Toronto Star
July 9, 2004

Castro's crackdown does Cuba no good


Fidel Castro has denounced tough new U.S. restrictions imposed on travel to Cuba by Americans as a blatant move by President George W. Bush to win support for his re-election from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. Although others might share Castro's belief that the stringent new measures, including henceforth only permitting travel to Cuba once every three years instead of every year, are politically motivated, Bush's action comes at a time when many countries have become increasingly concerned over Castro's treatment of pro-democracy groups. While he seems determined to ignore international criticism of his government's human rights record and crackdown on dissidents, his actions raise serious questions about Ottawa's constructive engagement policy toward Havana. This is based on the premise that by broadening co-operation and relations with Cuba, including investment there, such measures will persuade Castro to accept greater political rights for his people. That policy has resulted in a number of Canadian firms investing in Cuba since the 1980s in the resource sector, as well as the tourism sector where Canadians normally account for the largest number of visitors, generating badly needed foreign exchange. Canada's policy obviously has not been welcomed by everyone, particularly Washington. But notwithstanding Ottawa's quiet diplomacy to convince Castro to be more tolerant of dissent, Canada's approach is reaping few dividends. Canada's disenchantment with Castro is not unique. Cuba's relations with Mexico have lately come under serious strain. And if there was one country Castro could traditionally count on as relatively sympathetic, it was Mexico. It provided the young Fidel Castro with sanctuary in the 1950s when his small band of followers trained for their 1956 landing in Cuba and the eventual overthrow in 1959 of the repressive Batista regime. Even after Castro introduced a Marxist system and was declared a threat to other hemispheric nations by the United States, Mexican governments (along with Canada) continued to maintain uninterrupted diplomatic and trade relations with Havana. It was only in recent years that other hemispheric nations, most notably Peru, Venezuela and Brazil, also improved relations with Cuba. However, the long honeymoon with Mexico may be ending. In April, Mexico's conservative-inclined president, Vicente Fox, took the unprecedented step of joining other nations, including Peru, in supporting a United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution critical of Cuba's human rights record. Castro's reaction was swift. He lashed out at Mexico and Peru, denouncing them for doing the bidding of the Bush administration. Not mincing his words, Castro said Mexico's international reputation "had turned to ashes." In response, Mexico and Peru withdrew their ambassadors from Havana. Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Derbez said bilateral relations with Cuba were being downgraded to the level of charge d'affaires. The tension between Mexico and Cuba is not surprising. Unlike many of Mexico's earlier presidents, who had an almost visceral antipathy towards the U.S., Fox, like his immediate predecessors, presidents Zedillo and Salinas, saw broadened relations with America in Mexico's long-term interests. Salinas' decision to join the North American Free Trade Agreement was a clear indication of a new Mexican attitude towards relations with Washington, reinforced after Fox was elected president in 2000. Fox's decision to support the U.S.-backed U.N. resolution was thus understandable, since it could help improve relations with Bush following Mexico's refusal, along with Chile, to support Bush's unsuccessful attempt to have the Security Council pass a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. But while it was Mexico and Peru recently on the receiving end of Castro's fury, others share their concerns. Castro's imprisonment of 75 dissidents last year was roundly criticized, especially by the European Union. Castro castigated them as a Trojan horse doing the work of the United States. When opposition activists had the temerity to present a legal petition to parliament calling for greater civil liberties, Castro had a constitutional amendment passed declaring the country's socialist system inviolable. In April, 10 more dissidents were put on trial, charged with disrespect for authority and public disorder. While many in Canada would oppose backing Bush's tough new sanctions against Cuba — regarded as partially intended to guarantee Bush wins Florida — Castro's unwillingness to grant Cubans greater freedoms makes it increasingly difficult for nations like Canada to maintain a business-as-usual approach to the Castro regime. Canada's policy of constructive engagement with Havana assumes both sides should realize some respective benefits from such an arrangement. Unless Castro comes to appreciate this reality, he could harm his own long-term relationship with Canada.
Harry Sterling is a former diplomat and an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Cuba.