has come to, acting as a big ugly corporation depriving the common man of liberties and abilities to express discontent.

    The Soviet Union enabled an egotistical and arrogant Castro to remain in power creating a hap hazard dictatorship. Identifying Cuba with either communism or socialism is misleading, its more like a badly run corporation with too many underpaid employees.

    On an interesting note regarding Trudeau and Castro , at the fall of the Soviet block and the resultant financial with drawl from Cuba, Castro called Trudeau for advice. Castro was leaning towards widespread and significant reforms, Trudeau advised him he would loose absolute control if he introduced these reforms. So when it comes to supporting oppression, Canadians come by it honestly.

    You have to pick your battles and the battle I have chosen is sharing and divulging information about the world to my friends in Cuba. When we all share information with our friends in Cuba they can make a well informed choice to force change in Cuba. Only Cubans can make the change, hopefully well informed change rather than knee jerk, ill informed reactions from Florida.

    • Do you have s source for the Trudeau advice – I underderstood he advised him to go slowly, which is practical advice, not supporting oppression.

  15. Everybody should be concerned about human rights abuses all over the world, of which there are a multitude.

    I don't recall a case, like Omar Khadr's, where 3 levels of courts have declared that Canada is a party to a violation of principles of fundamental justice under Canadian and international law, in relation to a Canadian citizen, by a foreign government. And they based themselves in part on US Supreme Court decisions.

    The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower courts with regard to Canada's role, but didn't go so far as actually ordering repatriation, deferring to the Government's right to find its own remedy. Their 'remedy" was meaningless. So, I think that explains the special interest in that case.

  16. Batista was in power for eighteen years; the Castros for over fifty. Batista's regime was authoritarian. There was a censored but independent media; bullied but independent labour unions. Some opposition politicing was allowed. There were no concentration camps. Castro destroyed all that.

    Castro became a Communist in 1947 when Cuba was a democracy. He has publilcly stated he had every intention of setting up a Communist state no matter what Eisenhower or Kennedy did. Anybody who would not prefer Batista to Castro deserves to be thrown into a Nazi concentration camp. I withdraw that last statement. Germany has been raked over the coals long enough. It is high time Japan got the gears for its World War II atrocities. Anybody who would not prefer Batista to Castro deserves to be thrown into a Japanese World War II concentration camp.

  17. Interesting how this article makes no mention about Canadian companies profiting off the Cuban regime, such as Labatt, Piza Nova and Sherrit Internationa. Odd to target middle class travellers as oppossed to Corporations donating to the Harper government.

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