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.