If this, as he suspects, is his last official visit, Julio Garmendia Peña, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, will forever have fond memories of Halifax.
He heard Jeff Goodspeed — the creator of the Los Primos project, an initiative to connect Cuba and Nova Scotia through music — blow Cuban-tinged jazz at Stayner’s Wharf Pub and Grill.
He dined with the members of the local Cuban mafia, including Stephen Kimber, a Havana hero for his book What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, and John Kirk, the Dalhousie University professor of Spanish and Latin American studies and recipient of the Cuban government’s Friendship medal — akin to our Order of Canada — for his role in forging relations between Canada and Cuba.
Tuesday, after chatting with the leader of the provincial NDP and the president of Saint Mary’s University, Peña spoke about foreign investment in Cuba at NSCC’s Waterfront campus, with its stirring view of Halifax's harbour.
“For Cubans the sea is vital,” the ambassador, who lives in Ottawa, said in an interview Monday. “When you can smell it or feel it, it is like receiving something that you need badly.”
Peña said those words while sitting in Kirk’s Halifax living room, sipping a Café con leche, as if to repel the Canadian winter outside. He was born in the picturesque Cuban town of Trinidad, where the temperature Monday was 31 degrees higher than it was in Halifax.
The diplomat, previously Cuba’s ambassador to Ukraine, picked his words carefully when asked what President Donald Trump means to the frigid relationship between the United States and Cuba that had thawed recently under Barack Obama: “The only thing the new administration has said is that it will revise what President Obama did. Which could mean anything.”
Taking the long-term view, he pointed out that the United States embargo of Cuba must someday end.
However, now is the time for Canada and Cuba to explore increased economic relations beyond the 1.2 million Canadian tourists that visit his country every year.
“If I were going to be sincere,” Peña concedes, “I would like to see more involvement by Canadian investors and enterprises in our economy.”
That day, he hopes, is coming. Canada has had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1945. Historians cite Pierre Trudeau’s personal friendship with Fidel Castro as one reason why Canada resisted the urge to fall behind the U.S. embargo following the Cuban Revolution.
His son Justin Trudeau’s praise of Castro, following the Cuban strongman’s death, was widely criticized, and even sparked the bizarre theory that he was the love child of Castro and Trudeau’s mother, Margaret.
Since taking power, Canada’s Liberal government has enhanced links to the island south of Florida. If history is any indication, Nova Scotia is certain to be part of the increased association between the two counties.
The first Cuban Consulate in Canada was opened in Yarmouth in 1903. Companies from Havana and other Cuban ports did frequent business here, back in the days when ships left Nova Scotia with potatoes and lumber and then returned from Cuba with sugar and rum. In the late 19th century, the founder of Sievert’s Tobacco, now located on Barrington Street, used to own a factory a few blocks away, where Cuban women would roll cigars.
Trade between Nova Scotia and Cuba blossomed while John Savage, father of Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, was premier. Those links continue to grow, said Peña, who has met with Premier Stephen McNeil and a long list of political and business leaders during his three previous visits here, since taking up his ambassadorial post in 2013.
It’s about more than commerce, he said. More than 700 students from Nova Scotia universities have studied in Cuba under academic exchange programs. Then there are the hundreds of musical instruments Los Primos has delivered to the Cuban school system.
“It’s people to people,” said Peña, in the fourth year of his four-year tour of duty in Canada. “It shows what our two countries are capable of when we work together.”
Outside, the wind howled despairingly as the ambassador finished his coffee. But there were people to meet and things to hear and see. It was time for the man from Cuba's Halifax farewell tour to resume.
This article was originally published at Localxpress.ca