Cuban ambassador to Canada calls US terror listing nonsense, impediment

Julio Garmendia Pena spoke in Ottawa, a rare public appearance by a Cuban diplomat following his country's historic easing of tension with the U.S.

OTTAWA – The Cuban ambassador to Canada says Washington’s “nonsensical” decision to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is one of several impediments to his country normalizing relations with the United States.

Julio Garmendia Pena’s speech at an Ottawa university Monday night was a rare public appearance by a Cuban diplomat following that country’s historic easing of tension with the U.S.

The two countries announced on Dec. 17 they would try to normalize diplomatic relations after the 53-year U.S. embargo on the Caribbean island nation 135 kilometres off the coast of Florida.

But there’s been no substantive progress since then following three rounds of talks between Washington and Havana that have unfolded under a shroud of secrecy.

Canada hosted the historic talks that led to the initial breakthrough between the U.S. and Cuba — enemies since the 1959 Communist revolution — that remained a continental secret until U.S. President Barack Obama revealed them three months ago.

Pena shed little light on Canada’s role, except to say that Ottawa was a good place to hide from the prying eyes of the news media.

“Nothing was filtered to the press,” the envoy told an audience at Ottawa’s Carleton University that included numerous foreign diplomats, academics, Foreign Affairs officials and the vice chief of the Canadian Forces.

“Ottawa was the ideal place for that.”

U.S. officials have said their country’s first talks with the Cubans took place in Canada in June 2013. The Canadian Press has previously reported it was one of seven meetings that took place over the course of the next year and a half at locations in Toronto and Ottawa.

Since then, there has been no progress towards achieving the next concrete steps — reopening embassies and removing Cuba from a State Department list of terror-sponsoring nations.

“It is a nonsense. Cuba has been there for more than 20 years,” said Pena, who expressed the hope that Obama would see to his country’s deletion from the list.

“We hope that very soon Cuba will be removed from there.”

Pena also echoed his president, Raul Castro, who has criticized Obama’s decision to list Venezuela — Cuba’s top ally and trading partner — as an enemy of the United States. The U.S. move, which has included sanctions against seven Venezuelan citizens, has raised concerns about the possibility of progress on the Cuban rapprochement.

“It’s again a nonsense because you can understand, Venezuela does not represent a threat to the United States,” Pena said.

“You should applaud Venezuela that it is today giving solidarity not only to the peoples of Venezuela but also to the Caribbean people,” he added. “If you follow sometimes what is not in the press, you can find this truth.”

Last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said Canada was “deeply saddened” by the death of a Venezuelan teenager in a protest, saying it was an example of the “increasing attacks against freedom of expression” in the country.

The Harper government has criticized Cuba for its human rights record, including branding as a “travesty of justice” Cuba’s recent decision to imprison a 74-year-old Ontario businessman for 15 years on corruption charges.

Without mentioning that case, Pena acknowledged his country does not always see eye to eye with Canada but that relations are generally good.

He said the eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo would open up new business opportunities for Canada because they would no longer be subject to punitive U.S. laws.

“We are encouraging Canadian companies to come and see what is happening there,” he said, citing opportunities in high tech and clean energy.

“They should not delay because this is the moment.”