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Fidel Castro, haughty revolutionary to stalled statesman

Fidel Castro, haughty revolutionary to stalled statesman

02castroFidel Castro, haughty revolutionary to stalled statesman

by The Honourable Joe Volpe, Publisher

TORONTO – This is not meant to exculpate Justin Trudeau or to defend anything he has said following the passing of Fidel Castro. He does not need it, and to be frank, we have criticized him on other issues relevant to Canada and more specifically to Italian-Canadians.

That said, I admit to being member of a Parliamentary Delegation that visited Cuba some twenty years ago. The trip was not that big a deal. We spent the vast majority of our time in meetings with officials (ours and Cuban) so that we might better understand our relationship.

And, quite frankly that of our neighbour/competitor to the South. Canada was on a post-Mulroney binge to secure market access with everybody and anybody. It was a logical outcome of first the Free Trade Agreement then the NAFTA. Canada “really believed in” the concept of “changing [others] by engaging”.

Cuba was already reeling from the withdrawal by the former Soviet Union (and its heirs) from the commercial pact that had provided the island nation with the revenue it needed to make the “Revolution” reach the masses. The USA continued with its embargo designed to choke Cuba into submission or to provoke a counter-revolution. “Suffering” by locals be damned.

There was virtually no domestic economic activity outside of the tobacco and sugar cane (for rum primarily) business and some copper mining, under the operation of a Canadian company. There was no manufacturing to speak of. There was nothing to buy. By all anecdotal accounts, not much has changed.

It does have plenty of water, sunshine and sand. Castro worked hard to convince foreign investors that it would be worth their while to circumvent American trade policies and invest in developing the Cuban Tourism Industry.

Canadian, Mexican and Italian builders began to construct “gated tourism enclaves”. Entrepreneurs from those countries began to expand their horizons from the coastal areas to the interior. Job creation on a massive scale seemed just over the horizon.

Canadians were the largest single group of tourists making up about 60% of the total – half of them were Italo-Canadians who switched their allegiance from sunny (and perilous Mexico) to equally sunny (but more affordable and safer) Cuba. Small and medium sized Canadian companies followed with their goods and services.

By the time this writer made it to Cuba, the population – equal to that of Ontario in number – had a higher level of education than any state in central or South America, and parts of North America. Still does.

It also had the highest ratio of doctors per 100, 000 inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere. Still does. Cuba seemed on the cusp of leaving the economic lethargy of Latin America behind. Castro seemed to be loosening the strings of a centralized authoritarian system in favour of an emerging Chinese “socialist market economy” model.

By then, twenty years ago, the revolutionary who had, against all odds, defeated a corrupt and oppressive “democratic” government, was already getting on in years. His heirs-apparent were already jostling for positions post-Castro. He had been reduced to little more than a figurehead. His reforms seemed to wither on the vine.

Gone were the days when Cuba beat back a failed American invasion; when Fidel prompted a [Missile Crisis] that threatened a 3rd World War; when Castro exported Cuba’s version of Socialism and Equality through Cuban Military Advisors (front line troops) in Africa (Angola), and in Central/South America with guerillas led by Che Guevara. Cuba was a catalyst for change – sometimes by force of arms.

It is not hard to see how Castro could be blamed for every ill in the world – including those for which he had direct responsibility. His detractors would scarcely be expected to find any value attributable to his time on earth, especially since he is no more.

Still, there he was at age 74, suddenly before our eyes at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral 16 years ago. He had come to pay his respects to an old friend.

It was not difficult to see why he fascinated so many: tall, proud and self assured, with an air of one who knew he counted for “something” in the world; who had accomplished “something” with nothing. He greeted those who looked his way with a “buenas tardes” and a gentle nod of his head in deference.

My wife, almost awestruck, turned as he strode alongside us and whispered, “Oh my Gosh, was that Fidel Castro?”

(Tuesday 29 November 2016)

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