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Opinion: Correcting Canada’s mistaken Cuban narrative

Commentary

The Cuban regime is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world, and the situation is only worsening. Following the July 11, 2021, pro-democratic and peaceful protests, the Cuban regime cracked down. Repression of human rights defenders rose to unprecedented levels. Arbitrary detentions became so commonplace that Cuba now has the highest number of detained political prisoners in the Americas. The Cuban regime is collaborating with other, bigger authoritarian players including Russia and China. Yet, Canadian policy regarding Cuba has not adjusted. 

Canada has a policy, generally, of standing up for human rights and democracy around the world. This should be applied in a principled manner. Standing up for human rights should not be political, partisan, or geopolitical. Canada should stand up for human rights and democracy across the board. Doing so requires that we look critically at our policy toward regimes like the one in Havana, which we have been historically soft on, and pursue approaches that better cohere with our interests and values.

One aspect of this is adjusting how the Cuban story is told in Canada. To this day, the narrative most prevalent in Canada is that the United States’ embargo is responsible for the ongoing poverty and oppression in Cuba. This narrative ignores or minimizes the responsibility of the Cuban regime itself. This view has been driven by the Canadian government’s engagement with the private sector (investors in Cuba) and other such stakeholders in its formulation of its Cuban foreign policy. Notably, this view does not include the perspectives of human rights defenders and members of the peaceful pro-democratic movement in Cuba.

We must confront reality: this narrative at the core of Canada’s policy toward Cuba is more like a myth than a view rooted in fact, and it has been weaponized for decades to justify an inert approach to abuses perpetrated by the Cuban regime. 

This problematic narrative ignores the Cuban regime’s own repressive laws and practices as well as its unwillingness to adopt comprehensive economic and political reforms. There are numerous examples of this, including the banning of private participation in 124 professions such as journalism, publishing, cinematic audiovisual production, wholesale, key economic and cultural activities, and more.Cuba Names Journalism, Music Production, Cultural Programming as Among Banned Private Professions https://www.artforum.com/news/cuba-names-journalism-music-production-cultural-programming-as-among-banned-private-professions-84997 Additionally, consider the numerous repressive laws such as Decree Law 370Cuba’s Decree Law 370 and the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2020-004117_EN.html which censors information that is “contrary to social interest,” or Decree Law 35Cuba: Telecommunications Decree Curtails Free Speech https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/08/25/cuba-telecommunications-decree-curtails-free-speech which censors online content, as well as Cuba’s Criminal Code that criminalizes dissent. 

These laws exist and repress, independently of any embargo. Focusing on the impacts of a U.S. embargo is a distraction when we should be focusing on the regime’s own bad policies and the policies of countries that serve to enable its oppression. It’s time for Ottawa to listen to the people of Cuba who have been making this case at great personal risk and develop an approach to Havana that reflects our values.

This starts by recognizing how out of sync Canada’s policy is when compared to the policies of our allies. Canada has lagged behind the European UnionEP Resolution of 16 December 2021 on the human rights situation in Cuba https://www.europarl.europa.eu/delegations/en/dcam/documents/ep-resolutions and the United States CongressH.Res.760 – Expressing solidarity with Cuban citizens demonstrating peacefully for fundamental freedoms, condemning the Cuban regime’s acts of repression, and calling for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained Cuban citizens. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-resolution/760 in condemning repression in Cuba and asserting solidarity with human rights defenders on the island. While the European Parliament passed three resolutions condemning repression in Cuba in 2021 (two after the July 11, 2021 protests), and similar initiatives were undertaken by the U.S. Congress, Canada’s House of Commons has not passed a single resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba. 

It is also long overdue that the Canadian Parliament takes a public stance calling for the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The handful of comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, denouncing the repression on July 11, 2021, are insufficient when compared to what has been said and done by democratic governments elsewhere in the world. 

Public condemnations should also be paired with concrete actions. Canada has numerous tools at its disposal to address human rights violations, all of which should be used to stand up for human rights in Cuba. 

For example, one key tool that Canada can and should leverage is its ability to impose targeted sanctions on human rights abusers using its Magnitsky Act. This Act enables Canada to impose property-blocking sanctions and visa bans on individuals with responsibility for gross human rights violations or acts of significant corruption. Canada has imposed targeted sanctions, including using its Magnitsky Act, in response to gross violations of human rights across the world, including in Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, Canada has not yet imposed targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Cuba. Canada should do so.

Canada is one of the most democratic nations in the world and prioritizes standing up for human rights and democracy across the globe. Applying these values in a principled manner means taking action in response to authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Cuba.

Malcolm Jolley: Casale del Giglio and the wines of Rome

Commentary

Before the summer holidays season slowed things down, I attended a dinner featuring the wines of Casale del Giglio, a half-century old winery outside of Rome near the coastal town of Anzio. Elise Rialland and Giovanni Silvestri from Casale del Giglio were in Toronto for the 2022 edition of the Tre Bicchieri wine show, which had not been staged since 2019. They and Giglio’s Ontario importer, Profile Wine Group—represented by sommelier Drew Walker—hosted the dinner of typical Roman food at Enoteca Social.

Casale del Giglio is an interesting winery because they are both very much on trend and very much against it. It was begun in the 1960’s by a Roman wine merchant, Dino Santarelli. His son, Antonio Santarelli, began an intensive planting project in the 1980’s to probe the potential of their coastal part of the region of Lazio, with the cooperation of several of the viticultural colleges across Italy. As was the fashion then, though frowned upon in some circles now, they planted a number of “international” varieties of grapes.“International” grapes are grapes native to France, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, when they’re grown outside of France. But they also planted indigenous ones like Bellone and Cesanese, which are in fashion now.

Over many courses, served family style, of Roman specialties like supplì, cacio e pepe, carbonara and Amatriciana we tasted through two of Casale del Giglio’s “international” wines and two of their indigenous grape-made wines. All of the wines were designated as simply “Lazio IGT”.

First of the internationals was the 2021 Viognier, which paired particularly well with Chef Kyle Rindinella’s house-made mortadella. When Viogner is made well, as this one was, it has the best of both worlds character of being weighty on the palate with peachy fruit and aromatic on the nose with white flowers. In any event, the wine worked particularly well as an aperitivo, being interesting enough to hold it’s own between nibbles of salumi and olives.

The second international wine we tried was the last of the meal: the 2017 Mater Matuta, Casale del Giglio’s flagship red. Named for the goddess of the dawn, the Mater Matuta is 85 percent Syrah rounded out with 15 percent Petit Verdot. It showed intense and inky black fruit finished with Mediterranean scrub, haloed by the aroma of violets.

Both wines drank as proof that fruit from all those French vines planted 40 or 30 years ago is really coming on line as the plants mature and yield diminishes in favour of concentration of flavour. Purists who, following the dogma of the cult of authenticity, eschew wines made from French grape varieties outside of France, don’t know what they’re missing.

After the Viogner, as the Pecorino cheese-based Roman pasta dishes began to come out, we tried the 2021 Bellone. Bellone is a white wine grape known to be native to the Lazio (or Latium) coast since at least ancient Roman times, as it was cited in Pliny the Elder’s natural histories. 

The hills around Anzio are subject to a near constant breeze from the Tyrrhenian Sea, and past the Casale del Giglio Bellone’s big stone and citrus fruit notes is a salinity. Combined with a racy acidity, that briny character evokes that elusive food-friendly and moreish characteristic known as minerality. Paired with cacio e pepe (literally, pasta with cheese and pepper), I was transported back to the sunny terrace of Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio.

After the Bellone we made the switch to red and tried the 2020 Cesanese. Casale del Giglio has very much been a part of the Risorgimento of the ubiquitous, if formerly under-appreciated, grape of Lazio. Cesanese has found a pride of place on 21st-century Roman wine lists.

The winemaker at Casale del Giglio is Paolo Tiefenthaler, who hails from the Alpine Trentino-Alto Adige region in Italy’s Northeast. It may have been my imagination, fuelled by the power of suggestion, but the 2020 Casale del Giglio Cesanese had an element of white pepper and a gentleness of red cherry fruit that reminded me of the reds found there, like Lagrein and Schiava.

Structured by silky tannins produced by a long maceration on its skins, the Cesanese wanted food and went perfectly with its classic pairing of Amatriciana, giving contrast to the salty cured guanciale and harmonizing with the tomato and garlic. This time the wine glass time machine took me to dinner near the Trevi Fountain and the 1920’s wood-panelled elegance of the great Trattoria al Moro.“A stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain, it frees all the flavours of authentic Roman cuisine. A local restaurant with outdoor seating, where you can taste dishes prepared with the authenticity of fresh and local ingredients. Cheeses and cold cuts of our own production, fresh pasta dishes and homemade desserts, Trattoria al Moro is an ideal place for those who want a real Roman dinner, surrounded by the historical beauty of the capital.” https://ristorantealmororoma.it/en/

Given that Rome attracts so many tourists (and pilgrims!), it seems curious that its wines are not more widely known. One explanation could be that the Romans, and their visiting guests, drink most of what’s made, so not that much is put aside for export. If you have eaten well in Rome, it’s very likely you have drunk Bellone and Cesanese, and it’s entirely possible they were made by Casale del Giglio.

There is a point in all wine tasting dinners when someone (often me) needs to raise the vulgar subject of commerce and ask how much the wines being tried cost. Drew Walker explained that the Viognier and Mater Matuta were not currently in the market, but might be priced in Canada at around $25-$30 and $65-70, respectively, when they were.

The Bellone and the Cesanese, however, are or will be soon in the market and cost roughly $22 and $25 per bottle. I commented that I thought this was good value for well-made wines and asked if they were due to be sold at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario,“The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is a government enterprise and a responsible retailer and wholesaler of wine, beer, and spirits in Ontario.” https://www.lcbo.com/content/lcbo/en/corporate-pages/about-LCBO.html where I had seen them (and bought them) in the years before. They would not, I was told, but could be ordered online by the case from Profile Wine Group.

I am glad the wines are available, but the removal of the two wines from regular retail availability worries me. The wine trade is most profitable at its lowest and highest ends. The most money is made from selling bulk, or factory made wines at high volume for a low price (let’s say around $10 a bottle). And the biggest margins can be made by selling luxury wines for a high price (let’s say over $30 a bottle), mostly to restaurants, who view wine purchases as a business expense and an investment.

The individual wine enthusiast will treat themselves to luxury wines at whatever frequency they can afford, but most of us would like access to well-made wines at an approachable price that we can pour with some regularity. The good news is that the world is full of producers making lovely wines that fit into the $15 to $30 price range. It would be a shame if big retailers, especially ones that operate on a government backed near monopoly, got in the way between trade between the two.

More on this, and the danger of a “missing middle” in the wine world, to come…