Cheer­ing on a dic­ta­tor

Cuban work­ers have no rights. So why does the com­mu­nist regime en­joy the sup­port of the Cana­dian Labour Congress?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - IDEAS - BRIAN DI­JKEMA

Cana­di­ans love Cuba. And what’s not to love? Cuba Si! ads dis­play white, sandy beaches and smil­ing Cubans in brightly coloured­clothes. Come to Cuba, they say; it’s “friendly and di­verse.” Each year, thou­sands of us go to Fidel Cas­tro’s is­land “par­adise” to es­cape the cold.

But there’s a side of the is­land that many Cana­di­ans don’t see — and don’t want to see. Soak­ing up the sun and sip­ping mar­gar­i­tas isn’t quite so re­lax­ing when you know the host gov­ern­ment is a vi­o­la­tor of ba­sic hu­man rights.

In 2003, Cuba’s gov­ern­ment rounded up and ar­rested 75 trade union­ists, jour­nal­ists, and­book­store own­ers, tried them over the course of a few days, and sen­tenced them to prison terms of up to 28 years.

Chris­tine Chanet, a re­porter to the UN high com­mis­sion on hu­man rights, con­demned Cuba re­peat­edly for this “un­prece­dented wave of re­pres­sion.” Ac­cord­ing to Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, the Cuban gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to use “harsh mea­sures to sti­fle po­ten­tial dis­sent,” in­clud­ing “beat­ings, short-term de­ten­tion, fre­quent sum­monses, threats, evic­tion, loss of em­ploy­ment and re­stric­tions on move­ment.”

When the Chris­tian Labour As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada (CLAC), an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian union, at­tempted to han­dover thou­sands of signed­pe­ti­tions to the Cuban em­bassy in Ottawa re­quest­ing the re­lease of the 75 pris­on­ers, it was met with lockedga tes. So in 2004, CLAC sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Cuba to meet with the wives of nine im­pris­oned­mem­bers of the Con­sejo Uni­tario de Traba­jadores Cubanos (CUTC), an in­de­pen­dent union which CLAC has tried to help. For th­ese women and their hus­bands, life in Cuba is far from the par­adise por­trayedin glossy ads.

Re­cently, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Chris­telijk Na­tion­aal Vakver­bond, a fed­er­a­tion of trade unions in the Nether­lands, also at­tempted to meet with the pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies. But on their ar­rival, Cuban po­lice de­tainedand­in­timid ated them and forced them to leave the is­land, re­fus­ing to al­low them ac­cess to the pris­on­ers.

Be­sides the vi­o­la­tion of ba­sic hu­man rights, Cana­di­ans should also be con­cerned­about the gen­eral well-be­ing of Cuban work­ers and their fami- lies. Cana­dian com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in the coun­try pay US$500 per month per worker to state em­ploy­ment agen­cies, yet work­ers re­ceive less thanUS$25 per month.

As for free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion, it’s non-ex­is­tent. Union choice in Cuba is not an op­tion, as the im­pris­oned mem­bers of the CUTC can at­test. Their union is not rec­og­nizedby the Cuban gov­ern­ment, and work­ers are al­lowed to join only the one of­fi­cially sanc­tioned state union.

Those who gloss over the Cuban gov­ern­ment’s vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights of­ten por­tray Cuba as a so­cial­ist utopia, one in which di­min­ished free­dom is merely the small price paid­for cra­dle-to-grave care by the state. But if this is the case, why do Cubans con­tinue to rely on sup­port from the UN’s food­progr am? Why do many Cana­dian tourists who vacation reg­u­larly in Cuba take ex­tra tooth­paste along to hand­out? They know that even such ba­sic es­sen­tial items are scarce.

Here’s an­other is­sue: Why does the Cana­dian Labour Congress (CLC)— a body that pro­fesses to be a de­fender of work­ers’ rights and the “voice of labour” in this coun­try — re­main one of the last union or­ga­ni­za­tions to sup­port Cuba’s one-union, one-party sys­tem? In do­ing so, the CLC has bro­ken with the po­si­tion on Cuba heldby the In­ter­na­tional Con­fed­er­a­tion of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the world’s largest trade union fed­er­a­tion, to which it is a mem­ber.

In a res­o­lu­tion table­dat its re­cent 24th Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, the CLC says that “the loss of the Cuban so­cial­ist project would­cons titute an his­toric set­back for work­ing peo­ple ev­ery­where.” In other words, the CLC sup­ports a regime that claims “free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion … does not trans­late into the false con­cept of ‘trade union plu­ral­ism.’ ”

To­gether with its af­fil­i­ated unions, the CLC will be host­ing an event this week­endin Toronto in sup­port of the Cuban gov­ern­ment. The rights of Cuban work­ers sit­ting in jail for start­ing an in­de­pen­dent union is not on the agenda. When it comes to a choice be­tween hu­man dig­nity or so­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy, the CLC sides with ide­ol­ogy, be­liev­ing work­ers are best servedby one cen­tral author­ity — whether in Cuba or in Canada.

Cuba’s im­pris­onedCUTC mem­bers dis­agree. Thou­sands of or­di­nary Cubans, strug­gling to make ends meet, liv­ing in fear of los­ing their jobs — or worse — not dar­ing to crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment, also dis­agree. The loss of so­cial­ism would­not be a loss for Cuban work­ers. It wouldbe a great gain.

Not all Cana­dian unions are will­ing to em­brace a tyrant. CLAC — a union com­mit­ted to free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion — passeda res­o­lu­tion last Satur­day urg­ing the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to ex­ert its in­flu­ence to se­cure the re­lease of the nine CUTC mem­bers who re­main im­pris­onedand the re­main­ing pris­on­ers of con­science in Cuba. It has also pe­ti­tionedCana­d ian busi­nesses op­er­at­ing in Cuba to take a stand­for hu­man rights and use their in­flu­ence to help Cuban work­ers.

There is much for Cana­di­ans to love about Cuba — the warmth, hos­pi­tal­ity, and­courage of its peo­ple. Say Si! to Cuba an­dits peo­ple. But say no to its gov­ern­ment’s de­plorable vi­o­la­tion of ba­sic hu­man rights.

Brian Di­jkema is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Chris­tian Labour As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada, an in­de­pen­dent Cana­dian union founded in 1952, and rep­re­sent­ing 40,000 mem­bers

CLAU­DIA DAUT / REUTERS

A roller at work in a Ha­vana cigar fac­tory.

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