CANADA

Clinton's concession

Canadian lobbying helps stall the antiCuba bill

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 29 1996
CANADA

Clinton's concession

Canadian lobbying helps stall the antiCuba bill

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 29 1996

Clinton's concession

CANADA

Canadian lobbying helps stall the antiCuba bill

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Since his appointment as Canada’s ambassador to Washington in December, 1993, Raymond Chrétien jokes that he sometimes spends as much time talking about another country—Cuba—as he does about his own. The reason is repeated efforts by some U.S. politicians and interest groups to punish countries, including Canada, that do business with Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. Chrétien has lobbied almost from the day of his appointment to ensure that Canada does not fall victim to anti-Cuba passions. All of that made it particularly appropriate last week that Chrétien was the first member of the Canadian government to be told— in a telephone call from the state department—that Clinton had decided to postpone a controversial part of the so-called Helms-Burton Act giving Americans the right to sue foreign corporations whose business dealings with Cuba involve property confiscated by the Castro regime. “We are truly delighted,” Chrétien told Maclean’s.

And, for that matter, greatly relieved and somewhat surprised. Until that call, made about two hours before the president publicly announced his decision,

Canadian officials feared the worst. With less than four months to go before the presidential election, Clinton was under concerted pressure from the large and influential Cuban-American community not to postpone the provision, known as Title III. Even some members of the Clinton administration who were opposed to Title III considered its implementation inevitable. But that step would have prompted Ottawa to respond in kind, raising the spectre of a tit-for-tat trade war with the United States. The result, said Stephen Marcus, a Washington lawyer and trade specialist, “would have had extremely grave consequences in both real and symbolic terms for the world’s most important trade relationship.”

One reason is the potential scale of U.S. court actions: there are more than 6,000 claims for compensation on file from American companies and citizens whose assets were seized after Castro took power in 1959. They cover an estimated $7.8 billion worth of Cuban property. Some Canadian companies operating in Cuba, including Sherritt International Inc. of Toronto, would likely have been plagued by lawsuits from

several plaintiffs seeking millions of dollars worth of damages. Instead, facing sharp criticism from such close traditional allies as Canada, Mexico and member countries of the European Community, as well as growing concern at home, Clinton postponed implementation of Title III for six months. That delay was intended, said a state department official, to give Washing-

ton time to try to enlist Ottawa and other governments in its anti-Castro efforts. That is unlikely, given Canada’s relatively warm relations with Cuba. Last week, International Co-operation Minister Pierre Pettigrew said that ‘We share with the Americans the wish to see Cuba become more democratic—although we obviously do not share the American view as to the means of achieving that.” More to the point for Canada, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien suggested that, if Clinton is re-elected, “we have strong reason to believe that the postponement will last forever.”

Although that is the obvious hope of Canadian officials, no one wants to say so publicly—and no one takes anything for granted. Pettigrew and International Trade Minister Art Eggleton said that the Liberal government will proceed with plans to duplicate the American legislation, allowing Canadians, in turn, to sue any U.S. companies or citizens that take legal action against them. As well, the Liberal government will continue to pressure the United States to rescind another part of the HelmsBurton law, Title IV. That measure, already in effect, bars entry to the United States of foreign executives working for companies that “traffic” in Cuban property expropriated from American interests. Family members also fall under the ban.

As a result, seven Sherritt executives, along with their families, may be barred from entry into the United States after Labor Day (since 1991, Sherritt has invested over $275 million in petroleum exploration and processing, resort hotels and the Moa Bay nickelcobalt mine in Cuba). In the short term, advisers to the Prime Minister say privately that, while they do not expect Clinton to rescind the law, they are curious to see how vigorously the administration enforces Title IV. “If the list stays at those seven names or so, we are not happy, but we can live with it,” said one senior advisor. “On the other hand, if we suddenly see hundreds of names being added to the list, we have to come back with a pretty hard response.” Last week, though, Canadian officials publicly went out of their way to be conciliatory. Clinton, Raymond Chrétien told Maclean’s, “showed true leadership—faced with a very tough decision, he made the right choice.” But, he added pointedly: “It is a clear indica-

tion that our pressure worked.”

The bluntest manifestation of that pressure came during private meetings between Jean Chrétien and Clinton in late June at the annual G-7 meeting. The Prime Minister, backed by most of the other G-7 leaders, told Clinton that enforcement of the Helms-Burton law would inevitably bring retaliation and weaken Washington’s credibility on a variety of international issues.

Eggleton also repeatedly stressed those themes during visits to Washington. The fact that Canada—seen by many Europeans and Americans alike as an unquestioning ally of the United States—led the criticism was particularly striking. Vice-President AÍ Gore was visibly taken aback during a visit to Moscow last week when the first two questions put to him at a news conference centred on Canadian criticism of Helms-Burton.

Much of the credit on the Canadian side belongs to Raymond Chrétien, a 54-year-old career diplomat who is a nephew of the Prime Minister and bears a striking resem-

blance to him in both appearance and manner of speech. By all accounts, he was the architect behind one of the most intense—and ultimately successful— Canadian lobbying efforts in recent memory. Those efforts began more than 18 months ago, when the first draft of the Helms-Burton bill was introduced in Congress, and continco ued until the days &ltbefore Clinton’s an| nouncement, when the g ambassador visited the I White House and S briefed the National Se^ curity Council on Canadian concerns. In between, the Canadian strategy involved public and private lobbying by the Canadian embassy, all of its 11 consulates in the United States, and hundreds of hours of one-on-one meetings and telephone calls between key American politicians or opinion-makers, including journalists, and Chrétien.

Before every vote or debate on the legislation in the Senate or House of Representatives, Chrétien also telephoned each of the members, leaving messages outlining

Canada’s position. Over the past three months, he shuttled back and forth between Ottawa and Washington on a weekly basis, briefing cabinet ministers and working with the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate strategy. In Washington, he gave more than two dozen media interviews outlining Canadian concerns and delivered a series of speeches—including one in Spanish to a hostile group of Cuban-Americans in Miami. He also instructed senior members of the embassy and Canadian delegations to raise the issue with their American counterparts at every opportunity and launched what one embassy worker described as “an all-out blitz” at the annual July 4 celebrations at the Canadian embassy—attended by more than a dozen officials from the state department.

Despite those efforts, senior officials in the Canadian embassy said that most of their contacts in the White House had advised them to expect the worst. Now, in the wake of the postponement, Canadian officials are trying to conceal their delight— and their hope that Clinton will win re-election. “We believe the atmosphere will be more reasonable and less heated in six months regardless of which side wins,” insisted Pettigrew. Perhaps. But until then, Canadians, who so often complain that the United States pays no attention to them, have a practical reason to hope that Washington once again forgets about its northern neighbor. □