June 30, 1999
The Gazette, Canada
Wednesday 30 June 1999
Ottawa's excessive friendliness to the repressive Castro regime has made many Canadians uncomfortable. While few on this side of the border have shared Washington's obsessive hatred of the Cuban dictator - or have liked U.S. efforts to extend the reach of its anti-Castro laws beyond U.S. jurisdiction - many also have been embarrassed by a policy that has sometimes had an air of adolescent rebelliousness.
Mr. Castro is, after all, a Communist dictator who presides over a regime that jails peaceful dissidents. While that should not necessarily prevent Canadians from doing business with Cuba or having correct diplomatic relations with that country, it has been hard to square Canada's vociferous support for human rights around the world with its friendly stance toward a longtime human-rights abuser.
Now, Ottawa at last is "reviewing" its policy on Cuba. Prime Minister Chretien confirmed yesterday a report that Ottawa has been quietly freezing and re-examining its links to the country as a result of human-rights abuses there. Ministerial visits have been postponed and at least two joint projects have been suspended.
The proximate cause of the reassessment was the sentencing in March of four peaceful dissidents to jail terms ranging from 31Ú2 to five years. Their outrageous treatment was particularly disappointing to Ottawa, given that Mr. Chretien had raised their case during a visit there last year. (Perhaps another factor behind Ottawa's welcome change of attitude is to be found in a Wall Street Journal report that Canadian companies, which have been major investors in Cuba, are losing interest in that country anyway, complaining of poor treatment and unfavourable economic conditions. That means that less is at stake for Canada if relations sour.)
For the past couple of years, at least, Ottawa has made a point of saying that it has been raising human rights with Cuban officials. In January 1997, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy made much of a human-rights deal he negotiated with Cuban officials during a visit there - a document that basically amounted to some wishy-washy plans to hold seminars and "share experiences." Cuban officials all along made it clear they did not plan to change their behaviour. And they haven't.
Canada's role as the host of two forthcoming western hemisphere meetings gives it potential leverage since Cuba is trying hard to transcend U.S. efforts to isolate it diplomatically and economically.
But if Cuba blithely continues its abusive ways, Canada should continue to distance itself from Mr. Castro. Having correct relations with unsavoury regimes is one thing, but lending them encouragement and help is quite another. If Canada's policy of "constructive engagement" with the Castro regime shows no sign of working, then it should be scrapped.
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