Back in 2007, before Prime Minister Stephen Harper promoted him to cabinet, Jason Kenney was chairing the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights, when he decided to convene a series of meetings on the fraught subject of human rights in Cuba.
In one of those sessions, two representatives of Canadian unions who had visited Cuba gave what might be described as a naively sympathetic account of the role of Cuba’s state-sanctioned labour unions, prompting Kenney to set aside the customary reserve of the chair to ask a few pointed questions of his own.
“You both spoke at length about your trips to Cuba,” he said. “Have either of you ever visited a Cuban prison where there were political prisoners? Have either of you ever spoken to people who have spent time in Cuban jails as a consequence of political activities?
They had not. A disgusted Kenney probed further. “Are either of you familiar with the Varela project in Cuba? It is a project on the part of civil society to collect signatures to demand electoral reform and a real choice in elections. You haven’t heard about that. Have either of you read any reports from organizations like Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International about the human rights situation in Cuba?”
That morally outraged attitude was, and, I would guess, remains, the favoured tone of many Canadian Conservatives toward Cuba. It is based, as Kenney’s informed hectoring reminds us, on perfectly valid criticism of the Havana regime. It doesn’t hurt that U.S. Republican opinion vocally supports the same stance, or that a lot of older Tories haven’t forgotten to be offended by the memory of Pierre Trudeau’s friendship with Fidel Castro.
So when the big news broke yesterday that U.S. President Barack Obama had negotiated a historic rapprochement with Cuba, it made sense that Harper was guardedly muted in describing his government’s role in hosting the secret talks that led to the breakthrough. All his officials would say is that seven negotiating sessions between the Americans and Cubans were held in Toronto and Ottawa during the past 18 months. Harper told CBC he didn’t want to exaggerate Canada’s contribution.
Still, many Conservatives will have trouble reconciling what they would have assumed was a tougher stance toward Cuba from Harper with the revelation that his government played such a key role in facilitating this thaw, which now has their Republican cousins up in arms. They may be surprised to learn that Canada’s relationship with Cuba has been, in at least some instances, surprisingly co-operative, even cordial, since Harper took office in 2006.
Consider, for instance, the leaked diplomatic notes (part of the WikiLeaks story) that revealed how unhappy Washington was in 2009 when Peter Kent, then Harper’s minister of state for the Americas, failed to issue the ritual public condemnation of Cuba on a visit to Havana. In an interview yesterday, Kent, now a backbench Tory MP, told me about how, the following year, Cuba went out of its way to try to help the Harper government, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“The Cuban ambassador was of great help to me,” Kent said. “We had a lunch the week of the vote [in New York], and the Cuban UN ambassador spoke at the table with ambassadors from all of these Latin American ambassadors, and he stood up and said, ‘You can trust Canada. We need Canada on the Security Council.’ ”
Kent went on about the 2010 UN episode: “On the day of the actual vote, on the floor of the General Assembly, as we were all going up and down through the desks and aisles, urging people to stick to their commitment to vote for us, the Cuban ambassador was equally on the floor lobbying for the Canadian vote.” That sort of action sounds to me like a good deal more than diplomatic politesse.
Kent pointed to the obvious economic underpinning of close ties between Canada and Cuba, including mining and other investment, and the flocks of Canadian tourists who travel to Cuba for sun-and-sand vacations. (According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Cuba trails only the U.S. and Mexico as a destination for Canadians holidaying abroad, with more than a million Canadians visiting Cuba every year, the island country’s biggest source of tourists.)
As the U.S. debate over Obama’s audacious Cuban move heats up, many Canadian Conservatives will long to hear, on this side of the border, a bit of Kenney’s righteous anger, circa 2007, over Cuba’s lousy human-rights record. Yet it seems that, even in the Harper era, the far bigger factors in this sensitive bilateral relationship are substantial economic interests and, as Kent’s telling anecdote illustrates, complex behind-the-scenes diplomatic ties.