Skip to main content

Even Pierre Trudeau, who once tried to paddle to Cuba in a canoe, would have approved. We're never likely to see a member of the Castro clan attending Stephen Harper's funeral, as Fidel did Pierre's.

But Mr. Harper has softened his hard-boned image in tangentially supporting a progressive U.S. president's opening of relations with the island's one-party regime.

A few years ago, Fidel Castro wrote scornfully of Mr. Harper, describing him as "an openly rightist man and the only one to have been ill-mannered toward Cuba." It was prior to the opening of a Summit of the Americas. Mr. Harper did not want Cuba at such summits.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Harper has displayed a less compromising approach toward Cuba than former Conservative prime ministers John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark or Brian Mulroney.

He wasn't about to start banning our trade in goods and services with the Fidelistas. Economic interests required degrees of co-operation. But his blunter conservatism showed, much to the approval of his political base.

It makes his co-operation with Barack Obama on the ending of sanctions all the more striking. Even frequent critics of Mr. Harper's foreign policy, such as former United Nations ambassador Paul Heinbecker, were applauding. "It's encouraging," Mr. Heinbecker said. "The government played it well and it could help down the road in other respects with Washington."

What drove the Prime Minister? It's not as if Raul Castro was making major strides in moving Cuba away from its authoritarian political system.

It's not as if Mr. Harper, who has clashed with Mr. Obama over the Keystone XL pipleine, owed the President any favours. And it wasn't as if the PM's overarching hawkishness in foreign affairs has been failing him. With Russia's Vladimir Putin, it has been winning him marks.

But from several points of view, the conciliatory turn was advisable. In the first place, Mr. Harper was in no position to oppose Mr. Obama's move, given that the new U.S. policy toward Cuba is in keeping with the traditional Canadian approach.

By assisting with the negotiations, Mr. Harper has eased strains in his relations with the U.S. President. It also appeals to the Canadian middle, where the Conservatives could use more votes. The political consideration is always, to a depressing degree, the dominant one with our Prime Minister – no doubt it was a major factor here.

Story continues below advertisement

No one should be of the view that there has been a significant turn in Mr. Harper's thinking. But the pragmatism he showed will stand him in good stead. Ideological politicians are predictable, by definition, their beliefs more rigidly fixed. In this sense, they can come across as threatening, particularly in a country like Canada, where political culture has historically been moderate (as Conrad Black makes amply clear in his book Rise to Greatness).

The Cuba move was of that mode. Mr. Harper even had the opposition parties coming out in support, which is a rare sight. "Today is a great day for those who believe in engagement as the most effective tool of diplomacy," said NDP foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar.

It's "a very good piece of news," said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whose father was once mocked, especially in Washington, for his cozy relationship with Fidel Castro.

Predictably, there is grumbling in the far-right precincts of Mr. Harper's Conservative Party and among core Republicans.

But Mr. Obama's bombshell appears to be gaining wide support in both countries. After suffering a shellacking in the midterm elections in November, the Democratic President has been revitalized. With decisive policy-making on immigration, the environment, Cuba and in other areas, he is wiping away the image of an equivocator and demonstrating the progressive spirit that got him elected in 2008 and that stirred hope in so many Americans – and in many Canadians.

In the foreign arena, the Islamic State threat does not appear what it was trumped up to be. Mr. Putin is no longer seen to be outfoxing his U.S. counterpart. At home, the economy is entering an impressive growth period.

Story continues below advertisement

Consequently, the accommodating turn from a Canadian prime minister not highly reputed for accommodation was well advised for both parties.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies