Chretien shakes hands with Castro
Castro makes a remark to Chretien's wife Aline
Canadian leader begins whirlwind Cuban visit
April 26, 1998
Web posted at: 9:06 p.m. EDT (0106 GMT)
HAVANA (CNN) -- Defying the U.S. policy of keeping Cuba diplomatically isolated, Canadian Prime Minister Jean
Chretien arrived in the communist island nation Sunday
evening for a historic meeting with Cuban President Fidel
"The winds of change are blowing through our hemisphere and
indeed around the world, and we must all adapt," Chretien
said after being greeted by Castro at Jose Marti
His journey marks the first time in 22 years that a Canadian
leader has visited Cuba and is the first visit by the head of
a Western government since Spanish Prime Minister Felipe
Gonzalez's trip in 1986.
Chretien said his first trip to Cuba was "long overdue," and
he defended his country's policy of engaging, rather than
isolating, the Castro regime.
"Through good times and bad, our two countries have always
chosen dialogue over confrontation, engagement over
isolation, exchange over estrangement. And we have always
done this in an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other's
independence and sovereignty," Chretien said. "I'm proud of
that example to the world."
The United States, a key Canadian ally and trading partner,
reacted coolly to Chretien's overture toward Castro. But
Sunday, Mack McLarty, President Clinton's special envoy to
Latin America, stopped short of outright criticism of the
"His travel schedule is his own decision," McLarty said on
CNN's "Late Edition." "We, obviously, take a different
Chretien officially opens the new terminal at Jose Marti International Airport that Canada funded
Cuba, Canada have forged economic ties
Chretien is scheduled to be in Cuba for only 30 hours, but
the aftershocks of his talks with Castro and other Cuban
leaders may be felt for years. What makes this trip one to be
watched by politicians, Cuban dissidents and business leaders
from around the world is what Canada represents to Cuba --
The economic importance of Canada to Cuba was in evidence at
Chretien's arrival at Marti airport, where he disembarked at
a new terminal built with Canadian capital.
Canada and Mexico -- both partners with the United States in
the North American Free Trade Agreement -- are the only
countries in North and South America that never broke off
relations with Cuba after its communist revolution in 1959.
Today, Canada is a leading investor in Cuba, one of the
world's poorest nations. It sends more tourists to Cuba's
beaches than any other nation.
Since 1994, it has sent some 12.5 million Canadian dollars to
Cuba, as well as helping with programs aimed at getting Cuba
to adopt market-style economic reforms.
"The Canadian trip will remind American business people about
what could be done in Cuba, if there were no embargo," said
John Kavulich, president of the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade
and Economic Council in New York.
Sheritt International, a Canadian company, is the most
prominent non-Cuban company operating on the island, with
stakes in nickel mining, farming, cellular telephones and
Under a U.S. law known as the Helms-Burton Act, Sheritt's
executives have been barred from entering the United States,
because the company uses mines that were owned by U.S.
entities until Castro seized them when he came to power in
Castro greets Chretien as he arrives in Cuba
Chretien: Human rights issue to be raised
Canada's prime minister likely will save the thorniest issues
on his agenda for his private talks with Castro.
"Of course we will raise the question of human rights and
political rights," Chretien told reporters Sunday before
leaving Canada. "Isolation leads nowhere. But if we are
engaging them, discussing with them, offering help ... the
people of Cuba and the president of Cuba will certainly be
happy to have a dialogue."
"He's on a tightrope and has to handle this visit very
delicately," one Western diplomat in Havana said. "He doesn't
want to offend his host too much just as he's trying to show
the world that dialogue with Castro is best. But neither can
he appear to have sold out on the democracy issues."
Chretien is also scheduled to meet Cardinal Jaime Ortega,
head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, which is gradually
emerging as an alternative public voice on the island.
The last Canadian prime minister to visit Cuba was Pierre
Trudeau in 1976. Trudeau angered many anti-Communists
worldwide by snorkeling with his host and at one point
reportedly yelling "Viva Castro!"
Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba
Other countries also warm to Castro
Canada isn't the only country warming its ties to Castro. On
Sunday, Spain dispatched a new ambassador to Havana for the
first time in 18 months, ending a standoff caused by Cuba's
rejection of the last ambassador.
The Dominican Republic this month also renewed full
diplomatic relations. And in recent weeks, diplomats or large
business delegations from Spain, Japan, France, Ukraine,
Mozambique and Lebanon have ventured to Cuba.
Foreign ministers from Mexico and Brazil are to visit the
Caribbean nation in the near future, and several countries
are pressing for Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of
And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights
Commission refused to condemn Cuba's human rights record for
the first time since 1991.
U.S. businesses look to future
While the U.S. government is standing firm in its policy of
isolation, U.S. business leaders are already looking toward
the future and predicting change.
Kavulich estimates that close to 3,000 U.S. business leaders
will travel to Havana this year, compared with 500 in 1994.
Last month, representatives from several major oil and
pharmaceuticals companies -- including Mobil, Texaco and
Bristol-Myers Squib -- stopped over in Havana for a day and
met with Castro.
About 130 firms have expressed interest in taking part in a
proposed trade show in Cuba next year. If approved by the
U.S. government, the trade show will be the first one for the
United States in Cuba since 1959.
"Since 1994, the (Clinton) administration has implemented a
strategy of incremental openings focusing on the business
community," Kavulich said. "That's the way I expect the
administration to continue, with a lot of small changes."
Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.