Northern Lites

Naively idealistic students ignore the dark side of Cuba


During a recent reporting trip in Cuba, I was invited to join the party by a few Canadian students attending The University of Havana. Slouched on a beat-up couch in the host's off-campus crash pad, the Canadians, who had come to Cuba as part of Dalhousie University's study-abroad program, sounded like walking, talking propaganda billboards for the Communist party. They championed Cuba's free education system and universal medical care, and blamed the suffering of the Cuban people solely on the U.S. trade embargo.

Freedom, as a student from Ontario explained it, never put food in a peasant's stomach or inoculated a child. Furthermore, the ubiquitous block wardens who keep tabs on their neighbors' loyalty to the revolution are actually harmless, since they operate out in the open. A Newfoundlander offered a shrug and a blank stare when asked if she had considered the fact that her tuition might be supporting a government that rules by repression. And, as the lone Cuban guest at the party squirmed in silence (perhaps the free exchange of ideas unnerved him), a fellow from Vancouver questioned why I was all hung up on this personal liberty trip. Listen up dudes: Many Canadians, especially coddled international development students on one-way exchange programs, need to go back to school when it comes to Cuba. That goes for the professors at Dalhousie University as well.

Upon my return from Cuba, I chatted with Prof. Jane Parpart, acting chair of international development studies at Dalhousie in Nova Scotia. "I'm sure Cuban students could come here," she said in all seriousness. "I hope students could come here just like students from Sierra Leone or anywhere."

Perhaps Dalhousie's dean might consider adding a forthcoming report on Cuba by the human rights organization Freedom House to the school's required reading list -- for students and administrators.

They would learn that "freedom of movement and the right to choose one's residence, education or job are severely restricted" in Cuba, and how "attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense."

They would get an education about Fidel Castro's stranglehold on information. Independent Cuban journalists face "jail terms and hard labor and assaults while in prison by state security agents." Apparently, even a baseball writer poses a threat to Castro. According to Reason.com, Cuban baseball historian Severino Nieto can't get his several scholarly books about baseball published, because Castro refuses to acknowledge that organized sports existed before the revolution.

And they would receive a harsh lesson on the cruel conditions endured by Cuban political dissidents, who can languish for years in Castro's jails and psychiatric institutions on trumped-up charges such as "disseminating enemy propaganda."

Yet even when faced with the facts, many Canadians, including the naively idealistic students in Havana, undoubtedly continue to play down the dark side of Cuba, which happens to be the second most popular destination for Canadian tourists. To explain their illicit affair with Castro, some will cite the Canadian tradition of "constructive engagement," a policy that amounts to unconstructive detachment. Just consider Castro's repeated refusal to sign the United Nations Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, despite the pleas of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Others suggest that cheering on Castro allows Canadians the chance to differentiate themselves from the U.S., while giving their imposing neighbor to the south a kick in the cojones. Psychiatrists might call it "projection." But students of the human condition know that support for an immoral regime that enslaves its people only provides succor to the enemy -- not the enemy of the U.S., but enemies of freedom and democracy everywhere.