when famed cuban musicians Ibrahim Ferrer and Guillermo Rubalcaba are deemed security threats and barred entry to the U.S. to attend that bastion of subversive activity known as the Grammy Awards, it's easy for Canadians to feel smug. But my experience in Cuba tells me our own immigration folks are not exactly friendly to visiting musicians either. I recently spent a semester working in that country and had first-hand experience of trying to organize a very minor form of cultural exchange involving a single Cuban. I was repeatedly denied access to basic information by the Canadian embassy in Havana and could not even learn the names of officials handling immigration and cultural matters.
After months of effort, those I was working with and I failed miserably to bring a single highly accomplished Cuban - who already had permission from his government for the trip - to Canada for a university exchange that involved charitable work for AIDS in Africa and a host of local community benefits.
I did not once speak to a Canadian official after repeated requests to do so. The Canadian embassy in Havana, like many other embassies around the world, makes extensive use of local workers. Not only is this practice cheaper, but it also affords the Canadian staff the protection of a compliant workforce beyond the reach of public scrutiny or accountability.
It's common practice at the Havana embassy to make people wait for days before answering phone calls, to make them travel extraordinary distances in a country where travel is by no means easy (and sometimes impossible), to take their cash on a daily basis (the application fee is $50 U.S., an unthinkable sum for the average Cuban, who likely earns $5 U.S. a day or less), to make them wait all day in the sun for a response and oftentimes deny them an entry visa.
On several days I saw around 30 Cubans who had travelled from all over the country - some after months of waiting, some with family in Canada - all refused. On each of these occasions, the embassy raked in about $1,500 U.S.
Now, it's true that Citizenship and Immigration Canada claims that 75 per cent of the 4,260 visitor applications from Cubans in 2003 were accepted, though this is certainly not what I saw, and if you told Cubans these numbers they would laugh out loud. The question remains: why is it that one talented artist finds the gates closed?
At Immigration, spokesperson Maria Iadinardi will only answer general questions. "In areas of the world where there is a higher risk, there is an equally higher level of scrutiny and vigilance.' What does "risk" mean? She names criminality, security risks and fears that visitors won't leave Canada when their visas expire. Yet of the 3,000 or so Cuban visitors last year, Immigration figures show that fewer than 200 asked to remain.
Postscript: A Canadian I knew during my stay befriended a Cuban beach dog suffering from mange, heartworm, anemia, cancer of the penis, a stomach full of worms and various pests.
Soon, the Cuban dog was healthy and living in Canada after a minor amount of paperwork and a well-placed "mordida," or bribe.
Meanwhile, gifted human beings with full sponsorship support (freely offered by willing Canadians) and skills no Canadian possesses remain locked outside, courtesy of our fear of promiscuous border crossings.
Daniel Fischlin has published nine books, most recently Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, And The Politics Of Music Making, co-edited with Ajay Heble. He is co-author with Martha Nandorfy of the forthcoming New Internationalist No-Nonsense Guide To Human Rights.