July 9, 2004
Castro's crackdown does Cuba no good
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
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.