April 19, 2011

Canada's relationship with Castro shaded by U.S., By Jordan Press, For Postmedia News, April 19, 2011

There's one good reason why Fidel Castro had a good relationship with Canada: we're not the United States.

With Castro officially handing over power to his younger brother Tuesday, the U.S. likely will continue to affect the relationship Canada has with Cuba.

Just as American foreign policy is warming up to Cuba, Canadian relations have cooled, which could affect Canada's economic and diplomatic interests in Cuba and Latin America.

Experts say that, unless Canada changes its foreign policy strategy for Cuba, it's unlikely that Canada's influence in the region will improve even with a new Castro in power.

"I don't think you're going to see anybody of a senior cabinet level visiting Cuba and I don't think you're going to see Raul Castro get a visit from Ottawa for an official visit if Stephen Harper is re-elected," said Peter McKenna, chair of the department of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.

"We should set ideology to one side and look at the broader interest of Canadian foreign policy."

In the years that Fidel Castro was in power, the relationship with Canada was always "normal," said John Kirk, an expert on Cuban-Canadian relations from Dalhousie University.

"The keyword is 'normal.' It's a normal relationship with ups and downs," he said.

"The low point in government to government relations in the past 30 years has come under Stephen Harper. But people to people, however, it's extremely successful."

On Tuesday, the reins of power were passed officially from Fidel, 84, to brother Raul Castro, 79, after a vote of the Communist Party's congress. The elder Castro had ceded control to his younger brother when he fell ill in 2006.

The vote marked the first time in more than 40 years that Fidel Castro was not first secretary of the Communist Party.

In 1961, Canada announced it would not follow Washington's lead and cut diplomatic ties with Cuba. John Diefenbaker's decision to maintain the status quo was driven in part by personal feelings — he didn't like John F. Kennedy — and in part because he saw an opportunity for Canada.

"Diefenbaker, the original Red Tory, believed that with the U.S. breaking relations . . . Canada could fill the gap," Kirk said.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — when the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil brought the world as close as it's ever been to a full-scale nuclear war — Diefenbaker was hesitant to agree to American requests to put Canadian troops on high alert, widening the gulf between Canada and U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Since the early 1960s, Canada has continually tried to show its independence from the United States on foreign policy, with Cuba being a primary example, McKenna said.

In the years that followed, the Canada-Cuba relationship had more ups than downs. Trudeau visited Cuba in 1976, the first NATO leader to visit the country during the Cold War.

Castro and Trudeau had similar histories — they were Jesuit-educated and held law degrees — and Castro liked that Trudeau worked in the Cuban sugarcane fields in 1949, a fact Castro took as evidence that Trudeau understood the Cuban people.

The relationship continued even after Trudeau cut foreign aid to Cuba in 1978. When Trudeau died in 2000, Castro was an honourary pallbearer at the funeral.

The bilateral relationship cooled under Brian Mulroney, Kirk said, and cooled further under Jean Chretien.

Kirk said the federal government doesn't understand Cuba or how to engage with it properly at a diplomatic level.

Economic ties between Canada and Cuba remained strong over the years. Every year, thousands of Canadians vacation in Cuba. According to Statistics Canada, more than 700,000 Canadians visited Cuba in 2007, injecting $629 million into the Cuban economy.

"Canadian tourists are very important for the Cuban economy," said Jose Azel, a Cuban exile and senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Azel said Castro never would have wanted to jeopardize that flow of foreign currency into the country and likely maintained good relations with Canada to keep tourists coming to the country.

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