Best Buddies; For half a century, Canadian prime ministers have cozied up to Fidel--mostly (but not exclusively) to annoy Washington
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 April 2009)

On April 13, U. S. President Barack Obama declared that he would relax rules that restrict Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and remit money to Cuban relatives. Beginning today, the National Post is asking experts and pundits to weigh in on the issue. Is Obama too soft on Cuba? Or should the U. S. trade embargo be removed altogether?

Canada's genial relationship with the despotic government of Cuba is the only fragment of policy from prime minister John Diefenbaker that still survives. For half a century, we have traded happily with the Cubans and sent planeloads of tourists to their beaches every winter. Two of our prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, made official visits, with Trudeau shouting "Viva Castro" and his wife Margaret declaring Fidel Castro "the sexiest man alive."

For a democracy, our long-standing Cuban policy is appalling, though history has given it a patina of legitimacy. It's even a matter of pride for many Canadians, however odious the Castro government. It's thought to prove our independence from the United States. We are the northern pals of Cubans and they our Caribbean buddies.

But that era seems likely to end soon. As Barack Obama gradually re-establishes relations between Washington and Havana, we'll be robbed of our unique status in Cuba.

This tradition was born out of personal pique. Diefenbaker, our Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963, chose a course that reflected anti-American malice. Certainly it was not consistent with his politics. He had no affection for communism and in fact could give a rousing speech denouncing the Soviet Union's absorption of once-independent states such as Ukraine.

But Castro was another matter. Castro defied the United States by nationalizing American property and defeated John Kennedy's attempt to depose him. And it happened that Diefenbaker intensely disliked Kennedy. Diefenbaker's monumental self regard demanded respect, which Kennedy failed to provide. The U. S. president had no time for bores, particularly bores who disagreed with him. "I don't want to see that boring son of a bitch again," he once told his brother, attorney-general Robert Kennedy.

As the Arab proverb says, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Diefenbaker government decided that since the Cubans had not seized our banks and other institutions, we could enjoy warm relations with Cuba while annoying Washington and Kennedy. We would sell to the Cubans and buy from them as we chose. Officials in our foreign service, while acknowledging that we were serving our economic interests, could also point out that this approach followed our usual policy for dealing with communist states: Engagement, not exclusion or quarantine.

Canada's decision was no small matter in Cuba. The Cuban ambassador in Ottawa, Americo Cruz, in his report to Havana on May 4, 1962, said that he was afraid that the Liberals, under Lester B. Pearson, would defeat Diefenbaker in the forthcoming election. Pearson, one of the founders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, considered Americans (as he said in 1962) "the least imperialistically-minded people that ever had world power thrust on them." He considered Cuba, an ally of the Soviet Union, hostile to Canada as well as to the U. S.

Cruz believed Pearson would be Cuba's enemy. Worse, he predicted that Pearson would make Paul Martin Sr. (father of the recent PM) external affairs minister -- and Martin was "a sworn enemy of Cuba and a leader of the Catholic community." Pearson became prime minister in 1963, and did appoint Martin.

But by then, Canadians were used to our special pro-Havana role in the hemisphere, and Pearson in any case had more important things to worry about. When Trudeau succeeded him in 1968, the Cuba policy was well established and Trudeau was more than happy to continue it. Later governments fell into place. Even Brian Mulroney, who presented himself as Ronald Reagan's great friend, did nothing that would bother Havana. Friendship with Cuba was by then part of the Canadian way of life.

In 1962, Charles Ritchie, the Canadian ambassador in Washington, did not much like John Kennedy and considered Diefenbaker's views on Cuba justified. He wrote in his diary: "It is unthinkable that anything similar to developments in Cuba should occur in Canada, but if it did, should we not regard this as our own business and resist intervention?" That's how he saw it. My guess, on the other hand, is that if the Communist Party of Canada did manage a coup, or even came close, most of our citizens would demand that we invoke the NATO treaty and call in the U. S. Marines. A sensible move.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image