By Karen Dubinsky
Good bye, Cuba.
The Canadian government suspended visa-processing services at its embassy in Havana. No more visiting Cubans to Canada — unless they can get themselves to another country with a functioning embassy. No more Cuban musicians, no more visiting professors, no more family visits, and no more Cuban students studying in Canadian universities.
I got this news while spending two weeks in Havana with 35 Queen’s University students. It’s part of an exchange program Queen’s has had for over 10 years with the University of Havana. Our Havana classroom includes the university, as well as the art galleries, music halls and cultural centres of the city. Here our instructors are a cast of thousands: professors, musicians, curators and the opinionated, verbose people of Havana.
Our program is an exchange; an unequal one but an exchange. We bring students to Havana, and we invite one Cuban professor, musician or artist back to Canada. In this way, Canadian audiences have been able to hear about the latest Cuban research, hear a concert from a top-notch musician, or learn about art directly from an artist or curator.
All this is now suspended.
The Canadian government says this is in response to the reduced staff in the embassy as a result of the curious “sonic attacks” experienced by embassy staff. This — whatever “this” is, no one knows — is a serious thing and has resulted in health problems for Canadian embassy staff in Canada.
But why choose the draconian path of shuttering the embassy and suspending visa services? With this move, the Canadian government has cancelled decades of Canadian-Cuban people to people exchanges, in art, culture and education especially.
Here’s what won’t be happening as a result of this decision: all of these are stories I learned in Havana the day the embassy suspended visa services.
- The Cuban agronomist who receives thousands of visitors at an innovative co-operative farm won’t be able to accept an invitation she’s received to visit Canada to explain their internationally recognized sustainable farming model.
- The mother of a recent Cuban PhD graduate won’t be able to attend her daughter’s Canadian graduation.
- Another Cuban student — a brilliant pianist — can’t take up her offer of admission to a Canadian university.
- A Canadian/Cuban art exhibition in Montreal might have to go ahead without the Cuban artists they’ve invited.
Meanwhile 1.3 million Canadians visit Cuba annually, enjoying the beaches, culture and music. Doesn’t this just seem a little churlish?
Canada’s Cuba policy has always been independent and measured. Now, at least in the visa department, we are exactly the same as Trump. Don’t pack your Canadian flag T-shirt, visitors. There’s little to brag about here.
Karen Dubinsky is the author of Cuba Beyond the Beach: Stories of Life in Havana. She recently received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council award for her next book on Canadian-Cuban cultural relations.