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Cuba in transition: a Canadian perspective

Last Updated Oct 18, 2015 at 10:00 am PDT

FILE: Plaza de la Revolución, Havana. (John Ackermann, NEWS 1130 Photo)

Cuba is on the threshold of enormous change

A Canadian who has lived and worked in Cuba for decades shares his perspective

CUBA (NEWS 1130) – With the historic thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States in the past year, the small island nation is on the threshold of enormous change. You can already see improvements in some of the crumbling buildings in Havana, as well as increased investment in resort areas like Varadero. However, some worry renewed relations with the US will mean the country loses some of its unique character.

During a recent trip to the country, NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann gained some valuable perspective from a Canadian who has lived and worked in Cuba for decades.

We are here in the studios of Radio Havana Cuba, speaking with Gerwyn Jones, a journalist and broadcaster with its English language radio service.  

Tell us what you do here.

“I write and record programming for Radio Havana Cuba. My primary area of interest and responsibility is cultural and for six days of the week I have a program called Arts Roundup, which is an overview of events in Cuba and also an overview of historic events in the cultural sense.”

You also provide news commentary as well.

“Yes, I do. I have a daily commentary which follows the main newscast at 3:15 every afternoon, which tends to be political commentary, tied very closely to events at the United Nations.”

How did you end up broadcasting here in Cuba?

“I first came to Cuba in ’82, when I was working in television in Canada and got to know quite a lot of people in the month that I was here, came back after that with considerable frequency and eventually met people who felt that I could contribute more to the Cuban society by getting involved, getting a contract, getting a job, and that’s what happened. I was auditioned here and got the job.”

Let’s backtrack even further to your Canadian connection.

“I grew up in Wales. I went to Oxford University for undergraduate work and then came to McMaster…in Hamilton, Ontario to do post-graduate work in Comparative Religion. That’s how I came to Canada.”

You’ve seen a lot of changes here in Cuba over the years. How would sum up the changes you’ve seen in this country since you started coming here?

“I think there has been, if anything, one major change and that’s been increased belt-tightening with the collapse of the Soviet empire. It’s always been difficult given the American blockade of the island, in Cuba, for the average Cuban, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire, that really made a big change in terms of determination to survive, determination to have a country still and, I think, we’re seeing today, the flowering of that very painful experience. But it’s flowered into a sense of nationhood which is indubitable.”

What sense do you get from the people here of the changes that have happened in just the past year, specifically, when we talk about the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba?

“Cautious enthusiasm. I think, at the government level, very cautious enthusiasm. Amongst the rank-and-file Cuban, yes, pleasure, enthusiasm, American flags flying. The kind of feeling that pervaded Havana when the Pope was here recently, something of that in terms of the visit of [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry and the ongoing possibilities of a permanent thaw.”

Was it something you thought you’d ever see in your lifetime?

“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t have possibly foreseen this, even a year ago. Although negotiations were going on, they were highly secret as you know, and when the announcement was made on the 17th of December last, both by [Cuban] President [Raul] Castro and by [U.S. President Barack] Obama, it was an incredible surprise and shock. It’s been quite difficult to adapt to the rapidly changing economic and political environment, but I think we are adapting and I’m speaking as a broadcaster now rather than a consumer in the street sort of thing. We’re beginning to think of the States in a slightly different way.”

In a more positive way?

“Yes, in a more positive way, welcoming the visits of delegations of American businessmen and especially culturally. Of course, we’re still horribly mindful in Cuba of gun violence in the United States and the ongoing weekly litanies and certainly Cubans don’t want that in Cuba.”

What do you see as the greatest challenges facing Cuba as a nation? And do you see the improving relationship with America as a way of helping meet some of those challenges?

“Speaking as a Canadian and to some extent recognizing the depth of penetration of American culture in Canada and then stepping back from that and looking at the Cuban situation, I think it’s different. We don’t have a border, we have the Florida straits. We have the ocean between us and the United States. But we’re very close. And I think the basic question is always going to be that of Cuban nationhood, Cuba has its own history, very well-defined history, long, long fight against colonialism, both European and North American and a sense that, after the revolution and with Fidel and then Raul, for all the problems, Cuba is a nation, a nation-state, and it can do its own thing. And I think it’s the preservation of that ability to make your own decisions and live your own history is going to be the major challenge in the years to come.”

The riddle of Cuban history seems to have always been the challenge of being masters in their own house.

“Yes, I think that’s the case. Cuban culture is unbelievably rich. Cuba is a mine of musicians and the poets, writers; the graphic arts are very strong here. Good, good filmmakers. All of this is part and parcel of Cuban nationhood and it’s the development, I think, behind the government’s embracing of the thaw is the thought that there will probably be more money for Cuban culture.”

Given your particular perspective, what would you say to a Canadian audience that may worry the thawing relations between America and Cuba, that some of that essential Cubanness, that Cuban character that Canadians have come to love may go away, may disappear?

“I think it’s a real threat. I think there’s some substance to it and it’s not just, you know, a fiction or a fantasy but the relationships between Canadians and Cubans go back an awful long away and there had very high moments with the friendship between Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro, so there is a tremendous warmth and welcome for…Canadians especially in Cuba and Canadians are the Number One source of tourism at the moment and that could continue for quite a while.”

In talking with you, I can tell you have great affection for this country and its people. What are your hopes for this nation moving forward?

“I’m taking life one day at a time in Cuba. It’s a wonderful, tropical, voluptuous country and I don’t want…I’m not a young man…and whatever time I have left I don’t want to rush it so I’m hoping that things can stay much the same in Cuba in many, many ways. If we can alleviate suffering where it exists, let’s do so. And poverty where it exists, let’s do so. By all means. But the joy that pervades Cuban society, the love and friendship that’s part and parcel of daily life here, let’s take that one day at a time.”

Gerwyn Jones, Radio Habana Cuba