March break, Cuban beaches and… politics?

The CBC continues to push an anti-Cuban line while downplaying the U.S. embargo

Havana skyline.

On Monday, March 6, CBC Radio’s local morning newscast carried a report on Cuba by national reporter Evan Dyer, which also appeared on

As holidaying Canadians return to Cuba,” it began, “Cubans themselves are fleeing in record numbers.”

CBC’s Information Morning followed up the next morning with an interview with Yoandri Reyes Riveron, a Cuban who “has called Halifax home for the past six years.”

The implicit — often explicit — March break message in both segments was that we Nova Scotians should not be spending our hard-earned vacation dollars in Cuba because doing so props up a cruel dictatorship.

As Reyes Riveron put it: “If you go there and you go to a hotel, you’re directly supporting a dictatorship regime that doesn’t care about its people.”

I respectfully disagree.

I’m not a Cuban and I can’t claim to be a Cuba expert, but I spent a lot of time in that country during the last decade — and spent time with a lot of Cubans — while I wrote two books, including a narrative nonfiction account of a group of Cuban spies sent to Miami in the 1990s to report back on Miami exile terrorist plots against Cuba. They were arrested, tried and convicted in the most anti-Cuban city in the United States, and then sentenced to unconscionably lengthy terms in US prisons.

Researching What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, in fact, required spending countless hours in Havana, Miami and Washington simply trying to understand the context for what has become the complicated, convoluted, confounding history of relations between Cuba and the United States during the nearly 65 years since the 1959 Cuban revolution.

It is complicated, and convoluted, and confounding. But without understanding — and acknowledging — that context, it is almost impossible to understand much about contemporary Cuba.

Contemporary Cuba, to be clear, is in an economic mess, worse probably even than in the worst years of the 1990s “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are power blackouts, lineups everywhere for everything, and there is little if anything on the shelves for Cubans to buy, even if they can afford it, which most can’t.

The Cuban government is not entirely blameless. Its default authoritarian tendencies have not made the country’s awful economic situation any less awful. Nor has its too-often-heavy-handed response to legitimate citizen complaints.

Cubans are indeed leaving in record numbers. Dyer is not wrong when he writes, “There is a sense that the country is emptying out — that almost anyone who has the means to leave is either actively planning an escape or is at least thinking about it.”

But the real issue is why Cubans are losing hope for their future, and what can/should be done about it. Including perhaps by Nova Scotians simply trying to decide where we should winter vacation should we be so lucky.

Let’s start with Dyer. I’m not sure why, but Dyer has a track record of unbalanced, de-contextualized reporting about Cuba. Some of his previous reports, in fact, have been the subject of complaints to the CBC’s Ombudsman.

Those complaints appear to have been mostly ignored, since Dyer continues to write the same kind of one-note pieces, relying primarily on the same extremely limited range of anti-Cuban sources. In his latest report, for example, he quotes just one Cuban-born, Miami-based US academic and one Ottawa-based anti-Cuban exile activist.

Dyer blandly describes her only as “a Canadian federal public servant originally from the small town of La Canela in Cuba’s eastern Holguin province.” But the quickest of internet searches shows her travelling to Quebec last summer to protest against the Cuban government during Pope Francis’s visit to Canada. “We would like for [the Pope] to pray for the Cuban children, to pray for the Cuban population,” she declared.

Given his sources, it’s no wonder Dyer reports — apparently on the basis of little else —— that “there are indications that the Cuban Communist Party and its ally in Nicaragua, the Ortega-Murillo regime, are allowing and even encouraging the exodus in order to kill two birds with one stone by generating income while removing dissidents.” It’s part of a deliberate “double political purpose” scheme by the Cuban government, Dyer suggests, to expel “their own dissidents and frustrated citizens while undermining the United States with waves of illegal immigration.”

Really? The Cuban government has chosen to dispense with its well-educated best and brightest young people just to stick a thumb in the eye of the Americans and further undermine its own economy?

A dictatorship regime that doesn’t care about its citizens…

Speaking of context, it is interesting — and illuminating — that there is not one single mention of the word “embargo” in Dyer’s 2,000-word report.

The 63-years-and-counting US embargo is the longest-running trade blockade in modern history. Over the years, the embargo has been extended and expanded to cover more items and apply to more businesses in more countries, all deliberately designed to strangle the Cuban economy and impose US-favourable regime change.

That embargo became even more restrictive after Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016. He and his Miami string-pullers piled on with an additional 200 policies designed to hobble Cuba’s survival, including — on his way out the White House door — re-labeling Cuba as a sponsor of state terrorism. Despite the absence of any evidence to justify the move, merely labeling Cuba as such makes it much more difficult for others to do business with the country.

Most of Trump’s policies continue under the Biden administration.

None of that context is even hinted at by Dyer.

In his own interview with the CBC’s Portia Clarke, Reyes Riveron also dismissed, unchallenged, the impact of the embargo.

Look, it’s true that we have an embargo, but it’s against military companies. So, Cuba still makes business with the United States. The chicken that the Cubans eat is from the United States. They send medicine to Cuba as well. I mean, it’s a whole business, and the deal of the embargo is not like that. It’s not what causes our misery.

There is much to parse in that one paragraph. For starters, those “military companies” Reyes Riveron refers to employ ordinary Cubans who work in the resorts and whose salaries and tips underpin much of Cuba’s struggling economy. Refusing to stay in government-operated resorts in a government-operated country simply because it is government-operated won’t help ordinary Cubans.

But the embargo, it needs to be said, involves far more than a few military-connected Cuban companies.

While Cuba can buy some chicken from US producers, it must pay for agricultural products in US cash — none of the usual commercial credit is permitted because of the embargo.

How about all those medicines supposedly wending their way freely to Cuba?

While critics rightly complain about Cuba’s failings when it comes to individual human rights — like freedom of speech — they seem quick to look the other way when it comes to Cuba’s success in achieving some collective human rights like education and healthcare.

Does Cuba’s healthcare system, for example, really suggest a “regime that doesn’t care about its citizens?”

According to the World Bank, Cuba has 8.2 doctors for every 1,000 citizens.

Nova Scotia has just 2.7 doctors for every thousand citizens. As of Friday, 137,587 Nova Scotians — almost 14 percent of the population — are on the province’s Need-a-Family-Practice Registry.

One could as easily ask if our government cares about its citizens.

No wonder representatives of a majority of hard-pressed First Nations in Manitoba traveled to Havana in February 2020 to discuss a plan with the Cuban government to supply doctors, nurses and other front-line healthcare workers to underserved First Nations communities. The First Nations would then send their own students to Cuba to train for free at Havana’s famous Latin American School of Medicine, the world’s largest international training centre for doctors.

An aside: Since it opened in 1999, ELAM has graduated more than 37,000 doctors, most from Latin America, the Caribbean. Africa, Europe, Asia and even the United States. (Very few Canadians have so far been trained there.) Most attended for free —including tuition, room and board and even a small stipend—so they could return to their home countries seven years later as debt-free doctors and serve in their own under-served communities.

Although the Canadian government has refused to provide visas for the First Nations Cuban doctors project, the idea is attracting attention, including here in Nova Scotia where a small group has begun lobbying Nova Scotia’s health minister to consider Cuba as at least one short-term solution to our own healthcare crisis.

Cuba’s against-the-odds healthcare successes have not come easily and — despite Reyes Riveron’s claims to the contrary — the embargo has made success even more difficult to achieve.

Dr. Jesús Renó (Photo: Bill Hackwell)

Back in 2017, I interviewed Dr. Jesús de los Santos Renó Céspedes, a pediatric oncologist who was the head of pediatrics at the National Institute of Oncology and Radiology in Havana. We talked about the embargo/blockade and some of the concrete ways it had impacted healthcare in Cuba:

He’s frustrated by the many and various ways the United States blockade against Cuba has made it difficult for him to get the medicines and equipment he needs to treat his young patients. And he’s angry about the hours and days and months and years he and his fellow health professionals in Cuba waste trying to navigate the blockade bans and restrictions just to get the resources they need to continue to treat the sick…

Before the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, he says it was possible for Cuba to get the latest medicines and technologies from its socialist partners. But once that route was closed, the full impact of the U.S. blockade began to make itself felt.

“It was shocking and depressing,” Renó says of the sudden lack of medicines and even basic materials to perform surgeries. “We had the money to buy what we needed, but we couldn’t buy it. The American companies were afraid to sell us anything.”

And it wasn’t just American companies. The U.S. has imposed its anti-Cuba will on other countries and companies, threatening them with fines and other penalties if they have any dealings with Cuba.

At one point, he recalls, Cuba bought a nuclear medicine camera from a Canadian supplier but then had to route it through the Netherlands, France and Switzerland before its arrival in Havana to “deviate attention” and make it more difficult for American authorities to identify the source.

Things only got worse as American-based multinational companies vacuumed up smaller pharmaceutical companies in developing countries. Cuba had been able to obtain a cancer treatment drug from Mexico “at good prices” until an American company bought it out — at which point the company couldn’t sell to Cuba at any price.

“So we found other labs in India” that helped — until U.S. companies acquired them too. “And we had to start looking again.”

Even when Cuba is able to buy medical technology from other countries, it often turns out that many of the parts used to build it have come from the U.S., meaning Cuba can’t buy replacement parts. There’s plenty of equipment sitting idle in Cuban hospitals today, he says, because Cuba isn’t allowed to buy parts. “Our students call it Jurassic Park,” Dr. Renó jokes.

But the results are no joke.

That, of course, was in 2017.

COVID? During the first worst early months of the pandemic, the US government used the coercive power of its embargo to block a plan by one of Asia’s richest men to provide much-needed face masks and COVID diagnostic kits to needy Cubans.

As Cuba’s head of US affairs told reporters at the time, “It’s the type of obstacle that Cuba confronts daily in order to take care of the country’s basic necessities.”

It’s even worse now. Thanks to the combination of the ever-tightening impact of the embargo and COVID’s continuing impact on its essential tourism economy, Cuba no longer has sufficient cash coming in to take care of all its necessities.

And now we’re being urged to stop vacationing in Cuba to punish Cubans for already being punished for being Cuban, and to do our economic bit to assist US-engineered attempts to overthrow the government of yet another Latin American country.


For me at least, the choice between being complicit in still more American intervention in Cuba by refusing to visit the country and providing even some small support to distressed Cubans by vacationing there is really no choice at all.

And then, of course, there are the beaches.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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  1. The Cuban people are among the most joyous on the planet. I’ve spent enough time there to know that once you gain trust with ordinary people, they will open up enough say: “Sixty years of blockade and our backs are not broken? You know, we will never again be the whore and gambling house of the US mafia.”
    A few years ago the director of education of Washington DC came back from Cuba. The first thing she did was criticize the Cuban system of government.
    What she left out is that Cuba’s literacy rate is about 99.9%. That of Washington DC? About 85%. Compare the wealth of the US and that of Cuba. Who has their priorities right when it comes to literacy and education?
    Which country has priorities straight when it comes to healthcare? Cuba’s COVID rate? One of the best in the world. The US has 4x the COVID mortality of international average and Cana’s was 1.4 that of international average.
    Cuban people, poor but noble. I’m happy to spend my tourism money there, and not in the big hotels isolated from ordinary people. Right in the air ‘n’ b supporting local people and listening to Cuban music on the small clubs.


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