02/20/13 - TORONTO GLOBE & MAIL - On Cuba, Canada has no choice but to walk Washington's
By Carlo Dade
As hard as it may be to believe, one of the most difficult foreign files
for any Canadian government to manage is the Cuba file.
The importance of Cuba, throughout the hemisphere, is as a symbol. The
country is of marginal, if any, economic interest and is not a real
security threat to anyone in the hemisphere larger than, say, Grenada.
The importance of Cuba in the rest of the hemisphere is that it serves as a
reminder of centuries of American bullying and degradation. It is hard to
overstate the degree of visceral anger that U.S. policy toward Cuba elicits
in the region. It is also a subject with which any Latin American
government, even one of the few right-of-centre governments such as
Colombia, earns cheap points at home and with its neighbours by
symbolically kicking the United States.
In Canada, Cuba serves a different purpose: It is a symbol of what
distinguishes Canada from the United States. Most Canadians strongly
disagree with U.S. policy toward Cuba and find it offensive. Instead of
anger, though, Canada is more often embarrassed for its neighbour. The
U. S. also sees no need to afford Canada the same slack it affords Latin
American countries on Cuba.
Twice each year the U.S. embassy in Ottawa has to certify that Canada is,
more or less, in compliance with the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic
Solidarity Act, also known as Helms-Burton, which requires the United
States to penalize any foreign companies that do business with Cuba.
(Canadian companies are among the largest international investors in Cuba).
The gist of the exercise is to demonstrate that, despite clearly violating
the intent if not the letter of Helms-Burton, Canada is doing enough other
things to push reform in Cuba to earn a pass from direct sanction by the
U.S. The exercise is essentially a series of winks and nods on each side
followed by a round of beers. And each year the State Department and
congress go along with this while the Canadian government grumblingly
counts its blessings.
Canada has of course vociferously opposed Helms-Burton, has challenged it
under NAFTA, and has adopted laws to counter it. In this it has
international law and public opinion on its side. But should the Americans
decide to take unilateral action, that combination would prove as effective
in defending Canadian interests on Cuba as it did on softwood lumber.
As has been seen time and again, all it takes is one member of the U.S.
congress (such as a member of the easily-riled congressional Cuba lobby) to
raise a fuss, and Canada is left with nothing but a wink and a nod to cover
its privates while the bone-chilling breeze of U.S. unilateralism flaps
around it. Yes, cooler heads would prevail eventually. But a lot of
damage would be done in the meantime.
The fine line that Canada walks on Cuba is an object lesson on the Faustian
bargain that the country has struck to enable it to get rich and fat off of
easy and privileged access to the U.S. market. Criticize the government if
you will, but what choice does Canada really have? Before answering, think
of the $1-billion in daily trade across the border.
Canada can, does and will have differences with the United States. But it
has to pick its fights carefully, and Cuba is not on that list. Making
that reality clear to the rest of hemisphere, while explaining how much we
do manage to differ from the U.S., is crucial. It appears that this is
what the government belatedly did with Foreign Affair Minister John
Baird trip to the region.
Carlo Dade is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's School of
International Development and former executive director of the Canadian
Foundation for the Americas.
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