At the time this article was
written David Warner was Speaker of the Ontario Legislative Assembly
In August and September 1992 the
Speaker and seven other Members of the Ontario Legislature visited Cuba in an
effort to strengthen the relationship between Ontario and Cuba. The visit was
developed and coordinated by Dr. Jim Henderson, MPP. Speaker David Warner
recorded some of his observations in diary form. Speaker Warner represents
Scarborough-Ellesmere in the Ontario Legislature.
Sunday, August 30: As we prepare to land in Cuba many images
come to mind and also many questions? The Americans consider Fidel Castro, the
leader of the 1959 Revolution, as a dictator. Is this true? How poor is Cuba?
Have the winds of change blown across the island? A learning experience is
about to begin.
Monday, August 31: The waterfront view from the Hotel Riviera
in Havana is beautiful and appreciated, but even more so the air-conditioning
to offset the heat and humidity. Our first official visit quite appropriately
was to I.C.A.P. (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos). The staff at the
friendship centre explain how the Cuban government encourages joint ventures as
a good way to strengthen the local economy while at the same time being a good
business deal for the investing country or company. The principal difficulty is
the American blockade, the U.S. refusal to trade with Cuba and the pressure
exerted by the U.S. on other countries not to do business with Cuba. On the
brighter side there are brigades of young people who come to this Caribbean
island every year from throughout the world to assist in building projects.
In the afternoon we visit a local
hospital which serves an area population of about 500,000. The completion of
current renovations will mean a total of about 1,200 beds and no waiting. The
ratio of doctor to population is about 1 to 320 (Ontario's is about 1 to 600).
Universal health care was started right after the revolution. There is a
desperate shortage of electricity throughout Cuba, hence the hospital corridors
are poorly lit.
The return drive to the hotel
through the streets of Havana is an interesting opportunity to observe the
mixture of lush tropical growth, wide avenues, magnificent statues and the once
splendid Spanish style buildings, most of which are in need of major repair.
The local buses are overcrowded. There are thousands of bicycles and quite a
few cars, 1950's vintage.
A leisurely dinner at our hotel and
a late evening stroll along the sidewalk adjacent to the ocean breakwall where
there is always a gentle breeze is a good way for our group to compare notes
and appreciate this tropical island.
Tuesday, September 1: Our first stop is the Cuban Chamber of
Commerce. Joint ventures, with a foreign investment maximum of 49% are being encouraged.
Exceptions to the 49% rule are possible. Several countries, including Spain and
Canada, have negotiated arrangements in mining, oil exploration, hotels etc.
Once again the severe problem of an energy shortage is explained. The collapse
of the Soviet Union meant a huge drop in the supply of petroleum. Hard currency
is required in order to purchase oil from Venezuela. Cuba does not have enough
hard currency and is prevented by the U.S. from borrowing money from the World
Bank or the International Monetary Fund. With the help of the Soviets the
Cubans had started building a nuclear power plant. The plant is not yet
completed and progress is slow. One hope is to discover a plentiful supply of
oil off-shore so exploration continues.
An historical tour of old Havana
proves to be quite interesting. Among other things we visited the former home
of the Spanish Governor, a palatial estate with its classical inner courtyard,
iron "lacework" and spacious rooms. There is a certain old world
charm about Havana. Hemmingway lived here, for about ten years. We also visited
a very impressive, 100 million dollar bio-technology centre. With international
support this centre accomplishes world acclaimed research in agriculture and
medicine. All of the high tech equipment had to be purchased from Europe or
Asia because of the U.S. refusal to sell anything to Cuba. The work done here
has assisted in creating better agricultural crops and methods and effective
attacks on disease.
After such a busy day, an evening
reception at the Friendship Centre is most welcome. The combination of
traditional Cuban music, played and sung by a local duo, Cuban rum and a
pleasant, warm tropical evening provides a delightful atmosphere in which to
get to know our hosts better.
Wednesday, September 2: We leave Havana for a visit to an
agricultural research area an hour's drive through the countryside of gently
rolling hills, blanketed with lush tropical growth. I discovered as I have on
other trips that our Canadian cows certainly get around! Holsteins from Canada
are being bred with Cuban cows to produce cattle which survive well on tropical
vegetation yet still produce a large quantity of milk. The village is
self-contained, including schools and a child-care centre. We visited a
child-care centre where children from age 6 months to 5 years are cared for.
All of the child-care workers are highly trained and the ratio is 5 children to
1 adult. Close by is an elementary school with grades one to six. The average
class size is 15 to 20 students. Both places were very impressive. It is
obvious that a great emphasis has been placed on education. The literacy rate
is very high, a good indicator of potential for a successful society.
The afternoon was an opportunity
for me to wander about a portion of Havana on my own. Faltering Spanish,
augmented with lots of warm smiles, meant I could enjoy a coffee with a couple
of strangers at a café. I enjoyed the palm tree-lined streets, local parks, ice
cream stands and the crowds of people going about their daily tasks or coming
from work. The exercise sharpened my appetite for dinner.
The "Tropicana" is the
outdoor nightclub where Desi Arnaz, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole and no doubt
countless others got their start in show business. Seemingly from openings high
up in the trees come a multitude of dancers and singers. Lavish costumes,
energetic dance numbers, infectious lively music and dancing coloured lights
combine to create a spectacular two hour show. A warm tropical evening, with
its ever present gentle breezes and the ever generous supply of Cuban rum meant
that we sat back, relaxed and enjoyed a delightful time.
Thursday, September 3: Our meeting in the morning is with the
Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. Cuba continues to make overtures to the
U.S. to resume trade relations. Sugar, tobacco (particularly their world famous
cigars), coffee, rum, minerals and seafood are some of the items available for
trading. The Cubans are quite naturally curious about what effect the North
American Free Trade Agreement involving Canada, U.S. and Mexico might have on
Canada's trade with Cuba and indeed the rest of the Caribbean. It was a good
question, to which none of us had an answer. Our meeting was a candid exchange
of information, observations and opinions: a stimulating morning!
In the afternoon we meet with the
Vice-President of the Provincial Assembly of Havana. We receive a detailed
explanation of the municipal government structure, local responsibilities and
powers as well as information about electoral changes taking place. The goal
now is to have non-party individuals running for local election. The atmosphere
is one of active change. An explanation of "revolutionary" was most
helpful. In Cuban terms a "revolutionary" is someone who is still
trying to accomplish the goals of their society. Among the many goals there is
the eradication of disease, zero infant mortality, 100% literacy and so on.
Language is an interesting thing. Change the context and misunderstanding can
Another delightful evening was in
store with the President of the Assembly of Havana Province. Lively
conversation, to say nothing of a scrumptious meal meant a memorable time.
Friday, September 4: Not often do I get a chance to visit a
shipyard. A grand tour of the dockyard is a prelude to an interesting meeting
with a person in charge of the fishing fleet. Fishing problems and challenges
seem to be a world-wide phenomenon.
Our afternoon meeting is definitely
a highlight of the entire week. We have a three-hour meeting with the President
of the National Assembly, a man rumoured to be the successor to Fidel Castro.
His lucid account of Cuban history is a good backdrop to a candid discussion
about economic developments, current plans and a vision for the future. The
first American invasion was in 1898. Subsequently a Treaty with Spain was
signed, a Treaty which involved Spain and the U.S., but no Cuban involvement.
In 1902 an American citizen was installed as President of Cuba and naval bases
were established. The Constitution of Cuba allowed U.S. military intervention
in Cuba affairs. During the succeeding 50 years Americans introduced gambling,
drugs and prostitution to the island, all under the control of organized crime,
but seemingly with the support of the government.
We were told that as a direct
result of the Revolution in 1959 the Cubans were able to improve the health and
education of their own people. Infant mortality dropped from 60 per 1,000
births to 10 per 1,000 births. Life expectancy improved over the past 40 years
from an average 55 years to today's 75 years. The World Health Organization
reports that Cuba has already achieved the United Nations health objectives
targeted for the year 2,000. In education there was a pre-revolution literacy
rate of about 30%. Within a couple of years the literacy rate became 100%.
Today most Cubans are highly educated.
The President acknowledged mistakes
of the past. He talked of the "geniuses" who went to Moscow during
the 1960s only to return with the opinion that the Cuban government was doing
everything wrong and the Moscow approach to economics should be adopted. Those
"geniuses" are no longer around and a totally different economic
approach is the order of the day. Again, what came through loud and clear was
the difficulties created by the American blockade.
Saturday, September 5: Pure white, silky sand stretches off to
the horizon. A calm, azure blue ocean, shallow for at least 100 metres off
shore, gently caresses the shoreline. This gorgeous, seemingly endless beach,
the most beautiful I have ever seen, is the world famous Veradaro Beach. The
two hour drive from Havana had its own scenic rewards of palm trees, mountains
in the distance, the occasional town and tropical plantations.
This was a day to relax, walk the
beach, swim in the ocean, read, enjoy a cold Cuban beer and enjoy the beautiful
tropical scenery. What a fabulous conclusion to a superb week!
Observations and Conclusions: The winds of change have blown and are
continuing to blow over this island. Cuba, through circumstances, had to link
itself economically to the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union has
forced a dramatic re-thinking with respect to Cuba's economic structure. While
the one party system will likely remain in place, there is an effort to
democratize the electoral process. Cuba is reaching out to the rest of the
It still is a poor country, yet it
has achieved a great deal. As far as I could tell there are no homeless people,
something I can not say about my own city. There is a high standard of medical
care and an excellent level of education; both marks of an accomplished
society. There are a number of natural resources. There is a tremendously
strong will to succeed as a nation, to provide the best possible standard of
living for everyone. The Cubans believe that the United States is trying to
simply starve Cuba to death by the blockade, the pressure on others to not do
business with Cuba and by controlling borrowing from international sources. The
Cubans are determined to survive. They are equally determined to control their
own destiny. They enjoy a good relationship with most of the world. In fact the
U.S. is the only country in the world who does not have normal diplomatic and
trading relations with Cuba. The Cubans wait patiently for the United States to
offer its friendship.