COVER

CAN CUBA CHANGE?

NOMI MORRIS January 15 1996
COVER

CAN CUBA CHANGE?

NOMI MORRIS January 15 1996

CAN CUBA CHANGE?

COVER

As the country opens up to foreigners, Canadians are leading the charge. But despite making free-market reforms, Fidel Castro still wants to save his revolution.

Gone is the imposing sculpture of a hammer and sickle that formerly stood on the road from Havana’s airport. Today, there is a billboard for Benetton, that sassy symbol of Western consumerism that sprang up amid the tumbling Communist regimes of Europe in the early 1990s. Cuba, an island fortress utterly dependent on Soviet aid, would be the next domino to fall, said the same pundits who once thought the Berlin Wall would last for decades. But six years on, and despite a toughening of sanctions by the United States, Cuba is emerging from the worst economic crisis in its history with the legendary Fidel Castro still solidly at the helm.

With hefty investment from Canada and other friendly nations, Cuba has begun an economic upturn, logging 2.5-per-cent growth in 1995 and projecting five per cent this year. Castro has authorized unprece-

ON ASSIGNMENT

NOMI MORRIS

dented reforms and attracted much-needed dollars—while still professing a determination to save his country’s socialist soul from the seductions of capitalism.

“We’ve seen everything that has happened to those European countries in a totally uncontrolled way. They wanted to go towards capitalism in 45 days, and they quickly regretted leaving socialism,” Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina told Maclean’s. “Ours is a strategy that includes order and control.” So far, the strategy is working. In just two years, a string of measures that had been taboo since Castro’s 1959 revolution have become an integral part of everyday life. The country opened up to outside private investors—with Canada, Mexico and Spain in the lead—and passed a law in September that allows 100-per-cent foreign ownership in most sectors. Tourism has grown fastest, pulling in $1.4 billion in 1995, up by a third in two years. The largest market is Canada, from which 54 planes a week are expected to bring

EARLY SCARS

The past splendor of Old Havana peeks through the facades of dilapidated buildings left to crumble for lack of funds. Along one crowded laneway, Barbara Balsinde walks holding her bubbly one-year-old baby Zailin. The baby’s arms and legs are covered with scabs and scaly patches, an allergic reaction to airborne pollutants. “She’s had it for two months,” says her 21-year-old mother. “I know what medicine she needs, but it is too expensive. It costs $12.” That is more than a month’s salary, and the plaint hits a nerve with Cubans. They point to the deterioration of a health-care system that had given them high standards in medicine, and the lowest infant mortality rate in the developing world. Now, shortages coupled with the dollar economy have created a two-tiered system. Medications unavailable in clinics can be found on the street, for a price—though not always.

“I’d say I can get four out of five of the prescriptions I need,” says the privileged wife of an orchestra leader, describing her search for back-pain relief. But many Cubans must suffer non-emergency medical conditions untreated. Even disposable diapers have been rationed so severely that most people rely on towels or used paper. For Zailin, the scars appeared before her first birthday.

200.000 travellers to Cuba this year. There are now more than 200 bustling neighborhood food markets with freely set prices. A “selfemployment” law has allowed more than

200.000 Cubans to open licensed small busi-

nesses; an equal number are believed to be operating without the paperwork. Last May, the government abandoned its guarantee of cradle-to-grave employment, a measure that is expected to bring 800,000 lay offs-one-flith of Cuba's workforce-as indus try restructures in the next few years. That and the shutdowns caused by the loss of Soviet

markets lead students such as 17-year-old Gustavo Mario Duque of Havana’s José Ramón Polytechnic to fear they will not find work after graduation. “There are so many students, and they can’t all be placed,” says Duque. “I just hope I am able to stay in Havana.” Some reports already place joblessness as high as 45 per cent—although officially there is no unemployment The biggest economic change of all came in July, 1993: the decriminalization of foreign currency. Just two months ago, the state even undercut the black market for U.S. dollars by opening its own kiosks, offering the street rate of 25 pesos to one U.S. dollar instead of the official 1:1 exchange. The unofficial rate has come down from 150 pesos a year ago, a sure sign that conditions are stabilizing.

Having rejected Russia’s path to reform as a catastrophe, Castro has looked more to the Chinese model of introducing market mechanisms under a dictatorship. But Cuba, mindful of its status as an island of 11 million people just 160 km from the U.S. coast, believes it must go even slower to stave off the social upheaval already

confounding Beijing. After Castro’s December trip to China and to similarly reformist Vietnam, the catchphrase has become socialism with “Cuban characteristics.” That means everything is up for grabs except the very pillars of the homegrown revolution: national sovereignty, universal education and health care. Officials say that adult literacy has risen to nearly 100 per cent, up from 60 per cent before the

revolution. The number of teachers went from 26,000 before the revolution to 300,000 by the end of the 1980s, according to government statistics. Doctors increased from

6,000 to nearly 40,000, the most in the developing world in relation to population. And 90 per cent of highschool-age kids were in school, one of the highest proportions anywhere. In the words of Cuban-affairs writer Andres Oppenheimer: “Cuba had eliminated misery at the cost of imposing a general poverty.” When they wax proud of their so-

cial system-and withstanding the American giant at the gate-Cubans might well be Canadians talking. And Canadians have become key players in the reform drive. Led by investors such as mining magnate Ian Delaney, blacklisted by the U.S. government for his dealings with Cuba, a clubbish group of Canadi ans from gold prospectors to ice-

cream purveyors have seized a unique moment—there is a reforming Communist economy with no American competition (page 22). “In a business and a political sense, this is a clean sheet of paper,” says Delaney, a friend of Castro’s who has become a de facto adviser to Cuban policy-makers. “There are no messes to clean up. Nothing has been done, so nothing has been destroyed.” The Cubans have studied Canadian regulations on foreign investment, mining, labor and taxation as they scurry to write laws to keep up with the incoming capital.

It is a new thrust to a special relationship Canada has long enjoyed with Havana, having followed an independent policy from the United States, which imposed its debilitating trade embargo in 1961. “Canada is an old friend of Cuba’s,” says Fidel’s older brother Ramón Castro. “It never abandoned us throughout the 34 years of blockade. When we needed medicine, it came from Canada and Mexico.”

COOKING FOR DOLLARS

At Eddie’s bistro, modern art hangs on the high colonial walls while a brandnew stereo plays Latin jazz. A bottle of Heinz steak sauce sits on a tray of condiments, as if to greet American guests with a knowing wink. In a lovingly renovated private house near the Havana waterfront, this paladar, or livingroom eatery, is a far cry from the starched-shirt grills run by the state. It is one of the few forms of “self-employment” permitted since mid-1993. Eddie, a 29year-old carpenter who loves to cook, opened the restaurant in August, converting his home to a private enterprise and retreating to a storeroom to sleep. At a locally extravagant $5.50 an entrée, the place caters mostly to Cubans hosting foreign visitors, attracted by an atmosphere with unexpected panache. The one-room paladar is full every night except Tuesday—when it is closed for the municipality’s “blackout day” to save energy. But Eddie, who prefers not to give his last name, is not yet paying himself a salary. “It costs a lot to maintain a house like this.” And there are rules—such as a ban on non-family employees—enforced by inspectors who frequently drop by. Eddie is allowed only 12 chairs, though his house could hold 20. His “supposed family” of three does all the serving and washing. He does not have the advantage of the wholesale prices of the state-run hospitality industry, but must buy his food at costly farmers’ markets instead. He also pays a $540 monthly licence fee. Still, Eddie is pleased with his foray into the free market. “For two years before starting this, I hardly did anything. Now, I am working, and it feels good.”

The mixed peso-U.S. dollar economy has introduced a new upwardly mobile class, visible by their cellular phones and lunches with foreign bosses. In a society that had previously been divided into poor and poorer, the new rich have made glaring the growing gap between the have-dollars and have-nots. “What reform?” asks the commercial manager of a taxi company. “I don’t have more of anything. I can’t travel. My life hasn’t changed.” People jokingly talk of the need for fe, the Spanish word for faith as well as an acronym for relatives abroad {familia en el extranjero), who send greenbacks. The changes have also unleashed social problems that Cubans had previously been shielded from. Prostitution, crime, even beggars in the street—a new blight for Communist Cuba—now seem to be grudgingly accepted as the price of doing business.

With foreigners and their dollars inevitably comes corruption, still at a low level in Cuba compared with other countries in the region. “No police can control a billion dollars worth of tourism a year,” says Leonid Maximenkov, an instructor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Russian Studies, who recently spent a year in Havana. Castro is short on patience for privileged dabblers, as evidenced by the 1989 execution of the popular General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez and three others on drug-trafficking charges, which sent a warning chill through the country. Even the legitimate successes of the new entrepreneurs rankles the Cuban leader, who lashed out at the “new rich” in his year-end address to the National Assembly. ‘We legalized robbery,” Castro said, announcing the impending income tax that is an attempt to rein in the runaway incomes of hardcurrency earners and the self-employed. “Everything this country does is for the people, not in favor of a social class of rich people, of exploiters.” Translation: it is not a shift in ideology but sheer necessity that is driving his reforms.

Hemmed in by the U.S. trade embargo, Cuba previously relied on the

‘WE ARE ALL AS ONE’

Tucked away behind the foreign embassies and joint-venture offices in Havana’s stately Miramar suburb live the extended families of Street 36A. Josefina Valera, 71, heads a household of 10. Only one son, Ivan, a singer in a band, has regular work. A daughter left her job in the municipality to be “self-employed” as a hairstylist from home. Her income sometimes reaches 80 pesos a month ($4.30). Pork, available at the local farmers’ market, costs 25 pesos a pound. The last time the family ate some was a year ago. Beef? The group bursts out laughing. “Six years ago, I’d say,” answers Yvonne, 21. “But we had chicken last July.” Usually the family shares one meal a day—rice and beans, or chick peas, perhaps supplemented by one of the seven eggs the state rations each person per month. “But we are lucky. In the past five months we haven’t gone a day without food,” says her older sister Pelajia. Still, she admits it is hard to watch others who have relatives abroad use their dollars. “We don’t have the dollar, we have the dolor,”laughs Josefina, making a play on the Spanish word for pain.

This sort of pull-together humor also typifies the eight-member Michel Rollock clan down the street. “We are all as one,” says Dania, a 45-year-old teacher. Both families are black, in a society that boasts of having wiped out racial inequality. But now, as people become less timid about speaking out, some blacks are acknowledging subtle forms of racism. “It’s not direct institutional racism, but there are deep roots of prejudice here,” says Regina, 30. “In the workplace it is expressed in subtle ways. Blacks have to show they work harder. They have to do better than average.” She and the families of Street 36A are working hard to do better.

Soviet trading bloc and $10.8 billion a year in subsidies and aid from Moscow—all of which began to disintegrate in 1990. The bankruptcy of a centrally planned economy and a succession of poor sugar harvests pitched the nation into what it refers to as the “special period.” The economy contracted by nearly 50 per cent over four years, shutting down industry and imposing shortages of fuel, water, food, medicine and soap—which is still rationed at just a few bars per person per year. So ‘special’ were the hardships, that horse-drawn carts instead of cars were seen on the road, since gasoline was scarce and expensive. Special, too, were those hours spent sitting in the dark when frequent power outages were necessary to preserve energy after Russian oil imports were cut in half.

By the summer of 1994, the “rafter” crisis focused world attention on the discontent of Cubans tired of living in a deprived if relatively benevolent dictatorship. A mini-riot broke out on Havana’s Malecón boardwalk, and 33,000 refugees headed for the Florida coast. Twothirds were intercepted and returned to Guantánamo Bay, a naval base at the eastern tip of the island still held by the U.S. Last week, U.S. immigration authorities admitted the last of those boat people. A May agreement, seen by the Cubans as a major step towards improving relations with Washington, allows 20,000 Cubans a year to immigrate legally and obliges the Americans to send illegals home. The regime's critics often cite the rafter crisis as proof of Communism's failure, al though Cuban officials note that there was little violence even at its height. "They talk about the 30,000 youth that left, and they don't talk about the 11 million that stayed on the island," says foreign minister Robaina.

Now, the worst appears to be over. True, monthly rations still provide only enough supplies for half a month; the daily intake of calories for the average Cuban has fallen to 1,800 from 2,835 in 1989. But meat is available—to those who can pay for it. Cars are back on the roads, and so are the first traffic jams since the onset of the “special period.” U.S.-dollar gas stations with attached fast-food outlets have become teen hangouts. While many foreigners—Canadians among them—complain that the reforms are too slow and too superficial, Foreign Minister Robaina insists “the path we have taken has no reverse.”

A dashing 39-year-old favorite of Castro’s who came from the Communist youth organization, Robaina is popular for his fresh approach, which includes wearing casual T-shirts. He is at the head of a new guard of mostly younger technocrats whose speech is uncluttered by revolutionary rhetoric and whose attitudes resemble those of the North American liberal left. Already called Yummies (Young Urban Marxists), they work in a variety of state agencies forming a bridge between the regime’s entrenched bureaucracy and the world outside—possibly a bridge from Cuba’s past to its future. Another Yummie is the no-nonsense Octavio Castilla, deputy minister of foreign investment. “There are many dangers,” he says of the reforms. “It gives me no joy to see that a prostitute on the street who takes in perhaps $20 in tips can live more comfortably than a doctor. This is a transitory phenomenon. The goal is to restore a normal society with an equal distribution of wealth.”

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, who heads the North American section of the Cuban foreign ministry, is also a straight talker. As much as Cuba yearns for normal relations with the United States, he says, Havana’s new foreign policy is designed to prevent overdependence on anyone. “We’ve suffered that in our history several times already, with Spain, the United States and to a great extent with Eastern Europe. And when something collapses in the relationship, it has been disastrous for us.” Hence the desire to consolidate relations with Latin America, Europe, Canada and Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, well in advance of the day the Americans arrive. Some leverage may come from renewed ties with Russia, whose relations with the Clinton administration have lately turned cool. Russia recently announced a sugarfor-oil barter deal with the island as well as plans to help finish the Juraguá nuclear power plant in south-central Cuba.

The American trade embargo and the U.S. treatment of Cuba as a pariah on its doorstep are among the few things that have yet to change for Cuba. The vast, largely hardline Cuban exile community in the United States is a potent political force. But a moderate stream has emerged, mostly backed by the younger generation. It is led by Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a former comrade-in-arms who was later jailed by Castro, exiled to Spain and now advocates dialogue from his Miami base. In the wake of the U.S. easing of travel restrictions to Cuba in October, five flights a week from Miami and Fort Lauderdale will by the end of this month be carrying Cuban sons and daughters laden with gifts. Increasingly, with the Cold War over and the Americans readily trading with such formerly embargoed opponents as Vietnam and such human-rights abusers as China, Washington’s policy on Cuba looks to moderates like a hopeless anachronism. Israel was the only country that failed to join the last UN vote condemning the U.S. embargo.

A hard act to follow

Fidel. The name itself says loyalty. After 37 years of holding off assassins, a superpower on the doorstep and the contagious collapse of Communist regimes, Cuba’s leading revolutionary remains true to his cause—and his people remain largely loyal to him. El Comandante. El Maximo. El Jefe (The Chief). They are all nicknames for a charismatic leader who at 69 has become a 20th-century icon. Spontaneous and sexy, he is an emeritus member of the foreign-affairs jet set. Pierre Trudeau still takes his kids snorkelling at Castro’s place, and Margaret Trudeau Kemper has written about the Cuban leader’s charms. To those on the island, calling him Castro is practically insulting.

He is Fidel, and he has kept a grip on power by inspiring an almost cultish mix of love and fear among Cubans. “He is a soft dictator,” says Leonid Maximenkov, a Toronto professor who has worked in Havana. “Castro’s policy is to kick people out instead of killing them.”

In an episode that has become a kind of urban myth in the capital, cries of “Down with Fidel” turned to “Long Live Fidel” as hundreds of discontented youths rioted at the boardwalk one day in August, 1994—the lowest point in the five-year economic free fall that is only now levelling off. The melee was brief and mild, but it marked the worst outburst since the 1959 revolution. “I don’t know why he doesn’t just bring in free elections,” says Havana English teacher Frank Muiña of Castro’s autocratic rule. “If he did, he’d win more than 80 per cent of the vote anyway.”

Despite his fiery speeches, El Presidente is less a demagogue than a so-

phisticated politician who knows how to tailor his message—and his image. To court U.S. media and corporate leaders last fall, Castro wowed Manhattan by donning designer business suits rather than his customary military garb. At home, he is careful to be seen practising what he preaches. When he launched an anti-smoking drive a decade ago, Castro quit the habit himself, abandoning his trademark cigar. At the height of the energy crisis, neither he nor his inner circle used their office air-conditioning, say Canadians who do business in Havana. Members of his family—about whom he is intensely private—enjoy little in the way of special privileges. Even his favorite son, 46-year-old Fidelito, was removed from public life after reportedly skimming funds as head of the country’s nuclear-power program.

Plots against Castro’s life—whether hatched by the CIA or hardline Cuban exiles—have dogged his entire tenure. In April, 1994, five men machine-gunned the Cuban leader’s car before they were gunned down by security forces. Last month, the FBI arrested three CubanAmericans stockpiling weapons for a similar strike. But with his apparently loyal younger brother Raúl at the head of the army, there seems little chance of a military coup. At the upper echelons of government, Castro’s unpredictable hirings and firings—sometimes firing squads— have kept others from amassing too much power. Just three weeks ago, the crucial minister of foreign investment was abruptly sacked in favor of an up-and-comer.

Although detractors inside and outside the country anxiously await Castro’s passing from the scene, he appears fit and healthy, and could stay in power for some time. Officially, brother Raúl is next in line. But Cuba watchers have tossed up other candidates, including Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, 39, whom Fidel affectionately calls Robertico. Although unsentimental about his personal legacy, Castro has expressed melancholy about leaving the next phase of Cuban history to his protégés, describing his current role as a “spiritual influence, a mentor” for the country. “There is a new generation coming up. They are giving me less to do,” he has said, adding with typical self-deprecating humor that should he have a stroke, nothing would happen in Cuba except that it would work better. In fact, the passing of Fidel will leave a gaping void—and enormous questions over what will follow.

N.M.

And U.S. business people are champing at the bit to get involved in Cuba before the rest of the world carves it up. More than 300 representatives of corporate America have scouted the island in the past two years as guests of the Cuban government. Many signed “letters of intent” that are likely to expire well before the U.S. policy does. Even more have visited unofficially. Lee Iacocca has been spotted dining out in Havana, as has a travel industry delegation—including a representative of American Express, although use of its credit cards and travellers cheques is still banned on the island.

THE HIGH COST OF ROMANCE

Frank Muma has put on his good clothes to go out with a foreign woman on a Friday evening. He is hurt when she refuses to let him waste his meagre funds on a red rose from a table-side vendor. For Frank, a 31-year old English teacher and poet, the economic crisis of the past five years has meant more than existential woes: it has brought humiliation in what is an unabashedly macho society. “I have my frustrations. Any girl loves any boy these days according to how much money he has. This problem is hanging over me,” he confesses. “My salary is not enough to start a family. I can’t buy a house. I have to live with my mother.” Deprivation, followed by market reforms, has led to a new materialistic focus for Cubans, he says. Frank already feels like an old-timer, that the youth of today have completely different values from the ones he grew up with. “In the 1980s, nobody thought about how much everybody else had. We could sustain ourselves and were fulfilled by other things,” he remembers. “Now, wherever you go, whoever you talk to, people are talking about the same thing: how to get dollars. Young people just want to buy things. If they don’t have nice clothes, they don’t go out.” But like the majority of Cubans, Frank seems to possess boundless patience for a country he loves and does not want to leave. “I suffer here. But I know the reasons why and I agree with them.” If he could ask Fidel Castro one question, it would be a simple one: “How long?” How many years do idealists like him have to wait to improve their situation, to realize their potential? Frank looks down at his drink and answers his own question. “Quite a while still. Quite a while.”

VILLAGE SURVIVAL

In a hillside village an hour’s drive southeast of Havana, skinny chickens strut, and forlorn dogs loll about a onelane shantytown of a type that speckles the Cuban countryside. At the base of the hill, on the other side of the main highway, a beachside tourist area is well maintained, ready for winter vacationers. But here in Canasi, 45-year-old Carmen (not her real name) gestures at the ramshackle insides of a thin, three-room scrap-wood structure she shares with her husband, a dairy farmer, and two young daughters. “There’s no money for shoes,” says Carmen, pointing to her barefoot toddler and the holes in her own tattered sneakers. A broken refrigerator holds the family’s food stock—a bag each of rationed rice and beans. A half-full jar of cooking oil is on a shelf. The toilet is a hole-and-bucket improvisation. Like most Cubans, this family needs an extra “unofficial” income just to survive. In Canasi, raising pigs and other yard animals offers a way out. Selling the occasional large hog brings Carmen’s household 2,000 pesos ($110)—nearly a year’s salary for most Cubans. Here, though, there is no access to dollars or the new

opportunities that a legal dollar has brought. The ration card for the state bodega store is the main currency. A neighbor rides up on her bicycle. “The bodega has been robbed,” she announces. The villagers shake their heads at yet another first in these “special times.”

There is the predictable tug of war between the liberal Clinton administration and the more hardline House of Representatives, which in September passed a version of the Burton-Helms bill that seeks to penalize businesspeople from Canada and elsewhere who “traffic” in property still claimed by expatriate Cubans. Clinton could still veto the measure as he moves cautiously towards the view that says Cuba will be changed more quickly by bombarding it with American money and ideas than by withholding them. Last month, the state department

agreed to the delivery of $150 million in food, medical and other aid from nongovernmental organizations. “That’s more than the Europeans and everybody else together are giving the Cubans,” says Ernest Preeg, a Cuba specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Still, few expect Clinton to lift the trade embargo before the presidential election next fall. ‘We don’t support the Castro regime, we don’t support what it stands for,” says state department spokesman Nicholas Burns. “We’d like to see more contacts between people, but we certainly want to continue our policy of denying legitimacy to the Cuban government.” The key stumbling blocks are political reform and human rights in a country where more than 600 prisoners of conscience still languish in jails. Notorious as well is the system of forced quarantine for all AIDS patients in fenced compounds. The regime released more than a dozen dissidents in the past year and allowed visits by the UN high commissioner for human rights and two other top international monitors, steps that detractors say are merely part of Castro’s new image campaign. There is still no freedom of speech, media or association. The more than 60 disparate dissident groups are chronically harassed by the regime. Also absent from Castro’s agenda is substantive electoral reform. A multiparty democracy, say top officials, would bring a return to the Caribbean-style vote buying and false promises of Cuban politics in the 1950s.

But influential players like Foreign Minister Robaina say it is impossible to separate political change from sweeping economic reforms. Already the neighborhood Committees in Defence of the Revolution have been rendered practically defunct now that most of the underground economy has moved aboveground. And Cubans are far less worried about speaking their minds to each other and to curious visitors—even criticizing Castro himself, formerly impossible.

As for La Barba, the bearded one, he seems to have grasped instinctively that the most coveted human right of the late 20th century is the right to shop. Analysts expect him to continue introducing his market reforms step by step, in order to keep a stiff grip on the pace of change while granting just enough freedoms to act as an effective pressure valve. As long as the monster of scarcity that awoke in the early 1990s can be held at bay, Castro can plan the next phase of his revolution. But he is caught in the fear that American capitalism could overrun both socialism and, perhaps more important, Cuba’s hardwon sovereignty. Buoyed by their initial successes in attracting foreign investors and by the promising growth in the economy, Havana officials are confident they will be the one group of Communist reformers to get it right. But in Washington and elsewhere, some analysts fear that their successes to date will slow, rather than quicken, the pace of reform. Says Cuba specialist Preeg: “The Castro government doesn’t feel the pressures of a year and a half ago so, if anything, he has been rolling back somewhat on the reforms thus far.”

The wild card remains the U.S. embargo, which, if lifted soon, could open a Pandora’s box of overwhelming economic and cultural influences. Ironically, the blockade has served to unify Cubans behind Castro. Given the volatility of a leader who has only reluctantly given the green light to his young reformers, Cubans can only hope there is no Latin American version of a Tiananmen Square crackdown looming in the future. Cuba is, after all, still the most militarized country in Latin America. Pessimists believe substantive change is possible only after Castro is gone.

But with or without Fidel, many Cubans believe theirs will be the country to show there is indeed a Third Way, a mixed economy of market forces and a social net. The “Socialism or Death” posters are disappearing. But there is a billboard outside the former U.S. Embassy that surely will be around for a while. It warns: “Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you.”

A Latin love-in

In the cavernous courtyard of Havana’s Palace of the Captains General, smoke from Cuban cigars mixes with a woodsy incense as an Algonquin Indian from Abitibi Lake, Quebec, chants a prayer to ward off evil spirits. French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville is thought to be buried in this former home of colonial rulers, having died of yellow fever in Havana in 1706. On this December evening nearly three centuries later, a local choir sings the Gilles Vigneault nationalist anthem Mon Pays just before a beaming Marcel Landry, Quebec’s minister of agriculture, presents a caribou head to Fidel Castro’s brother Ramón—a farm scientist who oversaw the transformation of some choice Canadian

bull semen into a thriving Cuban dairy industry. In the crowd are Cuban and Quebec film luminaries as well as the vice-president of Cuba’s chamber of commerce and the foreign ministry’s director for North America.

“We are the Latin Americans of the North,” intones minister Landry, a slogan he will repeat later in the week on national television. “Our Latin soul speaks with yours in the same language.” The word Canada is never mentioned in his rambling speech about Quebec-Cuban co-operation that ends with the words in Spanish, “Viva Quebec! Viva Cuba! Long live our beautiful friendship.”

The rationale for this almost surreal reception in Old Havana last month was the visit of a 56-member Quebec delegation, including representatives of 31 companies, who planned their trade mission for the same week 10 Quebec features and 15 short films were playing at the city’s annual film festival. Special posters marked what Landry termed “the most important delegation ever” from the province. There was even a gastronomic festival featuring 19 Quebec chefs working in hotels on the island.

The love affair between Quebec and Cuba is hardly new. The left-of-centre orientation of Quebec’s governments since the 1960s struck a chord with Cubans, who sent scores of young agriculture engineers to train on Quebec farms. Four members of the separatist FLQ were granted asylum in Cuba in the 1970s (with Ottawa’s agreement). When Havana opened a trade commission in Canada in 1976, it was located in Montreal, the port Cuba uses for much of its world trade. And the Latin languages fostered a cultural affinity. This year, 100,000 Quebec tourists are expected to head to Cuban beaches, filling more than half the 54 flights a week from Canada. “Quebec makes up the strongest tourism clientele to Cuba among all nations,” said Landry.

Now that business people from English Canada have entered Cuba in droves, there is a distinct sense of “two solitudes” in the hotel bars of Havana. “We don’t mention the Quebec delegation,” said one Toronto executive. He and several other prominent Anglo faces in town that week were absent from Landry’s reception. But there to hold the federal fort was the energetic Mark Entwhistle, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, who has carved a place as a leader in Havana’s diplomatic community just when the country is opening up to foreigners. Despite the Quebec tie, Entwhistle says the Cuban regime clearly backs a strong, united Canada, which has served as an effective counterweight to the United States. “Cubans know where their bread is buttered,” says Entwhistle. “They were quite concerned about a Yes outcome [in the October referendum].”

At the Quebec function, Ramón Castro graciously accepted his caribou head—but later distanced himself from the event. “This is a non-official act,” he stressed, pointing at a little maple leaf pin on his lapel. “Canada is a great nation. It is an internal problem for Canadians,” he said of the Quebec sovereignty movement. “We want peace. It is in our interest that our great friend not have problems.” Then the aging revolutionary went on to one of his favorite topics, a detailed analysis of how much milk those original vials of Canadian Holstein semen eventually produced for the Cuban dairy industry. The bull, let history show, came from Ontario.

N.M. in Havana