Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday condemned for the first time the use of violence by Cuban authorities to silence protests that have erupted in the country in recent days.
He also acknowledged for the first time that the protests were a political demand for freedom and democracy, and not merely driven by complaints about shortages of material goods.
“We’re deeply concerned by the violent crackdown on protests by the Cuban regime. We condemn the arrests and repression by authorities of peaceful demonstration,” he said at a public event in Montreal.
“We stand, as we always will, with the people of Cuba who want and deserve democracy, freedom and respect.”
An initial statement by the government had called on “all sides to exercise restraint and encourages all parties involved in the crisis to engage in peaceful and inclusive dialogue.”
That statement made no mention of democracy, and did not condemn the government’s use of force to break up demonstrations.
It presented the crisis in Cuba as a COVID-related issue linked to shortages of food and medicine, echoing the spin the Cuban Communist Party put on events.
O’Toole calls out other parties
Trudeau’s turnaround comes as his party gears up for an election, and the Conservatives stake out a position that is unambiguously supportive of protesters in Cuba.
Before Trudeau spoke today, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused “the leaders of Canada’s left-wing political parties” of indifference to the plight of Cubans.
“These brave Cubans are facing the brutal repression of the communist regime while calling for the basic democratic freedoms we enjoy in Canada — and the supposed political leadership in Canada seems not to care,” he wrote.
“I condemn the actions of the communist regime in Cuba and am calling on Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, Yves-François Blanchet, and Annamie Paul to do the same.”
“The silence of these individuals, some of whom have praised the brutal dictators of the Cuban regime before, speaks volumes.”
‘Good first step’
Trudeau’s remarks on Thursday were “a good first step,” said Cuban-Canadian activist Ernesto Perez Alfonso, a software engineer in Toronto who came to Canada 12 years ago through the Skilled Worker Program. “It’s not enough, but for now, it’s the best we can get.”
“Since November of last year there’ve been a series of violations of human rights, above all targeting artists like the San Isidro Movement and the January 27 movement. But there hasn’t been any condemnation [from] the government of Canada … until today about these violations.”
Those two groups were formed to protest Cuba’s Decree 349, requiring artists to receive government permits before producing art. Following a rare protest outside the Ministry of Culture on Jan. 27, several people were detained, harassed or interrogated. The Cuban government denounced them as “mercenaries”.
NDP echoes Cuban government lines
Perez Alfonso says that, while the Trudeau government has improved its public stance, the NDP’s hews more closely to the line promoted by the Cuban regime.
A statement by NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris talked mostly about ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Opinions about the blockade are divided among Cuban pro-democracy activists. Many believe it has helped the Communist Party to maintain power by blaming its own failings on outside sanctions.
But few Cubans outside the ruling party would argue that the country’s terrible shortages are really the result of an embargo which, since 2000, has exempted food and medicine.
Perez Alfonso says the NDP statement was a letdown for Cuban-Canadians. “They condemn the blockade and say nothing about the repression people are suffering in Cuba in these days,” he said.
The Bloc Quebecois has also not condemned the Cuban crackdown, although it has vociferously called for an end to sanctions. The Greens, heavily absorbed with their own internal issues, have not issued a statement on the matter.
Perez Alfonso says Cuban-Canadians will continue to press all parties to take a clear stand for a return to democracy in Cuba, a country that held its last free election in 1948. “We hope to at least have the support of the second party in Canada, the Official Opposition.”