Thomas Walkom: How Venezuela is impacting Canada's relations with Cuba
The United States has again declared war on Canadians doing business in Cuba.
This was a cause célèbre back in 1996, the last time Washington tried to force other nations into joining its punitive trade embargo against the Communist state.
In those days, Jean Chretien’s Liberal government fought back hard against U.S. efforts to impose its laws on other sovereign countries.
It was a front-page story.
This time, Ottawa’s reaction has been more muted. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she is “deeply disappointed.” She says she “will be reviewing all options.”
Her problem, however, is that the U.S. is justifying its move as part of an effort to force regime change in Venezuela — an effort that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government endorses.
The Americans argue that Venezuela’s current president, Nicolas Maduro, is able to hold power only because of support from Cuba. Pressure Cuba, they say, and Canada opposes sanctions against Cuba while levelling them against Venezuela will fall. And the easiest way to pressure Cuba is to deny it foreign investment.
Hence Washington’s decision this week to let Americans whose properties were nationalized after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution sue foreigners — including Canadians — who now use those properties.
This portion of the so-called Helms-Burton Act has been put on hold by successive U.S. presidents since 1996, in large part because of objections from Canada and the European Union.
But anti-Castro hawks such as National Security Advisor John Bolton have long pushed for its implementation. This year, they finally got President Donald Trump to agree. As of May 2, Americans — including Cuban Americans who became U.S. citizens after 1959 — will be able to launch lawsuits against foreigners. There are about 6,000 such suits pending worth an estimated $8 billion.
Canada and the U.S. have had different approaches to Cuba since the 1959 revolution. For the U.S., the loss of a satellite state to Communism was a national embarrassment. As well, the Castro government’s expropriation of U.S. corporate assets — ranging from mob-run casinos to giant sugar companies — set a dangerous precedent.
For Canada, however, the revolution provided a business opportunity. Mining companies invested in Cuba as did the hospitality industry. Canadians themselves flocked to the cheap Cuban beaches.
Politically and in spite of Castro’s human rights abuses, many Canadians were sympathetic to the island nation’s struggle against mighty America.
Among Canada’s major political parties too, a consensus held: Canada’s right to trade with whomever it wished must be protected.
In 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government passed the Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act, a law designed to dissuade Canadian subsidiaries of U.S. multinationals from taking part in Washington’s economic embargo of Cuba.
In 1996, Chretien’s Liberal government amended this law to specifically take into account the Helms-Burton Act. Anyone sued under Helms-Burton would be allowed to countersue in Canadian courts. Anyone who agreed to pay damages under Helms-Burton would be liable to fines and imprisonment in Canada.
Meanwhile, Canada and Cuba quietly worked out a deal whereby Havana agreed to compensate Canadians whose property had been expropriated in the revolution.
It seemed a victory for both national sovereignty and common sense.
But in those days, Canada was not openly pushing for regime change in South America. Today it is. Ottawa has joined the U.S.-backed Lima Group in calling for a military coup in Venezuela to unseat Maduro. The Trudeau government has imposed sanctions on members of the Maduro regime and tacitly supports an American economic embargo designed to bring Venezuela to its knees.
Simply put, it is interfering in the sovereign right of Venezuela to manage its own affairs — the very crime it accuses the U.S. of committing against Canada.
As well, the Canadian government’s behaviour toward Venezuela grossly contradicts its position on Cuba. Cubans under Communism arguably enjoy fewer civil liberties than Venezuelans under Maduro. Yet Canada opposes sanctions against Cuba while levelling them against Venezuela.
Hawks like Bolton are at least consistent. They want to rebuild the American Empire. What does Canada want?
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom