Harper can't ignore Cuba
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 08 / 13 / 2011
By Peter McKenna, Ottawa Citizen August 12, 2011 8:09 AM. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits powerhouse Brazil and the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica - which shares a bilateral free trade agreement with us - he shies away from the less ideologically acceptable countries of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
But at a time when Harper claims to be pursuing an invigorated policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), he is ignoring Canada's natural advantages in Cuba - one of the region's most important countries. Needless to say, this doesn't make any foreign policy sense.
Significantly, Canadian-Cuban relations during the Harper years have suffered and now appear to be locked in a diplomatic holding pattern. To an outside observer, it looks as if a neo-conservative ideology, supported by lethargy in the Pearson Building in Ottawa, has taken the place of pragmatism and common sense.
Put simply, official Canadian policy toward Cuba is now curiously mimicking the failed U.S. approach of the former George W. Bush presidency - precisely when the Barack Obama administration is initiating a more moderate and more practical Cuba policy.
To begin, the prime minister and the mandarinate seem unaware of Cuba's importance in the region. For example, there are more than 30,000 Cuban health professionals now working throughout the Americas (more than all of the G8 countries combined). Additionally, Cuba is the elected leader of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement, was elected to the UN Human Rights Council with the support of 135 nations (five more than Canada), and was elected to be a member of the Rio Group of nations at a Latin American and Caribbean summit (to which Canada and the United States were conspicuously not invited).
As a symbol of its international support, the October 2010 UN General Assembly vote condemning the U.S. trade embargo (187-2) spoke volumes about Cuba's international legitimacy and world standing.
Cuba, in sum, punches far above its international weight class. It has full diplomatic relations with almost every country in the Americas, and has hosted a slew of presidential visits over the last two years. Even Mexico's foreign secretary found time to visit Havana in 2010. Why then has Canada not even sent its foreign affairs minister to visit Cuba in more than a decade?
We should also remember that Canada has an enviable position in Cuba: two-way trade exceeds $1.5 billion, more than 900,000 Canadian tourists visit annually, Toronto-based Sherritt International is the largest single foreign investor in the country, and Ottawa has had a long and storied relationship with the island.
Most Cubans recall fondly that the only countries in the Western hemisphere not to break diplomatic ties with Cuba in the early 1960s were Canada and Mexico. And, no less important, the Cubans respect us enormously - as is symbolized by the two million Cubans who participate annually in the Terry Fox run. Yet the Harper government has consistently ignored that goodwill and neglected the bilateral relationship's huge potential.
Curiously, the Obama White House is moving to tap whatever potential exists. To be sure, U.S. food exports to Cuba have increased to more than $710 million U.S. in 2010, and have already surpassed Canadian exports to the island. Obama himself has also moved to improve the terms of travel for Cuban-Americans, increased the number of U.S. airports offering charter flights to Cuba, and permitted cash remittances to Cuba to increase markedly.
The Canadian government's approach to Cuba, by comparison, is out of sync. The Harper government is spurning our natural advantages, needlessly sharpening its rhetoric, and pursuing a (failed) policy similar to that of the former Bush administration - all at a time when the Obama presidency is looking to change the tenor of U.S.-Cuba relations. Regrettably, Ottawa doesn't seem to be aware of what is happening on the Cuba file. More important, if the Harper government does not revitalize our engagement policy with the Cubans, Canada faces the very real prospect of jeopardizing its long-standing bilateral advantages and ceding those to the United States and others (including the Chinese).
Finally, the key to Canada actually opening the door to the wider hemisphere is clearly not through Costa Rica, but by fostering closer relations with Havana. But if we fail to cultivate closer ties with the Cubans, our vaunted "Americas Strategy" is necessarily doomed to failure.
Peter McKenna is professor of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown and the co-author of Canada-Cuba Relations: the Other Good Neighbor Policy.The Ottawa Citizen