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Chretien appeals for release of 4 Cuban dissidents

Chretien and Castro
Chretien, left, and Castro watch a military parade in Havana Monday  
April 27, 1998
Web posted at: 9:13 p.m. EDT (0113 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) - Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien made a personal appeal Monday to Cuba President Fidel Castro for the release of four dissidents imprisoned since July 1997.

Chretien, on the first visit by a Canadian government leader to Cuba since 1976, made the appeal during a 2 1/2 hour meeting with Castro. The imprisoned dissidents also have been championed by international human rights groups, the Vatican and European Union nations.

Marta Roque, one of the four prisoners arrested after calling for multi-party elections, is reportedly very ill and in need of medical treatment.

Chretien said Castro, who did not look pleased, defended Cuba's legal system but took the list of dissidents saying he would consider their release. Chretien said he doubted Castro would be calling for free elections "next week."

Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman reports
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Jose Cardenas of the Cuban American National Foundation speaking on CNN's Insight called Chretien's efforts political and said, "Fidel Castro still treats Cuban people, in this case Cuban dissidents, as barter for concession from foreign capitalist."

Canadian businesses continue to make their mark in Cuba by investing in communication, mining and tourism. Canadians are the number one tourist group to visit the beautiful stretch of beaches and modern hotels just hours from Havana. Cuba's new international airport was built with a $38 million loan from Canada.

political prisoners
Political dissidents in a Cuban prison  

In contrast to Washington's policy of isolating Havana, Chretien says Canada is leading the way towards constructive engagement with Havana as a method of promoting reform in the last socialist country in the Western Hemisphere.

In a move to show the effectiveness of Canada's openness, Cuba agreed to a $9 million payment to a Canadian insurance company in compensation for assets confiscated after the revolution. The deal is meant to send a message to businesses and to Washington that negotiation rather than confrontation is the profitable way to deal with Cuba.

Castro, in welcoming Chretien to Cuba Sunday, called the U.S. embargo a "great crime" and suggested the U.S. government should be taken to an international court of law to stand trial on war crimes charges.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said that Fidel Castro is "woefully" out of touch with history and suggested the Cuban leader is suffering from "Castro-enteritis."

Despite Cuba's human rights record and Washington's policy of isolation, Canadians continue to see Cuba as an island of opportunity.

"I think many Canadians feel the way to engage Cuba is to trade with it," says Andrew Cohen of the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. "The human rights record of Cuba is not as bad a lot of other places with which the U.S. trades."


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