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Cuba-Canada relations: A look at diplomacy from below

A review by Barry Weisleder of Other Diplomacies, Other Ties: Cuba and Canada in the Shadow of the U.S., Luis Rene Fernandez Tabio, Cynthia Wright, and Lana Wylie, ed., 363 pages, University of Toronto Press, 2018.

In the wake of Ottawa’s vocal support for the latest U.S.-backed attempt at a coup d’état in Venezuela, studies on foreign relations take on a profound sense of urgency.

Setting aside the cumbersome title, this book’s 12 chapters, produced by historians based both in Canada and Cuba, cover the subject of relations with Cuba thoroughly, even with some duplication. Convenient summaries conclude every segment.

For me, the chapter on Cuba’s pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal was particularly riveting. I remember visiting that World’s Fair, titled “Man and His World – Terre des Hommes”, and that unique pavilion. I and dozens of my fellow junior high school students were chaperoned from Toronto by our teachers. I recall the building’s futuristic cube structure, the huge, austere black and white photos, and the evocative, radical slogans on the walls: a combination that blew my then-apolitical mind.

The book puts in context a moment of world social upheaval, shaped by the revolutions in Cuba and Algeria; the example of Che Guevara, soon to be assassinated; and the multiple revolts of 1968, from France to Italy to Prague to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

“Other Diplomacies” reminds us that defending a revolution is harder than making one. Exploiting the contradictions, however relative and small, between the imperialist powers is a high priority. Its examination of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s differences with Washington over Cuba, not to mention whether to accept nuclear weapons on Canada’s territory, shows an autonomy that arises from a different relationship of class forces.

The fact that Canada and Mexico did not break diplomatic relations with revolutionary Cuba, unlike all the other countries of the western hemisphere in the 1960s, provided an important lifeline to the first workers’ republic west of Europe. The impact endures. Canada remains Cuba’s fourth biggest partner in trade. 1.3 million Canadian tourists visit Cuba every year. Sherritt International, the Canadian-based nickel extractor, is still the largest corporate investor in the island.

These and other features of the relationship are at least partly a product of a relatively more class-independent workers’ movement in the Canadian state, including Quebec, and the efforts of at least three generations of socialists and Cuba solidarity activists north of the U.S. border.  The Fair Play for Cuba Committees, on both sides of the divide, well deserve the recognition afforded by the book.

Diplomats as spies, and mass media scribes as shameless propagandists for a corporate agenda, continue to ply their trades. Educational and cultural exchanges continue to make inroads against anti-communist bias. Cuba is embraced by a world that has received its generous gifts of top-notch medical care and disaster relief aid. Washington remains powerful, but more politically isolated than ever, its economy in decline, its military apparatus strained by chronic overreach.

Following the 60th anniversary of the overthrow of the made-in-USA Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, Cuba’s leadership and people are wrestling with choices, the need to strike a balance of economic development, social equality and Poder Popular (people’s power), yearning for, anticipating, the next revolutions that will quicken the pace to world socialist transformation.

Not by conventional diplomacy, such transformations will certainly be informed by the “Other Diplomacies” that animate working class solidarity.

A version of this article originally appeared at https://johnriddell.wordpress.com