Canada’s place in the new Cuba

Will the U.S. crowd out Canada?
By: /
February 13, 2015
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During one of his last official meetings as Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, John Baird praised renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, as he met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade in Boston days before announcing his resignation earlier this month.

“We want to acknowledge the truly historic change in American policy, with respect to Cuba,” Baird said. “We are a country that believes that the more Americans — American values, American capitalism — that permeate Cuba, the freer the Cuban people will be.”

While the historic shift has been praised since its announcement on Dec. 17, Baird’s implication that “the more Americans the better” in Cuba is certainly not shared by all, not in the least all Canadians nor Canadian businesses which have enjoyed a long history of friendly relations with the island nation.

At a recent panel hosted by the Canadian Council for the Americas (CCA) in Toronto, dozens, primarily in the business community, came out to discuss the “new Cuban equation” and where Canada would now fit in. Although the larger impact will be gradual and many details have yet to be agreed upon, U.S. President Barack Obama announced in January new rules that will make travel easier between the U.S. and Cuba — leaving Canadians and the many other foreign partners already invested in Cuba to wonder what the future holds. Here’s what we know for sure.

December 17 was truly historic.

The Cuban narrative has a new milestone, and many are already referring to life before and after “17-D.” At the recent Toronto panel, CCA president Kenneth Frankel said the event “would be hard to categorize… as anything less than monumental.” Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba expert and senior analyst with the Washington-based National Security Archive, was in Havana that morning when it was first reported U.S. contractor Alan Gross would be released from prison and returned to the U.S., and the remaining three of the Cuban 5 would likewise return to Cuba. “It was truly an electrifying moment,” Kornbluh said, recalling when both presidents gave televised speeches. “There was also a tremendous sense of appreciation that started to set in thereafter that there was going to be a change finally in the relations with the U.S. and that change could bring down the line a much better economic situation for everybody.” To put it in a historical perspective, Kornbluh detailed past unsuccessful normalization efforts lead by presidents and advisors from John F. Kennedy to Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “It ends with Barack Obama however to be the first official to do this.”

The change impacts the entire hemisphere.

With past friction between Cuban allies and non-allies in the hemisphere, the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. has “the potential for the reconfiguring across all lines,” says Frankel. Most recently that tension arose over the decision to invite Cuba to the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama in April of this year. At the last summit, in Colombia in 2012, leaders were “seriously divided” over Cuba, with Canada and the U.S. blocking the country’s invitation to the 2015 summit, despite the rest of the region’s insistence. Now, all that has changed: “The presidents will be together again for the first time since the Cuban revolution took place. The U.S. President and Cuban President will sit down…and have the ability not only to regionally discuss the issues that they are both part of in the Western hemisphere and the American continent but also take a side detour go into the gardens, smoke a Cohiba Lancero [cigar] together,” Kornbluh said. And with that, a new regional dynamic is born.

A wave of Americans and American products will not flood the country (at least, not yet).

While a group of U.S. senators this week introduced a bill to end the trade embargo — considered to be the biggest remaining obstacle to improved ties — resuming trade relations does not mean Cuba will suddenly be bombarded by U.S. products. “The Americans…will discover that Cuba is not an empty vessel just to be filled up as desired but it is in fact a bustling, already crowding space of people,” says Mark Entwistle, who served as a Canada’s ambassador to Cuba in the 1990s and was also a panelist at the CCA event. “Those outside Cuba who assume we are on an inextricable path to repeat the past, that the power and volume of eventual U.S. capital will inevitably create renewed economic dominance and eventually push out foreign business partnerships — I personally do not share that view.” Entwistle also remarked that Cuba’s history of colonial powers and dominance has left a deeply engrained mark on the country: “Such dependence is not healthy for the country so that lesson is quite deeply engrained in the Cuban psyche,” he said. But while economic exchange may happen slowly, the new travel rules are expected to make a fairly immediate difference. Cuban economic Juan Triana Cordovi noted that 2014 saw no more than 90,000 U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, while the country may see upwards of half a million in 2015. “Too much,” he said.

Canadians do have an advantage — if cards are played right.

Canada has decades of a head’s start over the U.S. in Cuba. From involvement in the Cuban railway, to the sugar and insurance industries, to the waves of religious groups and tourists, Canadians have been making their mark there for years. “This is an asset for Canada, it’s a comparative commercial advantage frankly,” Entwistle said. But he warned there is a myth that this history “would somehow engender a special influence with the Cuban government… I’ve learned it does not give Canada a free ride in Cuba. Privileged relationships with privileged access and dialogue must be earned and it must be renewed,” he warned. Eric Miller, with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, echoed Entwistle’s advice recently in the National Post: “The changes that will unfold in Cuba over the next five to 10 years offer great opportunities for Canada. Yet, the new era requires new responses. If Canada does not take the initiative, its interests will be eroded,” he wrote.