Gregory Biniowsky’s love for Cuba is not your typical love affair. Tall, with piercing eyes, the grandson of Ukrainians, from a picturesque mountainous area of Canada, where there are more grizzly bears than people, he has spent more than half his life on the island.
It all started when the island was going through the Special Period and the world expected the Revolution would succumb to economic instability. Back then, in 1992, the young Political Science student came to Cuba to learn about the country’s reality.
Surrounded by huge controversy and distortion regarding the island, he wanted to form his “own opinion of the country” based on his observations and experiences. In order to fully appreciate Cuban reality, he asked his family not to send him any extra money while living on the island.
Biniowsky was housed in student accommodation in the east of the capital and enrolled at the University of Havana’s School of Philosophy and History.
According to what the lawyer can recall, “I came to find out just how much was true of what was said about the revolutionary process and the best way to do that was to live as close to how a Cuban did. After a year here, I could refute the idea that Cuba faced misery under a brutal dictatorship.”
As Biniowsky notes, those from his pretty little hometown are very unlikely to leave, as he did. “It’s very close to Alaska, which is like being on another planet, but I had a lot of political curiosity. I didn’t know what a sunset was like as you don’t see the horizon between the mountains,” he half smilingly adds.
Having moved from the pole to the tropics, from the cold and snow to the sticky heat, from river glaciers to beaches, Biniowsky worked as a university professor of Canadian Politics and History for a salary of 250 Cuban pesos, during which time he would travel everywhere by bicycle.
In his own words, those classes were necessary, as during the nineties, “My country became Cuba’s main trading partner and was becoming important not only for being the leading source of tourists to the island, but for the amount of investment.”
Today, Biniowsky is the Havana-based consultant for the Canadian law firm Gowling.
On returning to Canada, you took a PhD in Law and worked briefly at a law firm. Why did you return to Cuba?
I felt the need to show the best of the nation that welcomed me as one of its own. I spent over 14 years working as an international cooperation consultant, both for the United Nations (UN) and Canada. I had to travel around Cuba and took the opportunity to go out into the countryside and visit almost all the country’s municipalities.
I love what's inside and outside Havana. When I went to the east I was amazed how much people work. The campesinos do not believe in superficialities and I like that. Whether they are from Pinar del Río or Guantánamo, they are unassuming, authentic, courteous and share everything they have. Some people tell me that this part of Cuba is the underlying reflection of what the island was like before the Special Period.”
What does your current collaboration with the major Canadian law firm entail?
I now work on behalf of a globally renowned firm, although it has no presence in the United States, which operates in London, Moscow, Dubai, Beijing.
I would say it is the first international law firm that has recognized that Cuba is a nation with great potential, in which it is worth investing and doing business. With the aim of encouraging this, when a client arrives I advise and help him/her to understand the Cuban idiosyncrasy, whether arriving with exploratory or specific interests. I look for the best state law firms so he/she can work with ease.
Investors must learn the rules here. Cuba has its priorities very well defined and a foreign businessperson must be aware of them.
What do foreign investors most appreciate about Cuba?
The most valuable thing Cuba has is its people. The statistics speak for themselves, not only those of the government, but of the UN.
For example, the average educational level is the highest in Latin America. It has more doctors, engineers and professionals than the rest of the countries in the region, thanks to many years of support to the different levels of education.
Nobody would think to establish maquiladoras (sweat shops) like those in Mexico here, but rather to create value-added products that take advantage of the human resources. Potential in agriculture, green development and tourism also draw attention.
Moreover, it is a peaceful, safe country, with low levels of corruption, where there is no violence, drugs or organized crime, which could open up to the U.S. market if it were not for the economic, commercial and financial blockade.
For me, this unilateral policy against Cuba has two impacts. One is direct, relating to the imposition of sanctions against those who do business with the island, and the other relates to the creation of a different mentality. If the blockade didn’t exist, the country could further concentrate on resolving its internal problems, looking inward critically and optimistically.
What fuels your love for Cuba?
The Cuban people are really very sui generis. I traveled through Latin America and Europe and found here a social fabric of solidarity, which doesn’t exist in many places. The human warmth, heroism, spontaneity, the ability to laugh through difficulties, are unique features of Cubans.
I think Cuba is sometimes simplified abroad. For me, it is neither heaven nor hell. I have discovered a nation with nuances: with many admirable things, but also with errors.
Cubans have a special sense of history, identity and pride in themselves. I have sadly seen the damage that the Special Period caused to Cuban society, which has suffered from shortages due to the existence of a currency that needs greater value and wages that are insufficient. No one can deny that.
It was hard to leave that stage behind, but this was achieved and the Revolution did not collapse, as many predicted, due to the resistance and the ability of the people to collectively focus on solving problems. This has made me admire the Cubans, even more so if I compare them to societies, including my own, in which people worry about the smallest things. It is a complex country, but I love it as if it were my own.
How much do you miss Canada?
I miss many things about Canada, but I feel good in Cuba. In my hometown, everyone played ice hockey, but my sport was football and the javelin.
I miss those sports, but I have learned to love baseball, to dance salsa and to drink a little rum.
My minimal accent when speaking Spanish protects me, as from a young age I assimilated the language well. I do not feel like a foreigner, because people do not treat me as such and that has helped me not feel like an outsider. Most of my friends are Cuban and I have a beautiful daughter who is Cuban and is called Savana, because it rhymes with Havana.
I decided that she would be born and live here. When people ask me: “Gregory, where are you from?” I think that one never loses the identity of their formative years of childhood, but I’m Cuban.
Why do you feel Cuban?
Because I am proud of this country and concerned about its future. Because it makes me happy when the Cuban baseball team wins, I love talking about where we are headed or where we come from and I like Los Van Van and Carlos Varela.
Because I was greatly excited when I saw Ana Fidelia Quirot win at the World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg after her accident.
Because I admire Fidel Castro. I believe he is one of the greats of our time and I admire him for all the noble causes he has undertaken, for his efforts to bring good to the Cuban society, to combat apartheid in Africa. I am sure that history will absolve him.
Having spent over 20 years on the island, have you not thought about leaving?
I'll stay in Cuba as long as Cuba continues to be what it is: a unique country, hoping to lead the way and always defend its autonomy, which inspires people around the world, that evolves, that is safe and visionary. If this were like other countries in Latin America, full of social scourges, I would go back to my mountain in Canada.