Fidel Castro's friends in Ottawa National Post
Earlier this month, while Iraq was dominating the news, Fidel Castro quietly imprisoned nearly 100 of Cuba's dissidents, independent journalists, human rights activists and intellectuals. Oscar Elias Biscet, for instance, a doctor and one of Cuba's best-known activists, was sentenced to 25 years in jail. Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, a 56-year-old economist who leads an umbrella organization of 300 human rights groups, was sentenced to 20 years; as was independent journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who has written about the Cuban economy for U.S. Web sites. Cuban authorities accuse the defendants of collaborating in a U.S.-led scheme to undermine the country's government. The charges are baseless. But convictions were rammed through in farcical "trials" nevertheless.
Back at home, the Canadian government issued a statement decrying the "severity" of the recent crackdown. But Jean Chrétien made clear he still wants good relations. "I know there is a problem of human rights in that country ... sometimes it's better, sometimes it's bad ... and we're protesting. But it's better to be engaged because that's putting pressure," the Prime Minister told a news conference last week. "I believe it's better to be engaged and talking than to ignore the problem ... I know that if you don't do anything it could be much worse."
Engagement with Cuba has been the official line in Ottawa for decades. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was famously chummy with the Cuban dictator, and left-wing Canadian politicos have been sucking up to Havana ever since -- mostly as a means to demonstrate Canada's moral superiority to the United States. Indeed, Canada indirectly helps prop up Cuba's government in a number of ways. From 1994 to 1999, the federal Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided $34-million in development assistance to Cuba. Last November, CIDA pledged $750,000 over six years toward a University of New Brunswick project to help Cuba create a biomedical engineering education program. Last October, CIDA made a three-year, $2.9-million commitment to a training program for Cuban workers run by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Moreover, in the 2000-2001 fiscal year, Canadian taxpayers paid about $30-million to cover Canadian exports to Cuba that el jefe máximo could not or would not pay for. Canada has also granted Cuba what amounts to a $14-million line of credit to help pay for Canadian agricultural imports.
As noted above, Mr. Chrétien justifies propping up Mr. Castro's dictatorship under the theory that "it's better to be engaged because that's putting pressure." But in this regard, we'd like to direct the Prime Minister's attention to a brilliant piece of historical analysis published by Cuba expert Ann Louise Bardach in last Sunday's New York Times. As Ms. Bardach shows, it is exactly at those junctures when Cuba was most "engaged" with the West that Mr. Castro -- fearing glasnost might undermine his authoritarian rule -- took deliberate steps to cement his rogue status.
In the 1970s, when the United States was signalling a willingness to end its Cuban embargo, Mr. Castro sent troops to Angola. In 1980, when Jimmy Carter opened a de facto embassy in Havana, Mr. Castro flooded Florida with refugees. In 1996, when Bill Clinton's administration was set to sign migration and drug interdiction accords with Havana, Cuba shot down two planes operated by a U.S.-based exile group. Mr. Castro's latest move fits in perfectly with this pattern. In recent years, pressure to permit agricultural exports and travel to Cuba has grown stronger in Washington. Leading elements of the politically powerful Cuban exile community in south Florida are leaning toward engagement with Mr. Castro's regime as well. Thus came the recent crackdown in Havana, which has destroyed any hope of détente.
We admit the decision whether to engage a dictatorship through diplomacy and commerce is complex. In some cases -- China, for instance -- engagement has gone hand in hand with at least some measure of political reform. And even in the case of North Korea, the world's most totalitarian nation, the United States had until recently provided power and food as a bribe to prevent nuclear weapons development. But in the case of Cuba, the historical record cited above suggests that Canada's decades-old policy of engagement is not only morally objectionable, it is also counterproductive in practical terms.
Mr. Castro's latest outrage provides Ottawa with a good opportunity to review its policy toward Cuba. Where this hemisphere's last true dictatorship is concerned, Mr. Chrétien's mantra -- "if you don't do anything it could be much worse" -- seems not merely incorrect, but the exact opposite of the truth.
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