WORLD

A new 'opening'

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 3 1997
WORLD

A new 'opening'

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 3 1997

A new 'opening'

WORLD

CUBA

ANDREW PHILLIPS

El Presidente was clearly in an expansive mood when he showed up unexpectedly for lunch at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Havana last week. Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader-forlife, held forth on everything from cooking and gardening to Canadian unity and the American embargo of his country. “It was a tour de force,” declared Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Lloyd Axworthy. In fact, lunch went on so long that Axworthy reluctantly had to cancel a university speech about the workings of the market economy. The university stands near a factory renowned for rolling some of Cuba’s finest cigars and Axworthy, who likes the occasional stogie, hoped to bring home a couple of boxes. Instead, he returned with something far rarer—a political coup for Ottawa in its longstanding joust with Washington over Cuba policy.

Axworthy’s mere presence in Havana— the first visit by a high-ranking Canadian official since prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s trip in 1976—touched off an international shouting match. The United States, which has tried for 38 years to topple Castro, characterized the visit as, at worst, “rewarding a dictator” and at best displaying a

well-meaning naïveté. Certainly the CanadaCuba agreement Axworthy signed contains only a loose commitment to future discussions on trade, aid and the thorny issue of human rights. “We didn’t get a 24-hour transformation into a full-blown parliamentary democracy,” Axworthy told Maclean’s, “but we established an opening.” And by standing up to the White House, Axworthy’s calculated gamble won the Canadian government political points at home and abroad. “It was,” declared Gordon Ritchie, a former Canadian trade negotiator and now an Ottawa-based consultant, “a most impressive performance.”

The government was only too pleased with itself. Speaking in France, which, along with other members of the European Community, has been at loggerheads with the United States over Cuba, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said the Americans had their own hardline approach to blame for keeping the Cuban strongman in power, since he could blame Washington for any problem. “Let them normalize the situation between Cuba and the United States and I don’t think that

Mr. Castro will have it easier,” he said. And an unusually spirited Axworthy bragged in an interview that he accomplished more in five hours of talks with Fidel Castro than the Americans “have accomplished in the last 30 years.” Ottawa’s policy of “engagement” is diametrically opposed to Washington’s determination to economically isolate the Western Hemisphere’s last dictatorship. In Canadian eyes, the U.S. approach is guided solely by domestic interests. “The American stance has never been about noble principle,” said Ritchie. “It is about corrupt congressional politics, wealthy Cuban expatriates, a rich and powerful sugar lobby and a rich and powerful tobacco lobby.”

¡2 The most compelling sym! bol of America’s war on Cuba 3 is the Helms-Burton Act, a passed last spring, which % seeks to toughen the U.S. ° embargo of Cuba by punishing some of the foreign companies that trade with Cuba. Originally, Clinton wanted to veto the bill, preferring to encourage humanitarian organizations to work towards democratic reform in Cuba. That changed the moment the Castro regime shot down two civilian aircraft carrying members of a Miami anti-Castro group, just outside Cuban air space. Moreover, in a U.S. election year, with key Cuban-American votes in Florida and New Jersey at stake, Helms-Burton seemed ready-made to signal the President’s willingness to take action.

But international criticism was more intense than the White House anticipated. The normally compliant countries of Latin America attacked the U.S. attempt to dictate the foreign policy of other nations. The members of the European Union say they will take the law before the World Trade Organization. And Canada, along with Mexico, is considering challenging it under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Perhaps with that in mind, Clinton renewed a six-month suspension of penalties against foreign companies under HelmsBurton in January. At the time, the special White House adviser on the issue, Stuart Eizenstat, cited a tougher stance taken by the European Union on human rights in Cuba as a principal reason for extending the

Canada's Cuba visit annoys Washington

moratorium. But the Canadian approach was clearly another matter.

As soon as Axworthy arrived in Cuba, state department spokesman Nicholas Burns began denouncing the visit. He insisted that isolating the Castro government is still the right policy. Then, in remarks that annoyed Canadian officials, he continued: “It doesn’t make sense to reward a dictator in our own hemisphere who’s completely behind the times. You reward him by sending your foreign minister down to visit, by having business as usual, by trading, and we think that’s wrong.” Burns had some support in Canada: an editorial in The Globe and Mail called Axworthy’s visit “unforgivable.” In Toronto, billboards, paid for by an organization of Cuban-Americans based in Miami, appeared m urging Canadians not to vacation in Cuba. S (They were countered by a campaign by 3 Oxfam Canada urging people to go to Cuba 1 but avoid Florida, in protest over Helms| Burton.) But Axworthy’s bold move had put g him on front pages around the world. The next day, Burns was more conciliatory. He stressed that Axworthy had every right to visit Cuba—but that Canada and the United States took fundamentally different approaches to dealing with Castro. In fact, the state department realized that Burns’s criticism had gone too far. According to a Canadian official, Burns became worried when he received a congratulatory phone call from the office of Jesse Helms, the strongly anti-Castro senator from North Carolina who co-sponsored the law bearing his name. “He [Burns] started realizing he’d put his foot in it,” said the official. To make amends, Burns telephoned the Canadian Embassy in Washington to clarify his remarks, and also spoke to the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ottawa, Thomas Weston. Ultimately, the Americans gave the CanadaCuba accord mixed reviews. Clinton said he was “gratified that the Canadians and the Europeans are talking more to the Cubans about human rights and domestic reforms,” but doubted that such agreements would change much under Castro. To Canadian officials, the United States was trying to have it both ways: criticizing high-level meetings with the Cubans but also taking credit for the fact that Canada and Europe are increasingly raising human rights issues in Cuba. In fact, the post-HelmsBurton timing of the latest initiatives lends some support to that view. But Canadian officials insisted that their approach last week was nothing new—and that Ottawa has long urged the Cuban government to be more flexible in dealing with its domestic critics. “The United States does not have a monopoly on human rights,” huffed Axworthy. The next question is whether his moves will have any impact on Castro’s monopoly on power.

JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa with ANDREW PHILLIPS in Washington