Propping up a tropical tyranny

National Post
July 9, 2004

For those Canadians who cling to the conceit that Cuba’s socialist system presents a humane and economically viable alternative to Western capitalism, this week’s Post series on Fidel Castro’s tropical tyranny should be required reading.

As reporter Isabel Vincent has shown, universal access to quality health care may be official policy in Cuba. And indeed foreigners flashing around U.S. dollars can fly to Havana and obtain prompt, first-class treatment. But Cuba has a “two-tier” system – the kind most of Cuba’s Canadian supporters would angrily decry if it were implemented here at home. Those Cubans who lack connections to high-ranking government officials must endure long waiting lists and indifferent treatment in poorly equipped hospitals.

Moreover, Cuba is hardly a workers’ paradise: Even middle-class Cubans and professionals find it difficult to get ahead without working second and third jobs selling trinkets to tourists or driving taxis. When foreign investors set up shop, the Cuban government converts their local workers into de facto slaves. Friends of the ruling party siphon off the bulk of their foreign-source wages, and bureaucrats tax away most of the rest.

All of these facts are well known to even a casual observer of Cuban affairs. But this being Canada, it is useful to point them out all the same. Since the Trudeau era, elites in this country have been eager to cozy up to Fidel Castro’s regime. Even today, as the dictatorial Mr. Castro continues to stifle dissent and imprison his political enemies, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) remains actively engaged in projects aimed at bolstering Cuba’s infrastructure.

The reason mostly boils down to national hubris. For decades, the United States has pursued a hard-line policy of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Cuba. Canadian nationalism, inevitably defined in reflex opposition to what Washington does, therefore argues for Canadian-Cuban rapprochement.

We are not arguing that Canada should join the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba – which, to our minds, has been counterproductive because it allows Mr. Castro to blame his country’s many problems on the United States. But that doesn’t mean our government should be actively helping Cuba, either. CIDA has a limited amount of funds at its disposal, and can help only a small fraction of the world’s impoverished billions. Given the unmet humanitarian needs of such struggling democracies as, say, Afghanistan, Nigeria and India, why on earth would we divert any funds to prop up a dictatorship?

This is hardly the first time such a question has been put to CIDA. And in response to its critics, the agency has posted a document on its Web site entitled “Why is CIDA involved in Cuba?”

“Considerable progress has been made in improving the social conditions of the Cuban people, as reflected in the country’s high literacy levels and low infant mortality rates,” the document states. “In 1989, Cuba lost its main trade partner and major source of financial subsidy, the Soviet Union. The break-up of its former ally, combined with the ongoing U.S. trade embargo, led to a deep recession . . . CIDA can assist Cuba through an exchange of technology and expertise to encourage economic reforms that will both help preserve the significant investments that Cuba has made in its people and assist in Cuba’s efforts to stimulate economic growth.”

In regard to the improving “social conditions” that so impress CIDA, we refer the agency’s officials to Lawrence Solomon‘s fine essay . . . As for “Cuba’s efforts to stimulate economic growth and activity,” we would be interested to see CIDA expand on what fate befell Cuba’s “former ally,” Soviet Russia. Having cast off dictatorship and embraced democracy, recall, the Russians went through a lean decade. But the country is now booming in a way that the average Cuban could scarcely comprehend. So is China, another nation that – economically at least – has cast off the dogmas of communism.

The lesson is plain: Prosperity is impossible without freedom. And in the long term, all of CIDA’s band-aids will do little to “stimulate economic growth and activity” until Mr. Castro’s Soviet-style dictatorship is overthrown.

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