Conversations with Fidel Castro
Dhaliwal, Herb, Canadian Parliamentary Review
It is a very unique experience at anytime to have a frank discussion with a world leader. It is even more unique is to be able to engage a man like Fidel Castro, reflecting on the significance of the revolution and the way ahead for his small country. That was the backdrop for a recent multi-party parliamentary delegation to Cuba. The trip was organized through the Canada-Cuba Parliamentary Friendship Group. Each delegate was responsible for his own airfare and expenses.
I remember thinking it incredible that I was only six years of age when the bearded man who was casually answering questions from our delegation rode into Havana as the heroic victor of the Cuban Revolution. How could I have guessed as a young boy from an immigrant family that one day as a Canadian Member of Parliament, I would get the opportunity to meet with this historic figure. More incredibly, how could I have guessed that 34 years later, Fidel Castro would still be the president of Cuba!
Scanning some briefing material before I joined my seven other colleagues, I was mystified by the range of divergent opinions on Cuba's continuing economic viability. Depending on who you read, Cuba is described as everything from a threat to American free market values to an unsuccessful communist experiment teetering on the brink of economic disaster. Its leader is described as everything from a decaying despot to a charismatic demagogue.
On the particular day of our delegation's meeting with Fidel Castro, his mood was reflective and reminiscent, as if our visit had sparked a stream of memories about Cuba's history. For two hours, he spoke with characteristic eloquence. He reminded us of Canada's longtime friendship with Cuba and of our refusal to sever diplomatic ties with Cuba even at the height of the Cold War.
He regaled us with reflections on the revolution, human rights and economic alternatives. But what surprised me the most about Fidel Castro was not the substance of our discussion but the subtext. He demonstrated a sincere caring for individuals which I had not expected, a compassion toward human suffering everywhere that it exists in the world. He emphasized that the fundamental motivation for Cuba's foreign policy has always been to reduce human suffering and to fight for social justice. As an example of this, Castro told us of how Cuba recently brought over 35,000 Russian children who were victims of the Chernobyl disaster to receive medical care in Cuban hospitals.
This example brought up an interesting question, about the relationship between Cuba and the former Soviet Union? Traditional thinking has always been that Cuba was a Russian satellite, receiving on average a million dollars a day before the Russian well dried up. Yet, when I raised this question directly, Castro took great pride in a foreign policy very independent of the USSR. According to him Cuba had, at time, been at odds with the Russian government of the day. He told us of times where Russia was genuinely worried about "what Cuba would do next."
Changing the tone from worries to accomplishments, Castro expressed the greatest pride in the accomplishments that Cuba has made improving the health and education of the Cuban populous. By South American standards, Cuba has achieved some outstanding results. Life expectancy at birth is 77 years, the highest in Latin America and the infant mortality rate in 1992 was 10.4 per 1,000, the lowest in Latin America. Cuba is the only Latin American country to have been included by Unicef in the category of countries with the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, on a par with the industrialized nations. As well, according to government figures, the illiteracy rate in 1990 was only 1.9%. This high level of education and training in the country is being used to attract foreign investment in science-based and high-technology industries.
At the same time though, Castro is realistic about the economic and social challenges which Cuba faces in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. …