Wednesday, June 30, 1999
Ottawa -- It was not the kind of first day on the job the new Cuban ambassador would have planned for himself -- a frosty official reception overshadowing what might have been a pleasant homecoming.
Ambassador Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, the son of a Cuban diplomat who filled exactly the same post in Ottawa three decades ago, woke yesterday in his old house, looked at the morning paper and saw the big, black headline: Canada Gets Tough On Cuba. The article in yesterday's Globe and Mail reported Ottawa's decision to suspend ministerial visits and review aid programs because of Cuba's poor human-rights record.
The morning didn't get any better. As Mr. de Cossio, 39, prepared for his first official duty, the formal presentation of his diplomatic credentials at Rideau Hall, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was down the street, talking with reporters on his way into a cabinet meeting, saying it's time to cool down what had been a hot bilateral relationship with Cuba.
Canada isn't abandoning its policy of constructive engagement, he said, but "we have to put some northern ice on the middle of it."
When Mr. de Cossio arrived for the midday ceremony at Rideau Hall, he was greeted by Governor-General Roméo LeBlanc, who smiled and then read a government-approved welcoming speech that included a pointed reminder that Canadians take a deep interest in the state of human rights in Cuba.
Almost all of the chairs set up in the elegant reception room for official guests were empty. But two old Liberal politicians showed up, Senator Marcel Prud'homme and retired senator Jacques Hébert. They have been friends of Cuba going back a generation to the days when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and married to a flower child who serenaded Fidel Castro with impromptu songs as Mr. De Cossio's father, Jose, looked on.
As Mr. de Cossio left Rideau Hall, and a ceremonial guard hauled down the Cuban flag and ran the Rwandan flag up the pole for the next diplomatic ceremony, a couple of reporters waited at the Cuban's limousine to ask him whether his government was at all concerned that Canada's long-standing friendship with Cuba seemed to be under stress.
Mr. de Cossio answered diplomatically. "We have learned in the past to deal with our differences and we can do that again."
Canada-Cuba relations have survived U.S. efforts to isolate the Castro regime and force Canadian compliance with an economic embargo of the island. Under the Chrétien government, relations have steadily improved with the restoration of foreign aid four years ago and with an increasing number of high-level visits, including Mr. Chrétien's own trip to Havana last year.
But relations went off the rail in March when the Cuban government, despite Canadian protests, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison four political dissidents for criticizing the ruling Communist Party and calling for reforms.
A planned trade mission was put on hold. "This is one way of demonstrating that Canada is not indifferent to how people are treated," International Trade Minister Sergio Marchi said yesterday.
The Prime Minister himself "had put a good deal of personal currency on the line when he talked about these specific cases" when he met President Castro last year, Mr. Marchi said.
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