Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk


One of their [tyrannical regimes’] goals is to make their opponents vanish. They want not only to imprison them, they want no one to have heard of them, no one to know who or where they are. So just to that extent, it’s tremendously important that we pay attention. (Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the UN) 

Havana stands as a dreadful warning to the world – if one were any longer needed - against the dangers of monomaniacs who believe themselves to be in possession of a theory that explains everything, including the future. (Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Summer 2002) 

Armando Valladares was a prisoner in Fidel Castro’s gulag for more than twenty years.  A one-time supporter of the Castro-led revolution, he soon fell out of favour when he objected to the totalitarian ideology and ruthless practices of the regime. 

Arrested in 1960, he suffered endless deprivation, beatings, medical neglect, and systematic humiliation at the hands of sadistic guards. Periodically, he would hear Castro’s firing squads execute “counter revolutionaries” in the adjoining courtyard. His Christian faith sustained him while enduring such atrocities. He also found strength in his poetry writing that somehow found its way to the free world. Pressure brought to bear on Castro by a number of human rights organization finally brought his release in 1982. 

Abandoned prisoners

In 1984 Valladares published Against All Hope: A memoir of life in Castro’s Gulag*. He wrote that this book “is my witness; an attempt to inform the world about the true criminal nature of the ongoing dictatorship of Fidel Castro.” 

Time declared that Against All Hope “is an event of considerable cultural and political significance; the most detailed and irrefutable description yet published of the suffering engendered in Cuba by Communism and Fidel Castro.” 

This truly moving book has been compared to Koestler’s classic Darkness at Noon, and other similar testimonies to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable cruelty- not to forget the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. 

Valladares writes that one of the hardest things to bear was the thought of being abandoned by the rest of the world. This feeling came to him every time his captors would show him a statement of support for Castro’s revolution issued by some representative of American Christian churches. He said that reading such a statement “was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger.” 

How is the free world now doing with respect to the prisoners in the still existing gulags? Have we learned anything from the witness of this brave Cuban whose book should be read by every Christian in the free world? 

 The truth is that many have not learned a thing, but that the same sort of abandonment so painful to Valladares and his fellow prisoners is still happening today. This occurs every time Fidel Castro’s regime is treated as just another regular government entitled to the respect due to all members of the civilized world. 

A Shameful Record

Canada has a deplorable record on this score. The worst offender is the Canadian government, especially during the Trudeau and Chretien eras. But others are not far behind in this roster of shame, including Canadian trade unionists, and many among the media, academic and arts literati. 

Prime Minster Pierre Elliott Trudeau considered Castro a good friend who was an honoured guest at his funeral. Prime Minister Chretien visited Castro in 1998 to confirm Canada’s policy of  constructive engagement” intended to wean Cuba away from its errant ways. He officiated at the opening of the international Havana airport, built with Canadian materials and workmanship. 

 During this visit Chretien also spoke to Castro about the plight of four jailed Cuban human rights activists – Marta Roque, Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne, Rene Gomez – who had called for greater freedom in Cuba, which is a crime in that country. When Castro ignored Chretien’s intervention and the four activists were sentenced to five years in Castro’s gulag, he was reportedly “irked.” 

Canada’s Cuba trade and investment policies were no more effective than Chretien’s plea on behalf of Castro’s prisoners. A number of Canadian investments, invariably routed through the Cuban government, have come to grief. The Cuban state has proven to be an unreliable business partner, particularly about paying bills. The Canadian taxpayer has footed that bill for unpaid debts to the tune of millions of dollars. Despite that sorry record, between 1994 and 2002, the Canadian International Development Agency sent nearly $65-million to Cuba. 

Human Rights Watch reported in 1999 that Cuba had failed to abide by the many treaties it had signed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It noted the Canadian government had little to show for its constructive engagement policies. 

But never mind all that, and the fact that no one can claim ignorance about the horrific reality of Cuba’s police state. The Canadian government continues to legitimize the Castro regime. When the Cuban External Trade Minister Raul de la Nuez Ramirez visited the House of Commons in November 2002, he was hailed as “His Excellency” and was given a standing ovation, which John Turley-Ewart described, to the everlasting shame of the participating MPs, as “a testament to Canada’s official response to the oppression of the Cuban people.” 


The Vancouver-based Solidarity Notes, a labour/activist choir, accompanied by a representative of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, performed in Cuba 

in the spring of 2003.  On their return they reported in glowing terms about the Cubans’ perseverance despite daily discomforts and many shortages. They dutifully put the blame for these hardships on the Americans. Then they gushed:  “We also learned, with some envy, of their advantages of free education and health care, low or no rent, national childcare, and total social security.” 

You read that right, “total social security.” Every one of the items on that list is a lie because the entire Cuban revolution is based on a monumental falsehood.  If these blinkered unionists had ventured outside of their Potemkin village guided tours and honestly investigated for themselves, they could have known the truth. 

Cuba is a state where everyone is under constant surveillance. Those who dare to deviate from the compulsory worship of the “Revolution” and its great leader are deprived of jobs, education, and medical care. Their families are torn apart when the husband (sometimes the wife) is jailed far away from their homes where they are treated as vermin. And that is called “total social security?” 

These Canadian trade unionists, and they are not alone, are blind to reality because they refuse to see it even when confronted with the truth. They suffer from an addiction to the belief that socialism as practiced in Cuba must be right, no matter what. It’s a case of delusion, and it is not a harmless one. For such delusion gives legitimacy to evil, and condemns its victims to a life of darkness and hopelessness. 

Big Brother is Always Watching

Take the case of Cuban trade unionists (and others) who have been condemned by kangaroo courts to many years of imprisonment.   

Last year a number of human rights activists started the Varela Project (named after a 19th-century Cuban priest who opposed slavery), demanding the kinds of freedom we take for granted. The Cuban constitution provides that such requests supported by more than 10,000 Cubans may be put a vote. Many more than the required minimum signed, which itself was an act of bravery for the authorities now know who they are. 

The Cuban regime interpreted this project as an act of treason. It responded by circulating a counter petition requesting that Cubans make socialism an irrevocable part of the Cuban constitution. This government-orchestrated petition was signed by 99.37 per cent of the eligible voters. 

To further intimidate the Varela petitioners and similar pro-democracy activists, the Cuban authorities sentenced 75 of their leaders to lengthy prison terms – up to 28 years. Among them are nine Cubans who have bravely risked the wrath of Castro’s minions while speaking up for the freedom of the Cuban workers. They established an independent Council of Cuban Workers (CUTC) in 1995 and applied for legal recognition to the Cuban Minister of labour. The authorities have refused to recognize this union and have ignored all interventions by the International Labour Organization.   

These leading trade unionists and their families have endured years of poverty, harassment and periodic detentions. They suffer discrimination in every area of Cuban life, including employment, education, and medical care. To work in a government-owned workplace (and everything belongs to the Cuban state), workers must provide proof that they are supporters of the Cuban revolution. 

The catch is that such declarations can only be obtained from the Communist Party, the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. There is no escape from the prying eyes of the police and their informers in every neighbourhood. 

Let These People go Free

The Christian Labour Association of Canada  and the Cuban Canadian  Foundation are planning a joint protest at the Cuban embassy in Ottawa on Saturday,  July 24. On Monday, July 26, the CLAC is planning to hand over its more than 1000 protest cards to the Cuban ambassador. For more details, see the accompanying sidebar below: CLAC to Mr. Castro: “Let these people go free.”  

One of the imprisoned human rights activists is 63-year-old Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and a journalist for the CUTC. He was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for writing without the approval of the Cuban authorities and for speaking up for the Cuban workers’ civil rights. He is in poor health, and his wife Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist, fears that he will not survive in prison. 

How does the free press, that intrepid champion of victims in the world, respond to the urgent pleas of the inmates of the Castro’s prisons?  Oakland Ross, a feature writer, wrote on extensive article in the Toronto Star on June 12, 2004 about the 75 Cubans who were given lengthy prison terms. 

 He interviewed Miriam Leiva, but also representatives of the Cuban regimes to report their side of the story – as if they are morally equivalent.  His article is representative of much that is passed off as unbiased reporting but in reality is propaganda of a vicious kind. 

Ross presented the story of the 75 imprisoned rights activists as a counterweight to the experience of five Cubans who are now in U.S. jails for spying on behalf of the Cuban regime. He depicts both kinds of prisoners as victims of a silly, counterproductive spat between two foolish regimes. He does not describe Cuba as it really is; nor does he recognize that the U.S, is a haven for millions of refugees from wretched places such as Cuba. This is how Ross sees it: 

“In many respects, despite the obvious disparity in numbers – five prisoners in one case, 75 in the other -- the two groups of inmates are like mirror images of one another and strongly suggest that, for all their differences, the governments of the United States and of Cuba are in some ways remarkably similar.” 

So the victims of the inhuman Cuban regime are not only condemned by their oppressors. What in some sense is even worse, they are betrayed by the very people in the free world who, if they spoke the truth, could help to set these prisoners free. 

In contrast, what the CLAC is trying to do is to speak the truth to power. It is right in raising its voice on behalf of the sorely oppressed Cuban workers and their families. Their plea for help is heartrending, and we may not pass by on the other side of the road. 

*Against All Hope was re-issued in 2001 by Encounter Books. 

Sidebar to “Castro’s Cuba: Still a Slave Fiefdom” 


The Christian Labour Association of Canada had two events to draw public attention to the plight of imprisoned labour leaders in Cuba. 

On Monday, July 26, 2004 the date all Cuba commemorates as the beginning  of the overthrow of the Batista regime (in 1953), the CLAC handed over more than 1000  protest cards to the Cuban ambassador. 

The cards were an appeal on behalf of nine Cuban labour leaders who have been condemned to long prison terms for their “crime” of establishing an independent labour union (CUTC). The names of the imprisoned rights activists and the duration of their sentence are as follows: 

Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, secretary general of the Consejo Unitario de
Trabajadores Cubanos (CUTC): 25 years in the Canaleta ("gutter") prison

Carmelo Díaz Fernández, director of the Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores
Cubanos news agency: 20 years

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, journalist for CUTC: 20 years

Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, CUTC delegate for the Pinar del Río province:
26 years

Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, CUTC delegate for the Havana province: 26 years

Adolfo Fernandez Saínz, freelance journalist and leader of the Christian
Workers' Movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Cristianos): 15 years   

Horacio Julio Pina Borrego - Pinar del Rio, in a Havana Prison.

Luis Milan Fernandez - Santiago de Cuba.

Blas Girado Reyes Rodriguez - Sancti Spiritus.

Excerpts from The Guide, September-October 2003:

"In an intentional effort to isolate them, most of these union leaders are being held hundreds of kilometres away from their homes. Family members have a hard time visiting them since getting to these far-off parts of Cuba is expensive, and it takes several days of travel to get to the prisons -- transport is scarce. Family visits are kept brief and allowed only three times per month; telephone calls to family are restricted. In addition, these prisoners of conscience are denied participation in religious services. 

" When challenged on these actions by the World Confederation of Labour, the Cuban government denied the very existence of the CUTC, arguing that the prisoners did not represent any workers and accusing them of being enemies of the Cuban revolution. The CUTC, an independent trade union, applied for legal recognition and made every effort to comply with Cuban law. Over 400 workers signed the application, providing their names and addresses -- and exposing themselves to reprisal by the government. The application was sent to the Cuban Minister of Labour on July 14, 1995. But the Cuban authorities never responded to the CUTC application and continue to refuse to recognize its existence. 

“We must communicate our support to the members and leaders of  CUTC, encouraging them with the  knowledge that we are  aware of their struggles and that we will not  relent in our advocacy for their just cause.” 

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