The United Nations Citizen Ambassador Project

A message to the Heads of State

screened at the United Nations General Assembly

Urban Rush Interview

Grandmothers rally behind Stephen Lewis Foundation

Grandmothers in Canada advocate for grandmothers in Africa, who are reeling in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The Cost of a Cuba Libre

Photos: Brett Matthews

The price of a Cuba Libre depends on which kind you’re referring to.  The kind containing rum and coke costs roughly one pesos, the kind containing basic human rights; (life liberty, the pursuit of happiness and all that stuff), well that will cost a little bit more, but just how much more, remains to be seen.

In Havana the air is thick, – with history, with life, with passion, and always with music, but it is also a place that has stood still.  The dust from the revolution has long since settled and the national newspaper marks the time accordingly; “Year 54 of the revolution.” Houses haven’t been painted since that year, and cars haven’t changed either. You wouldn’t have to use much of your imagination to picture what life in Havana in the 1950`s must have looked like.

The only major difference between then and now is the ubiquitous Christ-like icon of Che Guevara that is now etched onto almost every conceivable public surface, (from walls in kindergartens to banners in soccer stadiums).

Cristina, my vivacious Cuban tour guide tells me that every year Cubans gather to remember the fallen comrades of the revolution. She tells me stories of Fidel chasing hurricanes to protect the people of small villages who were  in the direct line of the storm.

I begin to think that perhaps I should take the things that she says with a grain of salt.

She goes on to tell me how proud she is of Raul`s wife, who leads the Cuban federation of women, fighting for the rights of women.

She professes that she loves Fidel and that she knows that he loves his people. She is confident about the direction that Raul is taking the country and even though he is not as charismatic as his older brother, she thinks that he is also probably more willing to entertain divergent viewpoints.

I ask her whether she would like to live in a democracy and she argues that she already does. “We have elections every four year, we get to elect who will represent us“

What she is not saying is that there is only one party on the ballot. ‘How can you call this a democracy’ I wonder silently to myself, but, for the sake of civility, I smile and say nothing. In the stilted silence that follows, I begin to wonder whether there is perhaps a method to this pseudo-democracy madness.

Like Marx who believed religion to be the opiate for the masses, perhaps Fidel believes that the illusion of freedom can be just as intoxicating. (…kind of like giving someone a rum and coke, calling it freedom and telling them to swallow hard)

I listen to Cristina reminisce about the 80s in Cuba, “It was like a paradise, there was no crime, everybody was happy…but we cant look back anymore, we have to look forward.”

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The Cubans are looking forward. The ground is shifting on the Caribbean Island. The dictator is dying and the old ideological fault lines that held the island in place are beginning to buckle.

President Raul Castro has implemented a series of reforms in an effort to liberalize Cuba’s economy. Cubans are now allowed to own their own homes and even operate small businesses, albeit still under close scrutiny of the government.

America’s reaction to the changes has been to ease its embargo on Cuba, allowing certain Americans to travel to Cuba and invest in the island.

In a few months Cuba will begin drilling for oil, in collaboration with oil companies from Spain, Norway, India, Vietnam, Malaysia and Venezuela. Cuba is opening for business.

But can the island withstand the storm? And what are they willing to sacrifice in the process?

“Its all about the money” claims Coyula, a Havana architecture official. “There’s a Havana with cell phones and Korean cars, and there’s another one of people who walk and take the bus when they can… Cubans who earn money in hard currency…will continue to seek out homes in Havana’s leafier, more upscale neighbourhoods…and families that are cash-poor but property rich…will be tempted to sell and move to the city’s cheaper peripheral zones.”

Inequality is an inevitable consequence of the free-market, but just how big will the gap between the Cuban haves and the havenots get? And how wide a divide will they be willing to tolerate?

According to a WWF report, Cuba maintains the distinction of being the only country in the world to be developing sustainably. It has implemented an “organic agricultural revolution” and Cristina tells me that “Cuba is learning to eat vegetables”.

Cuba also has the largest expanse of protected wilderness in the Caribbean. Peter Benchley of National Geographic writes, “Because of its political isolation, it lags more than 40 years behind in terms of massive tourism development and the concomitant destruction of marine life and habitat.” Evidently, Cuba’s ‘splendid isolation’ has also inadvertently protected her rich natural ecosystem.

Now with a new offshore oil-rig underway and millions of new tourists flocking to her shores every year, Cuba’s natural, as of yet untarnished, beauty hangs in the balance. Coral reefs may soon be kicked by countless fins of clumsy snorkelers, beaches strewn with plastic pina colada cups from the mushrooming all inclusive resorts.

If we entertain the idea that the free market may indeed prevail, and that Cuba may join the ranks of other developing nations, like China, Russia and South Africa, it is fair to question whether she will abandon her model of sustainable development, in favour of a less environmentally responsible, albeit more economically fruitful kind.

The true cost of a Cuba Libre remains uncertain, but equality and sustainability may well become the sacrificial lambs.

After seeing Cuba through Cristina’s ‘viva la revolution’ tinted spectacles’ I begin to understand her fierce national pride, and unquestioning loyalty to her beloved Cuba.   As we stand in revolution square, with the towering icons of the revolution looking down upon us from all angles, she looks directly into my eyes, holds my gaze, and says softly

“We Cubans have to stick together, because if we disunite, we’ll be easy prey for the vultures”.

Red Lines and Murky Waters: US Hegemony and Moral Inconsistencies in the Syria Crisis

My Interview with Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC

Byers on US hegemony:

“There are many people within the United States who don’t actually see the distinction between the domestic and the international issue, who think the US constitution is superior to any international treaty not just inside the United States but around the world. Thats the perspective that I challenge…But when you are as powerful as the United States its easy to assume that that power legitimizes your particular view”.

Byers on moral inconsistencies:

“There is an opening to accusations of selectivity, including on the part of Obama,’Why did you not investigate the water-boarding that took place under the prior administration, and yet here you’re willing to send missile strikes against a sovereign state for another alleged war crime?'”

Farewell Mandela

Bonnie Klein Interview

Kids in the ‘hood.

A free theatre group in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, gives local kids a chance to dream big.


about me …

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