CubaNews / August 2002
By Larry Luxner
There's no denying that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has benefitted Canada enormously. Even so, Peter Boehm -- minister of political and public affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington -- says it's time for the embargo to be lifted.
"It's our view that a combination of official development assistance and an open relationship -- not sanctions -- will support movement towards greater political and economic reform," says Boehm, formerly Canada's ambassador to the Organization of American States. "The embargo is contrary to international law and hasn't been successful. [Only] globalization will spell the end of the Cuban experiment. The question is when."
Boehm says Canada's trade with Cuba officially dates from 1910, when Ottawa opened a commercial office in Havana. Two years later, the Royal Bank of Canada inaugurated its Havana branch, the same year it opened its first branch in Toronto. Full diplomatic relations were established in 1945, and have remained intact ever since.
"This unbroken relationship has entered Canadian folklore as a symbol of how we can distinguish our foreign policy from that of the United States," says Boehm, estimating bilateral trade at $435 million a year.
In 2001, Canada -- Cuba's No. 3 trading partner after Spain and Venezuela -- exported $254.8 million worth of goods to Cuba, up from $223.9 million the year before. The most important exports by value were wheat ($15.6 million; peas ($13.0 million); frozen chicken parts ($11.6 million); auto parts ($9.3 million) and sulfur ($8.0 million). And in the first three months of 2002, exports of the 25 leading product categories rose by an astonishing 95%. Canadian imports from Cuba came to around $180 million in 2001.
Likewise, Canada is the second-largest investor in Cuba after Spain, and Toronto-based Sherritt International is the largest single foreign investor in Cuba, with interests in nickel mining, energy, hotels, agribusiness and mobile telephony. Because of the Helms-Burton Act -- under which Sheritt officials have been barred from entering the United States -- Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is unwilling to provide the names of Canadian companies that invest or do business in Cuba.
"Most Canadian companies prefer to keep a low profile, and I have to respect that," says Cameron Young, a lawyer from Montreal whose Havana-based consulting firm, Berger Young & Associates Ltd., advises foreign companies doing business in Cuba.
"The Canadians have always been favorably received by the Cuban government," Young told CubaNews. "I can't say there's a significant number of new projects going on right now, but generally the position of Canadians as investors here is very strong."
The Ottawa government has already expressed its outrage over the case of James Sabzali, a 42-year-old Canadian sales executive living in the United States. In early April, a Philadelphia jury found Sabzali guilty of violating the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act. Sabzali's crime: arranging the sale of $2.1 million in water purification chemicals to Cuba.
Meanwhile, according to Boehm, Ottawa's focus is not only on promoting investment but also providing development assistance. To that end, the Canadian International Development Agency is the largest single bilateral donor to Cuba, having donated over $30 million a year in official development assistance.
"We resumed our aid program in 1994, after having suspended it in the 70s becaus of Cuba's Angolan adventures," said Boehm. "Since 1994, we have found the Cuban government to be a very cost-effective partner. We have programs with the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Economy and Planning, and the Central Bank, training middle managers who will become senior managers when the transition occurs. That's to ensure that when the landing comes, it'll be a soft landing."
Besides development assistance, Canada contributes to the Cuban economy by making it easy for tourists to visit the Caribbean island. Last year, Cuba -- now the fifth most important destination worldwide for Canadian tourists -- received 350,000 Canadian visitors, up from 144,000 in 1995. Nearly all of them arrive on direct flights from Toronto or Montreal.
In addition, said Boehm, "many voluntary organizations have ties with Cuba, ranging from solidarity groups on the left" to apolitical church groups and municipalities."
In April 1998, Jean Chretien became the first Canadian prime minister ever to visit Cuba -- an event that Canada thought would push the Castro regime to open up a little. "But we failed," says Boehm. "The treatment that seems to be reserved for Mexico this year, we received last year. We realize what this is all about."
Even so, says the diplomat, "criticizing the U.S. economic embargo doesn't mean uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Our job is to encourage Cuba towards a democratic system. We remain concerned about Cuba's systematic violation of human rights. By engaging in constructive policies, we think we've accomplished a little bit."
Asked by a skeptical member of the audience how he could call Canada's Cuba policy a success, Boehm retorted: "It's certainly been successful for our companies."