Cuba’s no paradise, so the Yanks can’t ruin it
Christie Blatchford, National Post
The miracle of the first regularly scheduled commercial flight in 55 years to Cuba from the United States no sooner came up in our radio show discussion Wednesday than one of our number sighed a little.
What came next was predictable — before the Americans came in their numbers and ruined everything.
At least my fellow panellist on Toronto’s Newstalk 1010, leader of the Ontario Green Party Mike Schreiner, was polite about it.
“My only regret,” he said, “is I haven’t visited Cuba before the American invasion.”
He didn’t actually say the Yanks would wreck things, but as a good Canuck, I heard the inference hanging there in the air nonetheless, as I’ve heard it more and less obviously many times before.
It’s such a peculiar Canadian conceit, this notion that our two countries enjoy a special and delightful relationship and that, somehow, the normalizing of United States-Cuba relations will impinge upon or utterly change the Cuba we loved when almost no one else did.
I was still a journalism student at Ryerson University (it was a polytechnic when I was there) when the first charter of Canadians flew into Havana. (We’d always been allowed to go, as individuals, but this was the first chartered flight.)
My friend and fellow student Marcy McGovern and I were among the first 92 people on the Unitour charter. Thanks to Beverly Gray of The Globe and Mail, who was aboard too and whose ancient story from March 1972 helped me pin down the date.
Marcy and I wrote about the trip as well, in the Ryerson official paper, then and now The Ryersonian, and in The Catholic Register, the only times my byline, trust me, has ever appeared in those particular august pages. McGovern was and remains a good Roman Catholic, and it was her connections to those who ran the Register that saw them publish our missives, among the most delicate I have ever written.
As with the occasion many years later, after an earthquake in Italy when I was dragooned into being a member of a wedding party (everyone else had been killed in the quake) and crossed myself the wrong way, I’ve always felt I somehow pulled a fast one on the church.
In any case, the trip involved a few days in Havana, with side tours to sugar cane factories and, because I was with McGovern, empty churches, and a little longer at Varadero, then the only beach resort, and in both places, Cuba was as it remained for five decades, the land time forgot.
There were all those gorgeous rusting old cars from the 1950s, the decaying machinery miraculously maintained by inventive Cubans, just as now there is only carefully monitored internet access, no doubt with its own work-arounds.
And though Bev Gray said in her report that there were fewer soldiers than she’d seen on previous visits, I hadn’t been to Cuba (or pretty much anywhere else) before, and remember plenty of armed men in uniforms, surveillance and the unfamiliar feeling of being watched, and German shepherds and their handlers patrolling the beach at night.
I also remember the other significant group of tourists, those from the old Soviet Union, and how the crazy Russians sunbathed standing up. I have no general rule about avoiding activities while standing up, but getting a suntan was never among them.
Over the ensuing decades, I never returned to Cuba, but plenty of other Canadians did. The handful I know who went regularly always took goodies for the locals — used clothing, geegaws and electrical appliances you couldn’t get in the stores there, simple things that were gratefully received.
From a distance, it seemed to me the Fidel Castro government managed to build an exceptional health care system (it still appears to be, too) but little else
In this way, Canadians reckoned, they were alleviating the deprivation and poverty — especially acute after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s ended subsidies to Cuba and ignited a major economic crisis — of the ordinary Cuban, while managing to put on the back burner of the conscience the fact that it was also a repressive state which at one point (2008, I think) even had the second-biggest number of imprisoned journalists on the planet.
From a distance, it seemed to me the Fidel Castro government managed to build an exceptional health care system (it still appears to be, too) but little else.
In one of the last remaining bastions of communism in the world, there is little opportunity for that exquisitely well-educated population to flourish and the promise of a long life, which may feel even longer because it’s not a free one.
I imagine that with that JetBlue flight from Florida this week, Cubans were not recoiling in dread, but rather rejoicing, in their hearts at least. It’s not just the symbolic contest between some cast-off Canadian clothes versus a McDonald’s or two; it’s the tantalizing prospect of choice, abundance and someday maybe even freedom.
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