Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Canada's diplomatic policies on Cuba not expected to change: experts

Canada.com

Celeste Mackenzie, Canadian Press

Published: Wednesday, August 02, 2006

OTTAWA (CP) - Canada's policy of diplomacy and engagement with Cuba is not likely to change under Stephen Harper's government, even as Fidel Castro's continued leadership of the tiny Caribbean country is in doubt, experts say.

On Monday, Castro's secretary read a "proclamation" from Castro, 79, saying recent work and travel had been so stressful it caused "sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding," requiring surgery.

Castro temporarily relinquished the presidency to his brother Raul, 75, head of the armed forces. Castro said he would need weeks to recover.

Harper may be ideologically inclined against Castro's communist regime but changing Canada's long-standing diplomatic relations with Cuba to better align with U.S. policy would be risky, says Hal Klepak, a Cuban expert and history professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.

"For Harper, it would be a no-gainer," Klepak said Tuesday from Havana. "(Former Prime Minister Lester B.) Pearson was keen as mustard to please the Americans on Cuba, but made no headway. The Mulroney government came in with the same idea, and once again ran up against public opinion."

Although the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, Canada did not follow suit. Later, the two countries enjoyed close ties during Pierre Trudeau's administration thanks to the friendship he and Castro developed.

Klepak said while Canadians don't support the dictatorial ways often used by Castro's government, they agree the country should be left alone to decide its own fate.

Half of Canada's 600,000 travellers each year to Cuba are from Quebec, a province key to a future majority government, he noted.

Canada also has considerable Cuban investments in oil, mining and tourism, and supports education, health and environmental initiatives through the Canadian International Development Agency. The government also guarantees Cuban purchases from Canadian companies through the Canadian Export Development Agency.

Foreign Affairs would not comment Tuesday on the state of Canada-Cuban foreign policy.

Last month, the U.S. released its second "transition" plan on opening up the Cuban economy, supporting non-governmental players, and eventually aiding the transitional government it envisions will take power in Cuba after the end of the communist regime. The report also calls on support from the international community.

John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says such an approach is "pure folly."

"It's so out to lunch. . . . We're wise not to use the report as a basis on which to act."

Rather, Kirk expects Ottawa's traditional stance on Cuba will continue because it can also be held out as an example of a Canadian policy independent from the U.S.

Cuba's profile is rising on the world stage as it sends thousand of doctors abroad on medical missions. The country was elected to the new UN Human Rights Committee. There has even been talk from the secretary general of the Organization of American States of having Cuba rejoin the organization from which it was excluded in 1962.

Ana Faya, a Cuba expert with the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, says change is unlikely given that Cuba is not a Canadian priority.

"Issues which are high priority, like the Middle East crisis, are areas where we've seen the Harper government show more support for U.S. policy," Faya said.

Canada-Cuba relations have not always been rosy. Castro railed at former Prime Minister Jean Chretien in a lengthy speech in 2001, accusing him being as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. Chretien had been pushing for improvements on Cuba's civil rights.

Ismael Sambra, a Cuban exile and head of the Cuban Canadian Foundation in Toronto, says Harper should not be supporting private investment in Cuba.

"All that does is strengthen the regime and strengthen its grip on the Cuban people," Sambra said.

© The Canadian Press 2006

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