By Lana Wylie
Reviewed by Mary Stanik
These are interesting times for anyone in Canada or the United States who takes a serious interest in Cuba. Since Raúl Castro became Cuba’s acting president in 2006 (and president in his own right in 2008), Cuba watchers in both countries have looked at the changes Castro, brother of former President Fidel Castro, has and has not made to the country’s governing structure or political culture. Within the past six years, leadership changes in Canada (with Stephen Harper becoming prime minister in 2006) and the United States (with Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009), also have brought about new thoughts and policies regarding Cuba. In Canada, there has been a cooling of relations, while there has been somewhat of a thaw in the United States. These changes might have been nearly unimaginable in either country just a few years earlier.
As an American Canadaphile who also did a history thesis on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, these and other Cuba-related matters made me eager to read Perceptions of Cuba: Canadian and American Policies in Comparative Perspective (University of Toronto Press, 2010, paperback: $22.95) by Lana Wylie, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at McMaster University. Wylie did most of the book’s research (which included extensive interviews with policy makers and other influential individuals in Ottawa, Washington and Havana) while a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is uniquely qualified to analyze Canadian and Americans perceptions of Cuba given the fact that she took her education in the United States and now is an academic in Canada. Wylie also is a good deal younger than many who have written about Canadian and/or American perceptions of Cuba, a fact made plainly evident when she states that the Cold War (which, at least in the United States, played an enormous role in shaping past and current popular and official American views of Cuba) is “but a distant memory.” This view is not completely accurate for most history-conscious Canadians and Americans older than about 45, but fortunately, it does not unduly colour Wylie’s presentations throughout the rest of the book.
Through the decades since the Fidel Castro-led 1959 Cuban revolution, politicians and the general public alike in Canada and the U.S. have held quite different perceptions of Cuba based largely, as Wylie writes, upon different national identities. Many Canadians may think of then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s groundbreaking 1976 visit to Cuba, complete with Trudeau’s shouts of “Viva el Primer Ministro Fidel Castro” and the revealing Liberal Party of Canada T-shirt Margaret Trudeau chose to wear during the trip. Or the fact that Sunquest Vacations to Cuba remain popular and inexpensive holidays for many Canadians, holidays still unavailable to most Americans who might even wish to go to Cuba. Americans may think specifically of the 1961 Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, or the fact that Cuban cigars have not been legally available in the U.S. since 1960, but have never stopped being legally available in Canada. Some Americans and Canadians may think of the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which sought to hamper investment in Cuba by other nations. Or they may consider the internationally-covered drama of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy caught in late 1999 and early 2000 in the middle of a nasty custody battle between his Miami relatives and his father in Cuba that required intervention by then U.S. President Bill Clinton (who sent Gonzalez back to Cuba).
In the book, Wylie takes a constructivist approach to rather carefully assess these and other popular as well as official political views and perceptions of Cuba held by Canadians and Americans. The book, aimed at an academic audience (though not unapproachable to lay readers), clearly presents the history and current status of each country’s involvement with Cuba, as well as a good assessment of each country’s basic perceptions of Cuba. In the introduction, Wylie states that “foreign policy is constructed by our perceptions which in turn have their origins in our identities” (page 19). Given the fact that the text only encompasses 122 pages, an exhaustive inventory of origin and identity is not possible, but Wylie does a fairly effective job of arguing that for Americans, Cuba has, at least since 1959, been an “other,” an outsider and renegade not in keeping with American views of exceptionalism and national superiority. For Canadians, Wylie asserts that continuing to engage with Cuba, despite pressure from the U.S. through the years not to do so, makes good economic sense (Canada remains one of the world’s top economic investors in Cuba) and is in keeping with Canada’s long held “good neighbour” policy.
It is a bit unfortunate that the book, which was published in 2010, does not include analysis of 2011 steps by the Obama administration to ease travel restrictions to Cuba for religious and university groups, engage in a possible “spy swap” and a further easing of U.S. sanctions, or Cuban intentions to conduct oil exploration in that country’s portion of the Gulf of Mexico (with promises made by Cuba and its Spanish corporate partners that Florida’s nearby beaches will not be sullied). Given the promise Wylie has shown with this work, one hopes that she will soon author another on the fairly rapidly changing developments in Canada, Cuba and the U.S. that are sure to greatly affect future perceptions of Cuba by both Canadians and Americans.
Mary Stanik is a communications consultant and opinion writer who has been published in a number of major Canadian and American newspapers. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.