Harper missed opportunity on Cuba

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As Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs the VI Summit of the Americas table in Cartagena, Colombia, he needs to seriously reassess his position on Cuba (which was not officially invited to the inter-American gathering) and reset the Canadian-Latin American relationship.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/04/2012 (3947 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs the VI Summit of the Americas table in Cartagena, Colombia, he needs to seriously reassess his position on Cuba (which was not officially invited to the inter-American gathering) and reset the Canadian-Latin American relationship.

Notwithstanding recent comments by former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who castigated Harper for environmental damage derived from Alberta’s oilsands and Canadian mining companies for exploiting struggling communities in many Latin American countries, the Canadian government should seek to strengthen its relationship with Havana.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (and Consular Services) Diane Ablonczy has already done some important work in this area. She has properly recognized there exists huge opportunities where both Canada and Cuba can work constructively together on a wide range of issue areas, including trade, tourism, energy and people-to-people contacts.

Fernando Llano/ The Associated Press archives Stephen Harper walks with his wife, Laureen, in Cartagena, Colombia, on Saturday.

The next step is for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to undertake an official visit to Havana in the coming months. That, of course, would set the stage for a prime ministerial visit to Cuba — or a visit by a senior-ranking Cuban government official (Raúl Castro?) to Ottawa in the near term. But as former prime minister Jean Chrétien found out during his own April 1998 visit to Cuba, it makes no sense to press the Cubans hard on the human rights front or to attach certain conditions to a continued warming in bilateral relations. Yes, we should raise the issue of democratization and respect for political rights and freedoms, but we should do so in a respectful and non-accusatory manner.

Canada could also earn some diplomatic credit with its Cuban friends (and build stronger linkages with the Argentines, Brazilians and Mexicans) by pushing U.S. President Barack Obama to veto an anti-Cuba bill passed by the Florida state legislature in March. In the corridors, during a bilateral meeting or in between summit sessions, Harper should have taken Obama aside and firmly asked if there is any way this counterproductive bill can be quashed.

The offending legislation was sponsored by Miami Republican lawmakers determined to punish the Cubans by restricting state and local governments from signing procurement contracts with any companies that do business with Cuba (and Syria). Both of these countries still remain on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The point here is not only to prevent Florida taxpayers from supporting companies that have commercial relations with Havana, but to compel those same companies from operating and investing in Cuba. It’s about “internationalizing” the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba — which has always been seen in Washington as the key instrument for removing the Castros from power. Clearly, if this bill is signed into law by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, it could have negative repercussions for Canadian companies bidding on contracts in the sunshine state.

Harper should explain to Obama the constitutionality of such a bill is seriously in doubt, since only the federal government (and Congress) in Washington has the legislative competence to conduct foreign policy (and impose sanctions). And it is well-established state and local governments are constitutionally prohibited from setting policy that conflicts with federal law-making responsibilities.

Moreover, he could also point out that a similar law in Massachusetts — which sought to limit state businesses from dealing with companies inking commercial deals with rights-abusing Myanmar — was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

Canada, then, could enhance its position and prestige in the hemisphere by standing up to the Americans on Cuba. Accordingly, it should seek Cuba’s presence at the next Americas summit, should there be one. While most of what Fidel Castro said in early April can be ignored, he was right about highlighting the constructive engagement approach of former Canadian prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Chrétien toward Cuba. Indeed, we need to jettison the ideologically tinged rhetoric of the Harperites and focus on positive interaction, co-operative dialogue and commercial exchange. To be sure, one of the keys to Canada opening up the door to wider and deeper relations with the Americas has to involve Cuba. Taking up the question of Cuba’s importance in the region is a good place for Stephen Harper to begin.

 

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the editor of the forthcoming book, Canada Looks South: In Search of an America’s Strategy.

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