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OPINION | BY JIM HODGSON | April 27, 2023

Jim Hodgson is the former program coordinator for the United Church of Canada’s partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Photograph courtesy of Jim Hodgson

An informal alliance of Canadian churches, trade unions, development agencies, and other civil society groups is encouraging the federal government to increase aid to Cuba in this time of exceptional need, and to press the United States to ease its sanctions.

On April 13, more than 20 organizations— including Oxfam, CARE, and the United Church—wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Me?lanie Joly and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan. In the letter, they express their alarm at the “deterioration of the Cuban economy and consequent impacts on the Cuban people.”

While Canadian tourists began to return to Cuba this past winter, effects of the three-year pandemic linger and are magnified by the decades-long imposition of sanctions (sometimes referred to as the “embargo” or the “blockade”) by the U.S.

Worse still, the administration of then-U.S. president Donald Trump put Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the current Joe Biden administration has kept it there, making financial transfers and trade more difficult.

The logic of the sanctions has always been to cause sufficient dissatisfaction so as to provoke regime change. Just 16 months after the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for inter- American affairs Lestor Mallory told his superiors in a memo that most Cubans supported the change.

“The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship,” wrote Mallory.

Throughout these past six decades, Canada has taken a different approach to Cuba. Those who signed the letter to Joly and Sajjan noted that Canada and Mexico were the only two countries in the Western hemisphere in the 1960s to preserve diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Canadian civil society groups have come together now, as many did in the early 1990s when Cubans faced hardship in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Churches and aid organizations then convinced the Canadian government to work with them in co-financing of development projects.

Such efforts continue today. Most recently, Global Affairs Canada made a commitment of up to $4.6-million over five years to a CARE Canada project in Cuba’s Matanzas province. The project, titled She Produces Too, seeks to improve gender-equitable and sustainable food systems.

But more can be done. Canada, the groups argue, should “use its significant capacity to scale up its efforts to provide immediate food, medicines, and medical supplies to Cuba, and to do so directly through bilateral government to government relations ... [and] Canadian and Cuban civil society initiatives.” The groups note there is particularly urgent need for antibiotics, basic grains, powdered milk, and other dairy products.

The inter-agency letter also calls on Canada to work through multilateral spaces like the United Nations to increase support. Again, there is a recent example of Canada doing just that: between 2017-2024, Canada is providing $7.5-million to the United Nations Development Program to strengthen fruit production.

The impact of those projects could be magnified with a strong push to ease the American sanctions, at least to the level they were at the end of the second Obama administration.
The groups asked that Canada press the Biden administration “to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, as the Obama administration had done in 2015.”
“The Trump administration’s decision to return Cuba to the list in 2021 has only produced harm to the people of Cuba,” they add, “limiting even financial support from individuals to family members and transfers among non- governmental organizations.”

There are bi-partisan initiatives in the U.S. Congress now to ease the embargo that are worthy of support.

Some of the signatories provide long-term financial support to partner organizations in Cuba. Others are solidarity groups with strong community connections in both countries.
In the face of the current crisis, most groups have stepped up their own efforts through activities such as shipping hypodermic needles, medicines (sometimes acquired in third countries), canned meat, and hygiene items. They also responded to emergencies last year in the wake of fires in Matanzas and a hurricane in Pinar del Rio.

“Given our close bilateral ties on the one hand, and the huge difficulties faced by the Cuban population on the other, any humanitarian and diplomatic support for the Cuban people would be enormously helpful and would benefit Canadian relations in the region,” the inter-agency letter concludes.

From 2000 to 2020, Jim Hodgson served as The United Church of Canada’s program coordinator for partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean. He remains engaged in solidarity work and blogs at

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