Jean Chrétien was hailed as a hero when he stopped off in Nigeria on his way to the Commonwealth summit in South Africa last week. Nigeria’s newly elected president Olusegun Obasanjo thanked Chrétien for standing “firmly against tyranny” during the dark years of Gen. Sani Abacha's military dictatorship, when Canada pushed to have the African country suspended from the Commonwealth for slipping off democracy’s path. Chrétien happily took his bows, though it’s a pretty good bet Abachas fatal 1998 heart attack had more to do with the regime’s collapse than any huffing from Ottawa.
But Chrétien has never been clear on how Canada can best help transform nasty regimes into more open, rules-based societies. For every straightforward case calling for isolation from the family of nations—take Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia—there is a more difficult one, such as whether to welcome China into the World Trade Organization. Chrétien has always argued Canada’s limited power makes it best to engage undemocratic regimes and prod them towards change (the very approach he pushed the Commonwealth to take towards Pakistan’s newly installed generals). But he often forgets that leverage is only worth something if you use your foot in the door to express a few hard truths to your hosts.
Chrétien is naturally reluctant to make waves on foreign turf and, when he does, it comes only after a struggle. On last January’s trade mission to Kiev, Chrétien uncharacteristically told the Ukrainians to crack down on the rampant corruption, fixed deals and toothless laws that make foreign investors nervous. But the Prime Minister fought hard against the idea of including any tough talk, and relented only after advisers warned him furious Canadian investors in Ukraine were prepared to raise a stink in the Canadian media if he didn’t.
Timidity also killed Chrétiens ballyhooed opening to Cuba. Canada’s busi-
ness and cultural links give it a real role to play in speeding the end of Fidel Castro’s tawdry regime, and Chrétiens 1998 visit was a good idea in principle. But Chrétien seemed so eager to take credit for shepherding Cuba in from the cold he barely mumbled a word of criticism Castro’s way. The four jailed dissidents the Prime Minister quietly urged Castro to release were convicted in closed trials a year later. And by last summer, Castro was calling Canada enemy territory. So much for leverage.
Compare Chrétiens performance to that of Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who last month showed it is possible to deal with Castro without leaving your voice and principles at home. The visit to Havana was the first by a U.S. governor to Cuba in 40 years. Like Chrétien, Ryan believes Washington’s embargo is misguided, and he also holds clear-eyed economic motives for ending it: Illinois is a big agribusiness state that wants a piece of Cuba’s hefty food-import bill.
Ryan showed up with a party of business leaders and almost $3 million in badly needed humanitarian aid in tow. But he spoke his mind, too. He told Cuban journalists “the problem with Cuba is Fidel Castro.” In a speech at the University of Havana, he quoted extensively from Abraham Lincoln. “ ‘No man,’ Lincoln said, ‘is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent’ ” the governor told the Cubans. Lincoln, he added, “never feared the voice of the people.”
Castro did not then snub the governor. Ryan was not hustled out to the airport and put on a plane for home. And when he did leave, Castro allowed him to take along a seven-year-old boy who needed treatment in the United States for liver disease. Castro’s horrid political model will not crumble overnight from words alone, but Ryan could rightly claim a small victory. And he didn’t have to stifle his principles to get it.
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