Poor Ibrahim Ferradaz. The Cuban Minister for Foreign Investment and Economic Co-operation had the bad luck to be in Canada this week flogging Cuban opportunities at the same time as his "Maximum Leader" decided to confirm his unrepentant tyranny. Four prominent Cuban dissidents were sentenced to jail terms of between 3 1/2 and five years by Fidel Castro's Communist dictatorship for the "crime" of calling for political freedom.
Having appeared at the National Press Club in Ottawa on Monday -- and having faced impertinent inquiries that would have landed his questioners in the slammer back home -- Mr. Ferradaz also had the misfortune to run into a disgruntled Canadian investor at a breakfast meeting yesterday morning at the Canadian Club in Toronto.
Mississauga-based FirstKey Project Technologies Inc. has just spent several years and $7-million of its own and partners' money (including $1-million from the taxpayer via the Canadian International Development Agency) struggling to lay the groundwork for a giant joint-venture electricity-generating project in Santa Cruz del Norte, outside Havana.
FirstKey was given a letter of invitation from none other than Fidel Castro himself. The company was offered a vision of fixing up the entire malfunctioning Cuban electricity grid. It drew up elaborate plans and hosted Cuban engineers on around-the-world tours of major utilities. It made sure it had all the bases covered. It spent more than $200,000 in legal fees just to make sure it wasn't running afoul of Helms-Burton, the U.S. legislation that threatens sanctions against those who deal in Cuban property expropriated from U.S. citizens.
But Helms-Burton wasn't the problem; the Cuban government was. And is. FirstKey's joint venture partner is simply trying to weasel out of its agreement -- which, under Cuban law, it has no right to do -- claiming that FirstKey has failed to meet its commitments. Meanwhile, it is trying to negotiate a deal behind FirstKey's back with a Spanish company to which FirstKey introduced it.
The tough question that FirstKey's chairman, Clarence Boudreau, had to ask of Mr. Ferradaz was: What recourse is there for a Canadian company that, in good faith and under Cuban law, has formed a joint venture with the Cuban state, and whose rights are then trampled by its Communist partner?
Through his young translator (whose almost-simultaneous skills resulted in somehow appropriately disorienting bilingual confusion), Mr. Ferradaz waffled on in well-practised bureaucratese before saying that he just had to go now. He apparently told Mr. Boudreau personally that FirstKey should put together a claim and send it to him. He would try to settle it.
The political background, and Mr. Boudreau's frustrations, heaved a wrench into the well-oiled message Mr. Ferradaz had come to deliver: that Cuba is a great place to invest. How? Via joint ventures with the Communist state. Why? Because the work force is well educated, and lives in a "climate of tranquility. No mafia. No kidnapping."
Just incarceration if they speak their minds.
The imprisonment of the dissidents -- Marta Roque, Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne, and Rene Gomez -- has led to widespread international pressure on Cuba. Their sentencing prompted a rare act of censure -- albeit mild -- from Prime Minister Jean Chretien. On Monday, Mr. Chretien announced that Canada would be "reviewing the range" of its bilateral activities with Cuba. Some threat. No more advice from Revenue Canada on how best to pluck the already-skeletal Cuban goose? No more laughably naive attempts to set up Cuban citizens' complaints commissions? No more Canadian-funded conferences on the rights of women or children? No more free trips for Cuban political hacks to watch question time?
Mr. Chretien declared: "Cuba sends an unfortunate signal to her friends in the international community when people are jailed for peaceful protest."
The signal may be unfortunate, but it is far from inconsistent. It establishes yet again the naivete of Canada's approach to Cuba, based on the hope that "engagement and dialogue" will lead to "a peaceful evolution to a society with full respect for human rights, genuinely representative institutions and an open economy."
Mr. Ferradaz, addressing the issue of the jail sentences, declared yesterday that the dissidents were in fact "delinquents." Such a morally repugnant attitude is both typical, and a red flag for prospective investors. Significantly, Canada has been frustrated in its attempts to negotiate a foreign investment protection agreement with Cuba.
The political line emerging from the Prime Minister's Office is that the Liberals have given up on Mr. Castro but are working on his successors. The problem is that Fidel's successors are cut from similar cloth, as Mr. Ferradaz, a model of unctuous cynicism, makes clear.
There is a very strong correlation between economic progress and political freedom. The Cuban people have little hope of a better life until their whole rotten political system is swept away. Until then, anybody who invests with the corrupt Castro regime is, like FirstKey, asking for trouble.