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John Baird will be the first Canadian foreign affairs minister to visit Cuba in 15 years.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird breaks new ground in visits to Cuba and Venezuela, he'll bring a soft-sell message: a nudge for progress on rights and democracy as Canada and those countries do business together.

Mr. Baird has often projected the message that Canada won't "go along to get along" on issues like human rights. But in the first visit to either country by a Harper government foreign minister, the message he's planning to deliver in Cuba and Venezuela is not the aggressive blast of rights demands that some conservatives would like to see in states they view as pariahs.

Two elements seem to be driving that approach: Canadian trade interests and the prospects for transition in Havana and Caracas.

Along with visits with activists in Cuba and opposition leaders in Venezuela, Mr. Baird has scheduled meetings with Canadian businesses operating in those countries and with politicians who may represent the generation that will succeed Cuba's Raul Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Baird's aides insist he is never shy about confronting foreign counterparts on issues like rights, but feels those disagreements don't have to hobble Canadian interests. No foreign minister has visited Cuba in 15 years, and it's been more than 20 years since one went to Venezuela. Canada has $1.2-billion in bilateral trade with Cuba and $1.3-billion with Venezuela, and Mr. Baird's message is that Canada wants political reforms to come as it expands business with both.

But there is another reason Mr. Baird has fit those two countries unloved by Conservatives into a tour of Latin America that also includes Mexico, Peru, Panama and the Dominican Republic: Both have leaders who might not be there long, and in both cases Mr. Baird sees hope of an opening and wants to get his own look at how things are unfolding. "It's always easier to get a better sense of progress in the country when you are on the ground," said Mr. Baird's spokesman, Rick Roth.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro has been succeeded by younger brother Raul as President of the Council of State, but Raul Castro is 81. When Mr. Baird meets Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 54, he will get a face-to-face view of a rising, relatively young star in Cuba's leadership, elevated late last year to the party's Political Bureau, whose 16 members are mostly between 65 and 84.

He will also meet so-called "civil society" representatives of non-governmental organizations and visit a Havana synagogue – a symbolic nod to the importance the Harper government attaches to religious freedom in a country where Pope Benedict's 2012 visit appeared to be an opening to religion.

Venezuela is also facing a potential leadership change. President Hugo Chavez, in Cuba for cancer treatment, hadn't been seen in public for almost two months until pictures of him in his hospital bed were released on Thursday. Mr. Baird will meet with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who most Venezuela watchers believe would win presidential elections if Mr. Chavez is unable to return to work.

The Harper government has never cared for Mr. Chavez's regime – with its anti-U.S. rhetoric and efforts to mount a left-wing alliance in Latin America – preferring pro-free-market governments. Mr. Chavez's Venezuela holds elections but is also criticized for centralizing power in the President's hands, limiting freedom of the press and using strong-arm tactics with opponents.

In Caracas, Mr. Baird is scheduled to meet the executive secretary of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo – an outreach to the anti-Chavez forces. But Venezuela's opposition has been divided. The Chavistas look likely to retain power even if the Venezuelan strongman doesn't return to power, so Mr. Baird has reason to deliver a message on rights.

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