OTTAWA (Reuters) -- Canada, often under fire for its "constructive engagement" approach with hardline regimes, has begun rethinking its relations with Cuba after Havana jailed four leading democracy activists.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced on Monday a review of bilateral activities, and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy declared on Tuesday that it did not look like Cuba was ready to be reintegrated into the Americas.
Both Chretien and Axworthy had put their reputations on the line, especially in the United States, by visiting Cuba's Communist leader, Fidel Castro, in meetings billed as efforts to coax Cuba away from dictatorship. Critics said the meetings merely lent Castro much-sought credibility.
"I discussed these cases with President Castro when I visited Havana last April. Cuba sends an unfortunate signal to her friends in the international community when people are jailed for peaceful protest," Chretien said in his statement.
"In light of the convictions and other related events, we have informed the Cuban government that we would be reviewing the range of our bilateral activities."
Ottawa's constructive engagement policy with Cuba has caused it much discord with Washington, which imposed a trade embargo on the island nation shortly after the Cuban revolution 40 years ago. But rights activists also charge that Canada is too soft on China, Indonesia and other authoritarian governments.
In remarks to reporters after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Chretien expressed disappointment with the Cuban government but was unapologetic about his policy.
"We have a policy of constructive engagement, and when something like that happens, we have some flexibility. We can react. If you have no relations with them, you cannot react," he said.
He added that reviewing bilateral activities was "the way to put pressure on them and to say that we're unhappy."
The Cuban authorities, after banning diplomats and journalists from the trial of the four dissidents, handed down sentences on Monday of 3-1/2 to five years in jail.
One of the biggest casualties of the fallout with Havana was likely to be a souring on the idea of inviting Cuba to the next Summit of the Americas, to be held in Canada by 2001.
Chretien said last year, shortly before his visit to Havana, that he wanted to push for Cuba to be invited to the summit for the first time. Cuba has been suspended from the Organisation of American States since 1962.
Axworthy told reporters: "We've indicated (to the Cubans) that if you're going to be a member of the hemispheric community, then you have to play by those rules."
The minister added: "The willingness to accept some form of dissent or difference of opinion is one of those rules."
Washington would almost certainly have put the kibosh on any invitation to Cuba, but Canada's disenchantment with the idea now means there will be little pressure for it either.
Chretien spokeswoman Sophie Galarneau said Canada might also curb bilateral ministerial visits.
During an acrimonious news conference at the National Press Club in Ottawa on Monday, Cuban Foreign Investment Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz spent most of his time denying there were disappearances in Cuba and accusing journalists of distortions.
Galarneau said restricting trade or investment outright was unlikely, but she was unable to say whether Canadian government support for trade and investment might possibly be cut back.