Studying in Cuba: What Is the Lesson for Canadian Students?

In a few weeks time, students from one of Canada’s oldest, elite universities will be invited to sign-up for a study trip to Cuba. Queen’s University has offered the course since 2001 — first launched as Development Ethics, then cancelled, put under administrative review, and rebranded in 2008 as Cuban Society and Culture.

Queen’s University is one of several Canadian educational institutions to offer field-study programs in Cuba. Source: Webloid News.

Ten years ago, I set out with the Queen’s delegation, arriving in Havana shortly after the Cuban government imprisoned 75 political dissidents and summarily executed three of eight men who had hijacked a Cuban passenger ferry in an unsuccessful bid to escape the island.

Since we were in Cuba to study development ethics, the Black Spring of 2003 arguably presented a teaching moment. It was a chance not only to discuss the actions of the Cuban state but also to think more broadly about the analytical, rhetorical, and legal devices used to recast individuals as “terrorists,” which is how we would hear Fidel Castro describe the hijackers and dissidents in his May Day speech that year.

There was momentum for this type of inquiry, since similar questions were being raised in the context of the US War on Terror.

But Cuba, it seems, is held to a different standard — at least by those Paul Hollander calls “political pilgrims,” intellectuals committed to an unconditional embrace of offshore socialism, even in its most oppressive moments.

While the events of the Black Spring drew condemnation from several high-profile intellectuals once aligned with the Cuban regime (including José Saramago, Eduardo Galeano, Susan Sontag, and others), the Queen’s professor leading our delegation, Susan Babbitt, accused Cuba’s “former friends” of “relying uncritically upon partial and false information.” For Babbitt, what was at issue in Cuba’s Black Spring was not the use (or abuse) of the death penalty but rather the question of “Cuba’s right to exist.” This was also the position of the Canadian Network on Cuba, some members of which accompanied the Queen’s delegation.

But the death penalty was at issue for the late Lucius Walker, an African-American Baptist minister and the founder of Pastors for Peace, who took the stage in Havana’s Revolution Square just prior to Castro’s May Day address. Walker urged Cuban leaders to abolish the death penalty, which, after having been abrogated in 1940, was reintroduced, expanded, and celebrated by Cuba’s revolutionary regime as a legitimate tool to “liquidate the terrorists.”

Castro’s rejoinder to Walker demonstrated the oratory skills that earn him a place in the history of political spin. The Cuban leader explained to the crowd that Walker’s concern for the death penalty must be understood in the context of the US legal system, which disproportionately executes African-Americans and Hispanics, many of them innocent of any crime.

By contrast, Castro continued, the execution of the Baraguá ferry hijackers was a “legitimate defense” of the revolutionary government against the terrorist actions of US-supported mercenaries. The hijackers — all of whom were black and one of whom (ironically, given the reason for his execution) had served in the Cuban military intervention in Angola in the 1970s — were arrested, tried, and executed in six days, despite the fact that none of the ferry passengers had been harmed.

The summary executions were a far cry from the justice Castro himself had called for when standing trial for the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks. At that time, the young revolutionary complained about the rapidity with which the prosecution presented its case, saying “Two minutes seems a very short time in which to demand and justify that a man be put behind bars for more than a quarter of a century.”

Fifty years later, Castro had no problem with the fact that the hijackers were given only 15 minutes to meet their court-appointed lawyers before facing trial in a death penalty case.

In the decade since the Black Spring there have been a number of changes in Cuba, as well as in the field-study program offered through Queen’s. The course now includes a few passages (out of more than 1,000 pages of required reading) by, or about, selected dissidents, including Oswaldo Payá. But the material needs to be updated to reflect the fact that Payá is now dead. A pending lawsuit alleges he was murdered by the Castro regime.

Moreover, since neither of the two indices for the required course texts has an entry for “prisoners of conscience,” students should be told that the detention of government critics in Cuba is on the rise, with 6,602 reported cases of detention in 2012, up from 4,123 in 2011, and 2,074 in 2010.

A page from the 2013 handbook of the Queen’s University field-study course in Cuba. Source: Queen’s University.

Among the details the course handbook does offer are tips on where to find “nice souvenirs,” such as t-shirts of Ernesto (Che) Guevara. The t-shirts are representative of Cuban tourist markets to be sure, but promoting the image of an individual who argued for the necessity of cultivating hatred for one’s enemy in order to become an “effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine” is inconsistent with Queen’s much publicized stand against hate speech.

As a new generation of Queen’s students is invited to participate in the Cuba field-study program, many of the questions raised by the events of the Black Spring remain, not least those concerning the political construction of the terrorist, or — as dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez has recently been called — the traitor, and the anti-Cuban. Such rhetoric allows the Cuban government to argue, as Fidel Castro did on that May Day ten years ago, that there is no problem “between Cubans”; there is only a problem “between the people of Cuba and the government of the United States.”

The elephant in the room is the third option: that there is a problem between the government of Cuba and the people whom it claims to represent but strategically discards. Scholars may not be able to solve that problem. But neither should they be complicit in hiding it.

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