Contrary to western popular opinion, Religious Freedom exists in Cuba. Today one can be practicing Catholic or of other faiths and be a member of the Communist Party.

Cuba is a secular state a multiracial society with a population of mainly Spanish and African origins. The largest organized religion is the Roman Catholic Church. Afro-Cuban religions, a blend of native African religions and Roman Catholicism, are widely practiced in Cuba.

Canada-Cuba: A story of an old friendship

Posted by Layden Figuerado, March 16, 2014 (edited for length)

The historical -and existing- roots between Canada and Cuba remain unknown to some, and I dare to say, that many may wonder what has linked these two nations, so different in their physical geography and their political history; bringing their cultures, citizenries and dissimilar traditions together.

The basis for the bilateral relations between these countries go back to March 11th, 1949 when they were clearly stated in a letter addressed to E. H. Coleman, an officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. Coleman was declared Head of Canada’s third mission in Havana, and he had, as a major objective, to develop the economic aspects of the nomination. In this scenario, protecting Canada’s commercial interests and broadening chances of doing business in Cuba were priorities.

The setting -up of these bilateral relations was a correct emphasis, since despite the power regime of the time, Ottawa’s aim was the collocation of Canadian products in Cuba, such as codfish, potatoes, spare parts and cereals.

Very often historians have referred to the earliest Canadian contacts with Cuba, and names such as Samuel de Champlain and Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, are invariably mentioned. In 1601, Champlain, father of the New France, visited Cuba and he traveled for four months gathering information about the colony. In 1706, Pierre le Moyne arrived in Havana to get support from the Spanish authorities to attack the English settlements along the south east shores of North America.

Le Moyne sadly passed away in Havana shortly after his landing; and the Canadian Embassy still places a laurel wreath on his plaque whenever Canada Marine’s ships dock in Havana’s port as a symbol of the Canadian – Cuban friendship.

The role played by Canadian citizens during the Independence Wars in 1868 -1878 and 1895 – 1898 deserves to be remembered. On both occasions, volunteers went to Cuba to fight the Spanish forces as members of active solidarity orgnizations; from Montreal and Halifax particularly.

William Ryan, a Toronto man, became a hero during the independence revolution of 1868 and his portrait is yet kept in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of General Captains) in the Plaza de Armas of Havana. Many volunteers were taken to Cuba by Ryan and in 1871, after the victory of Camagüey, he was promoted to Brigadier by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, leader of the insurgents.

Other two French-Canadian stood out in the 1895 – 1898 war: Jacques Chapleau and Georges Charette. Chapleau commanded a regiment of rebels and died in combat; while Charette played a vital role in the blockade of Santiago de Cuba’s port when a great ship, the Merrimac, was sunk near the bay.

These now distant relations have worked as a historical base for both, Canada and Cuba, since they are of great significance. These actions may have not been profound, but they did build a solid connection that has been well used by the governments of the two nations.

Despite the symbolism of these first contacts, they are overshadowed by the importance of the commerce between Canada and Cuba, which started in the late 19th Century, after the foundation of Halifax. Canada soon exported potatoes, codfish and sawn timber while Cuba – very particularly Santiago de Cuba – would export exotic fruits, sugar and rum.

The Museum of Fisheries, in Lunenburg, New Scotland, still has many of the labels from Santiago’s companies that would import codfish, a product that was, for centuries, the base of New Scotland’s economy.

This then vague trade model was fortified in 1866 with the arrival of the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation to Havana. Earlier, and in fear that the United States abrogated the Treaty of Reciprocity of 1854, the British North America had created a Council for Commerce which traveled to Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean to make sure there would always be a market for Canadian fish, wood and beans.

After only one month in Cuba, the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation were convinced that they had found a natural commerce partner, although they had to face obstacles such as the expensive tariffs of the imports of sugar to Canada, the traditional role played by the United States as a middleman in Cuban exports and the high cost that production in general represented for Canada when compared to the United States.

A decade later, another effort to improve commercial relations was made when Sir Alexander Galt traveled to the Caribbean and was advised by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie to increase trading with Cuba and Dominican Republic.

Among those remarkable Canadian businessmen who came to Cuba are the  illustrious William Cornelius van Horne, President of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company and his partner, General Russel A. Alger (Secretary of War during the McKinley Administration between 1898 – 1909) who, in a tour around the island realized of the potencial market to expand their rail networks and, in 1900, van Horne founded the Cuba Railroad Company.

Due to a notorious economic growth and the success of Canadian entrepreneurs in the island, the Royal Bank of Canada approved its first overseas branch in 1902 and, as the bank’s fortune and reputation were in crescendo, other branches opened in Santiago de Cuba (1903) and Camagüey (1904). On top of this, in 1904, ‘The Royal’ accepted in an agent for the Cuban government to compensate the veterans of the War of Liberation. For such purposes, the bank distributed 60 million dollars, a considerable amount for the time.

The Royal Bank was the most obvious Canadian commercial success in the first half of the 20th Century. Another Canadian bank, the Bank of New Scotland, entered the Cuban market in 1906 but it didn’t get the same branch system as ‘The Royal’. Because of this, the bilateral commerce between Canada and Cuba increased in a 400%.

This growth remained the same – with the normal ups and downs – for both, Canada and Cuba. By the end of the 20s, 70% of all the fish imports in Santiago de Cuba and 10% of those in Havana came from Canada. Between 1935 – 1940, the Canadian exports to Cuba fluctuated in 1.4 million dollars a year, while the imports ranged around 600.000.

For Canada, the early fifties were quite violent in terms of exports. The significant commerce deficit favouring Cuba installed in the mid-fourties had disappeared completely and the predominance of canadian exports was back.

Commerce was clearly the backbone of the bilateral relations. The first emissary for Havana had moved to Yarmouth, New Scotland in 1903, so an effective relationship with codfish producers could be established. Six years later an office of the Department of Traffic and Comerce of Canada was opened with the objective of encouraging the development of bilateral exchange.

When looking at the current relation between Canada and Cuba it is impossible not to notice the essential role played by Canada as a commercial partner and investor in the island.

Many Canadian companies are dedicated to supply all kinds of products: from food to engineering devices, high-tech materials and articles for the touristic market. Joint ventures have also exploded, particularly when it comes to mining, where Canadian companies prevail.

Canadian universities have also helped to raise interest in Cuba. A total of 15 universities formalised agreements with their peers in Cuba and their projects include sugar cane investigations, language learning, fishing, coastal zone management and commercial administration.

By the mid-nineties, the universities of La Habana and Matanza created the Chair of Canadian Studies which has imparted a wide variety of lectures about Canada. Such Chairs have been expanded throughout the country, including in the universities of Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, to name but a few.

It is also important the development of a Canadian solidarity movement that sends medical help and school material to the island. As a part of a cultural protocol, many young people have been temporarily worked in Cuba. A last aspect to be mentioned is the boom of Tourism, which expresses itself in the socio-economic development of Cuba.

Since the end of the 18th Century, Canada and Cuba have developed a quite strong commercial relation which is still continuing today. These relations are traditionally based on a commerce that benefits both sides. The transformation process in Cuba brought new challenges to these relations but in general, both countries have showed respect and reciprocity.