[UPDATED BELOW WITH CANADIAN GOVERNMENT COMMENT]
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.)