Frank Calzon is director of the Free Cuba Center of Freedom House, a human rights organization founded by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941 to oppose fascism. He was born in Cuba.
Horrible things are sometimes done in the name of very good people. In the angry discussions in Canada about the impact of the new Helms-Burton law on businesses in Cuba, very little is said about Cuba and Cubans. It is as if Cuba were uninhabited.
Why do Canadian entrepreneurs and others who travel to the island ignore Castro's abyssmal human rights record? His systematic denial of freedoms of speech, assembly, and association? His imprisonment of dissidents and use of electroshock "treatment" against nonviolent pro-democracy activists? Indeed, why do foreigners insist on conducting business-as-usual in Cuba when they would not tolerate one minute such a sordid state of affairs in their own countries?
What about the rights of Cuban workers to organize a labor union, to criticize their employers, or to question the impact of foreign enterprises on the air that they breath or the water that they drink?Consider:
At Moa Bay, in Eastern Cuba, Canada's Sheritt Mining Company runs a nickel mine and smelter. Buildings in the area are beginning to show a reddish tint, the result of emissions from the smelter. Cuban mothers warn their kids to keep their shirts on to avoid skin rashes, and untreated discharges into the bay have killed much of marine life.
Of course, having a job is better than being unemployed, and Cubans are grateful for every small favor. So Sheritt has no labor troubles in Cuba.
The Canadian company - and other foreign capitalists-don't, however, pick their workers. That is a service provided by the government. Sherritt pays Castro $9,500 a year per worker, and Castro pays the workers the equivalent of $10 a month. One can only surmise what would happen if one of these workers dared to suggest collective bargaining or to raise the issue of Sherrit's responsibility for Moa's enviromental degradation.
None of this is new. It's how the old imperial powers dealt with natives of Latin America and Africa.
Cuba's foreign investors are little more than speculators, exploiting land and workers in their quest for quick bucks. Hardly any of the companies that are so vocal in their rejection of the Helms-Burton law produce consumer goods for Cubans. Shoe factories or vegetable canneries for a Cuban domestic market are of little interest to them. They concentrate instead on extractive industries such as nickel and petroleum exploration, providing services for foreign tourists, and export-oriented industries that net hard currency for the Castro regime and little for the Cuban people.
Now that Helms-Burton is law, will Canada suffer great damage? Let's put it another way: Whatever the sins of the U.S. Congress and the Cuban American exile community, will business and trade relations between Canada and the United States be fundamentally disturbed for the sake of a handful of fortune seekers? What percentage of Canadian foreign investments is based in Cuba? What type of businessman invest in a country where the state is all-powerful, where business contracts and lives are at the mercy of the dictator's whims, and where the rule of law is considered "enemy propaganda"?
Helms-Burton does not prohibit Canadian investment in cuba; Canadian investors who travel to the island will not be penalized by the United States. What the bill says is that companies and people doing business in Cuba and profiting from confiscated (i.e. stolen American properties) will not be allowed to do business in or visist the United States. It might very well be that this contradicts some international trade precepts, but it is time for a new international trade principle: If you steal my property, you cannot expect to do business with me.
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