Cuba's Foreign Minister visits Canada and speaks about life after Fidel

Campaign News | Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Article by Jim Creskey of the Canadian diplomatic magazine Embassy

Ottowa, 5 Oct: "The blockade of Cuba," says Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba's Foreign Minister, is the longest in history -- 45 years by 10 successive U.S. presidents. But, he admits, its end would pose a major challenge for Cuba and its leadership. Mr. Pérez, who was in Ottawa this week to meet with Canadian ministers Pierre Pettigrew, Jim Peterson and Aileen Carroll, spoke about the blockade and other hemispheric topics in an interview with Embassy.

And yet the eventual lifting of the blockade, a position supported by Canada at the UN, will have enormous consequences on the island nation which has known little else for generations.

"The lifting of the blockade would be a major challenge, but there is no question that we want it to be lifted ? the opportunities are greater than the challenges, " says Mr. Pérez

Part of the challenge is that seven out of ten Cubans have never know anything different. Even Mr. Pérez, who was born in 1965 and became one the world's youngest foreign ministers in 1999, has never experienced life in an unblockaded Cuba. The small island (the size of Newfoundland) on Florida's doorstep could expect to be awash in a massive flow of American tourists, goods and trade that would follow the blockade's end. The blockade as the Cubans call it -- in the U.S. it is the "economic embargo" -- was repeatedly condemned by Pope John Paul II in his 1998 visit to Cuba. The only pope to ever visit Cuba, the Cold War Communist nemesis criticized the Castro regime on human rights.

"Liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects, but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of conscience, the basis and foundation of all human rights," said the late pontiff, saving a stinging condemnation of the U.S. blockade as "an indiscriminate measure that hurt Cuba's poor" for his parting words at José Marti airport.

Mr. Pérez believes that within five years of the blockade's end, the number of Americans visiting Cuba annually would rise to 5 million -- more than 10 times the number of Canadians (Cuba's biggest source of tourists) who visited Cuba last year.

"There is no doubt that [lifting the blockade] would be a major challenge. It would test our resolve to preserve our culture, our language, our traditions."

The minister's arrival in Canada coincides with 60 years of diplomatic relations and particularly celebrates the days since 1959 -- the start of the Cuban revolution. Only Canada and Mexico have maintained continuous diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Mr. Pérez says he is grateful for Canada's enduring friendship particularly in the face of constant pressure from Washington to treat Cuba differently.

"Next January is the 30th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's visit to Cuba," says Mr. Pérez. It was former prime minister Trudeau's warmth for revolutionary Cuba that played a big role in keeping Canada open minded about the little Caribbean country that long drove Washington crazy.

Something good for Cuba even came out of Pierre Trudeau's funeral. During the Oct. 2000 meeting of Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Montreal at Mr. Trudeau's funeral, a final posthumous opportunity came up for Mr. Trudeau to help broker a friendly gesture for Cuba. That time it was the idea that that Cuba was developing biological weapons, a concept that Mr. Pérez calls "that dirty campaign" advanced by former U.S. undersecretary John Bolton. It was, he says, "A provocation, a campaign that amounted to a gross sham." Most observers saw it as a trial balloon.

Jimmy Carter agreed. He told Fidel Castro that he would visit Cuba and speak out against the accusations, but only if he were allowed to speak openly on human rights and religious freedoms.

Cuba has a sizable genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals industry, producing, according to Mr. Pérez, 80 per cent of the vaccines used domestically for diseases like hepatitis, tetanus and meningitis. Mr. Carter, along with most of the world, was convinced, that Cuba pharma-labs were far from being a source of bioterrorism.

"President Carter emphatically debunked those accusations," said Mr. Pérez. And the trial balloon from Washington evaporated almost as quickly as it was released. Today, Cuba's pharmaceutical industry is one of the reasons Mr. Pérez hopes to meet with Canadian pharmaceutical executives when he goes to Toronto this week where he will be speaking at the Economic Club of Toronto.

Fidel Castro

When you have a national leader who has been in power through 10 U.S. presidential administrations and who still firmly holds power at age 79, the subject of succession is always lurking behind the next calendar page.

"Fidel's absence from Cuba [would be] a vacuum that can not be replaced," says Mr. Pérez, "but it is a mistake to think that the Cuban revolution is owed to only one man. Our country will outlive Fidel's passing. There is a constitutional mechanism, but most importantly there is the support of most of the people." He says that Havana watchers shouldn't be too quick to set up a Fidel vigil: "He is a healthy 79." But they could rightfully expect first vice-president Raul Castro to achieve prominence not because of his last name, but because he was one of the revolution's founders.

Mr. Pérez points out that the Bush administration has its own announced plan for "The Assistance of Free Cuba" which is headed by former Republican congressional aide Caleb McCarry. According to most reports, the plan would swing into action after Mr. Castro's demise with a number of aid, trade and political programs.

"It is intended to turn Cuba back into a colony," says Mr. Pérez who has some support in a recent statement from former American diplomat Wayne Smith. Mr. Smith was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Reagan administration and was recognized as the Department of State's leading expert on Cuba. This week he told the Associated Press that the plan was " a blatant intervention in the internal affairs of another state."

The U.S. State Department's website quotes from a report on the plan: "President Bush formed the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba to explore ways we can help hasten and ease Cuba's democratic transition. As this report shows, the United States seeks to cooperate with neighbors in the hemisphere and nations across the globe to help Cubans prepare for democratic change."

Cuba and the OAS

Cuba was kicked out of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962 by a motion strongly promoted by the United States. Mr. Pérez says he doesn't wish to see Cuba rejoin the organization because "it is U.S.-dominated," but that he respects Canada's position as a member, which it has been since 1990.

"We dream about a Latin American and Caribbean organization in which we could be a key player," says Mr. Pérez, " not an organization that is dictated by the U.S. And we do this not because we have a grudge with the people of the U.S."

Cuba's foreign minister does believe that much U.S. policy towards Cuba is propelled by domestic politics, but he doesn't believe the majority of the large Cuban community in Miami is at the heart of it.

"It is pressure from 40 rich Cuban families," he says and adds there is always political pressure from American companies that lost their Cuban interest in the revolution.

"Most Cubans in Florida are economic immigrants," he says, not exiles. "One in eight Cubans in the United States have gone back to Cuba on vacation. Who ever heard of a political exile going back to his home country on vacation!?"

Hugo Chavez and Human Rights

The bright spot in the hemisphere for Mr. Pérez's Cuba has been Caracas. President Hugo Chavez's Venezuela has, while thumbing its nose at Washington, become a close friend to Castro. Today, subsidized Venezuelan oil flows to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors and medical technicians, 20,000 of whom have gone to Venezuela to offer health services to the country's poor, says Mr. Pérez. With support from Mr. Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," Mr. Pérez says Cuba and Venezuela will be able to do some great things, including "Mision Milagro" (The Miracle Mission), a plan to return the eyesight of tens of thousands of poor Latin Americans who are blind from cataracts.

Canada has a policy of praising Cuba for its exceptional advances in public health and its educational record, achievements that are not common in the Caribbean or Latin America. But Canada is also a regular critic of human rights abuses in Cuba, especially the censorship and control of the media and the imprisonment of hundreds of dissidents.

"It is hard to compare the freedoms of a country like Canada with the different reality of Cuba," says Mr. Pérez. He describes Cuba as a country under siege that must survive despite powerful pressure from the U.S. He admits there are, what Michael Ignatieff would call "necessary evils to protect a greater good."

But, he says, it could be much worse (as in other Latin American countries). "There are no disappeared persons, no mothers of the Plaza de Mayo [searching for their government-kidnapped children]. There is no extrajudicial murder. And there is no torture in Cuba -- if you do not include the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo."

He admits that the Cuban press ("Owned by the Cuban people") is not free to support Washington's aims, which is cold comfort for any Cuban journalist unlucky enough to get on the wrong side of the government. But he suggests that it may not be less free than many corporately owned North American media outlets that have their own business or political agenda.

For Felipe Pérez, Cuba is still a country at war and the economic embargo is "an act of war," solely supported by Cuba's super-power neighbour. But, says the foreign minister, all this could rapidly change with the end of the blockade.

No Helms-Burton Here

At the end of a day of meetings Tuesday with Canadians ministers and MPs, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque told Parliamentary reporters he was looking for ways to expand Cuba's purchasing power in Canada. Presently, most Cuban purchases in Canada are made in cash, but Mr. Perez said that the creation of insurance coverage and export credits could push Canadian sales to Cuba from eight to 20 per cent.

Asked about the difficulty in getting interviews with Canadian companies doing business in Cuba because of their fear of reprisal from the U.S. government, the minister reminded his audience that enforcement of the Helms-Burton Act was illegal in Canada. But he said he talked with Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew about ways to protect Canadian companies from "U.S. persecution." He pointed to a $450 million (US) investment in Cuban nickel by the Toronto-based Sherritt International Corporation as a sign that Canadian investment was continuing to increase in a Cuban economy that was growing at the rate of seven per cent a year.

?Jim Creskey

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