July 14, 1999

Miffed Canada picks fight with Cuba over rights

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA, July 13 (Reuters) - Call it unrequited love. Cuba's best friend in the West, Canada, has become decidedly less friendly over the past few months because Ottawa thinks its political overtures have not been rewarded.

The Canadian government, an outspoken opponent of U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba, has moved on several fronts to put a chill on its own extensive ties with the communist island due to what it calls a deterioration in human rights this year.

"Whether Canada-Cuba relations can be expanded rests entirely at the present time with Cuba," Canadian foreign affairs spokesman Mike O'Shaughnessy said on Tuesday.

"We'll be continuing to look for additional signals from the Cuban government of its willingness to proceed with political and economic reform," he said.

While much of the rest of the world has hardened its attitude, Washington has softened some aspects of its 37-year economic embargo.

Canada's experience with Cuba raises the merits of its policy of constructive engagement, which Canada insists it is still pursuing. Analysts also draw the parallel of similar Western treatment of China and other authoritarian governments.

Ottawa has called off ministerial trips to Havana, put some, though not all, of its projects on hold and declared it would no longer champion the cause of getting Castro invited to the Summit of the Americas in 2001 in Quebec City.

"We're moving progressively to a hard-ball approach," University of Toronto political scientist John Kirton said.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien stuck his neck on the line by paying revolutionary leader Fidel Castro a visit last year, shortly after a much-heralded tour by Pope John Paul.

Chretien pleaded the case of four leading political dissidents, and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy was assured during a trip to Cuba in January that an upcoming trial of these dissidents would be open and that Canada could send observers.

But actions spoke louder than words. Diplomats and journalists were banned from the proceedings and stiff sentences handed down.

"It was the Canadian equivalent of (U.S. President Richard) Nixon's visit to China," Kirton said of Chretien's trip. "And here we are not very much later and Castro is refusing to play ball."

Ottawa was also upset with tougher Cuban legislation intended to crack down on so-called subversives.

John Kirk, a Cuba specialist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he believed Chretien had misread the Cuban attitude: "He was foolishly optimistic and naive. The Cubans don't make concessions unless they have to."

It all plays into the hands of people like U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, the anti-Castro hawk who thinks of Canadian policy as run by patsies who rely too much on soft power.

O'Shaughnessy says Canada continues to believe that political dialogue, technical co-operation and active commercial links will accelerate the pace of change in Cuba -- in other words, constructive engagement ultimately will work.

And there will be no formal pressure for a slowdown of commercial links. Canada is Cuba's biggest foreign investor, especially in mining and hotels. It sends the most tourists and is its third-largest trade partner, behind Spain and Russia.

But Chretien said two weeks ago he was putting some "northern ice" on to the relationship. As the result of a review of relations he ordered, a trade mission to have been led by International Trade Minister Sergio Marchi is off, as well as a visit by International Co-operation Minister Diane Marleau.

New project proposals are receiving much closer scrutiny, with at least a couple being put on hold, including planned medical co-operation in Haiti.

The Canadian government reversed its position at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva this spring by once again co-sponsoring a resolution critical of Cuba.

A government research agency has also made public a sharply worded letter protesting the dismissal of economist Omar Everleny from a Cuban think-tank and from the University of Havana because of remarks about the Cuban economy. Ottawa now believes Everleny is close to being reinstated.

Perhaps most damaging to Castro's aspirations to break out of the U.S. stranglehold is that Canada will no longer push for Cuban re-integration into the Americas. Cuba has been suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) since 1962.

Canada is hosting the OAS General Assembly in Windsor, Ontario, next year, in addition to the 2001 summit. Washington would almost certainly block Cuba's attendance, but Ottawa could at least have gone to bat for it. And that is not now going to happen without at least some change of Cuba's ways.

18:09 07-13-99

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited