Dark days for Canada-Cuba relations

There has been a long friendship between Ottawa and Havana. But, as Lana Wylie writes, a perfect storm has been brewing to reverse decades of cooperative trade, travel and politics.

By: /
June 13, 2019
A view of the seafront in Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Following the election of Justin Trudeau, many expected that Canada’s relationship with Cuba would improve. After a decade of relatively reticent engagement under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the election of a Liberal prime minister with deep family ties to Cuba was seen as a bellwether for the relationship. Observers anticipated that Canadian officials would once again be seen as promoting stronger ties between the two countries. Despite photo opportunities showing country representatives together — as recently as this month — a stronger partnership has not come to pass.

Although Canada maintains a relationship with Cuba, the connection has waned over the past few years. In particular, three recent developments have marred the relationship: the Venezuelan crisis and Canada’s view of Cuba’s role in that crisis; the unusual health symptoms experienced by diplomats in Cuba and the resulting disarray at Canada’s embassy in Havana; and the US decision not to suspend Title III of the Helms-Burton Act.

All three issues are disrupting what has long been an important and symbolic friendship between Canada and Cuba.

Part 1: The Venezuela factor

Long before millions of Canadians began flocking to Cuba’s beaches, Canada and Cuba had a constructive relationship. When measured against this history, the recent downturn in relations is especially surprising. Following the 1959 revolution, Ottawa resisted Washington’s pressure to contribute to the isolation of Cuba’s new government. The reasons why Canada continued to conduct normal relations with Cuba throughout the Cold War have been well trod in the literature but generally focus on the economic benefits for Canada, and the political and ideological identity of Canada in relation to the US.

The new Cuban government also had good reasons for maintaining close ties with Canada. As Cuban scholar Raul Rodriguez explained in his 2008 article in the International Journal of Canadian Studies, “The Cuban government that emerged from the 1959 revolution tried to preserve and expand its links with Canada, since Canada’s export-oriented economy was in a unique position to at least partially fill the void that the sudden suspension of trade with the United States created in terms of commercial exchange.”

In the early period, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s decision to take an independent position on Cuba was influenced by US President John F. Kennedy’s attempt to pressure Canada to follow the American lead during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As such, Canada’s Cuba policy became an important marker of Canadian sovereignty and independence from the United States. Of all the states in the hemisphere, only Mexico and Canada did not succumb to American pressure during the crisis.

Canada’s policy of maintaining a normal relationship with Cuba continued throughout the Cold War. Regardless of the political party in power in Ottawa, Canada did not bow to American pressure to isolate Cuba. In fact, at times Canadian-Cuban relations were quite close. For instance, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau visited Cuba and developed a close relationship with Fidel Castro in the midst of the Cold War, as best explained in Robert Wright’s 2007 book, Three Nights in Havana.

At other times, the relationship was more distant and formal. Harper’s policy often vacillated between criticizing or ignoring Cuba. His government routinely disparaged Cuba even as US-Cuban relations began to thaw in 2014 and despite the fact that Canadian mediation helped to facilitate that very thaw.

In response to the US-Cuba normalization process, the then-prime minister reflected, “Although we have some tainted democracies in the hemisphere, this is really the only place where there are elections that are completely non-competitive.” Harper further criticized Cuba when he stated Cuba was “an economy and a society just overdue for entering into the twenty-first century.”

Thus, the presence of the once dynamic Canadian embassy in Havana faded into the background under the Harper government.

Scholars of the relationship and Cubans attuned to Canada’s presence on the island have not noticed much difference between the Harper and Trudeau governments, even though Trudeau did make a state visit to Cuba in November 2016, where he met with President Raul Castro and discussed trade, development assistance, food security, gender equality and climate change. The visit, largely regarded as a success by both Canadians and Cubans, was quickly overshadowed by the death of Fidel Castro, a mere 10 days later. Trudeau’s response to the death of Castro stirred controversy, with the prime minister calling Castro “a legendary revolutionary and orator,” and someone who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”

Many in the Canadian and American media and in the opposition parties harshly criticized this statement, and the resulting uproar likely created some reticence in the Trudeau government to appear overtly sympathetic to the Cuban government going forward.

But relations are never that simple. Although Canada has historically prided itself on its independent stance on Cuba, Canada’s relationship with Cuba has always had to carefully weigh the US factor. Canada’s ability to navigate between Cuba and the US has been further complicated by US President Donald Trump’s increasingly hostile relationship with Cuba.

Trump Cuba policy
People play chess as US President Donald Trump is seen on television, in Havana, June 16, 2017. REUTERS

Trump has filled senior posts within his administration with individuals who have a long history of anti-Cuban views. After Trump hired John Bolton as his national security adviser, relations between the US and Cuba continued to worsen. Bolton has long been intensely critical of Cuba and opposes any normalization. Bolton’s approach to Cuba has been reinforced with the appointment of people like Mauricio Claver-Carone to high level positions. Claver-Carone, a Cuban-American lobbyist well known for his antagonistic position on Cuba, is now the senior director for Latin America on the National Security Council.

Most significantly, Trump has made a series of changes to US-Cuba policy that are reversing the process of normalization. In June 2017 the US government placed restrictions on Americans conducting business with any Cuban entity that is controlled by the Cuban military, and placed more restrictions on individual travel to Cuba. Trump has continued to tighten the embargo ever since. Just last week, Trump further restricted individual travel to Cuba, most significantly ending cruise ship visits to the island.

Trump’s antagonism toward Cuba is not only restricted to the bilateral relationship. He has made additional policy reversals including implementing Title III of the Helms-Burton Act in the spring of 2019, which directly targets foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Furthermore, the US has largely resurrected the Cold War narrative that accuses Cuba of fermenting instability in the hemisphere.

But how Canada has positioned itself vis-a-vis the most dangerous charge the US has levelled at Cuba — accusing it of directing events in Venezuela — is emblematic of the new direction in the Canadian-Cuban relationship.

The speeches from the White House have become bellicose, taking the rhetoric back at least 40 years, accusing Cuba of instigating instability in Latin America. The focal point of these accusations is the US-Venezuela relationship, which became increasingly tense after Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999. In 2015, President Barack Obama implemented sanctions against the country after declaring Venezuela a security threat. However, the Trump administration has taken an even more aggressive stance toward Venezuela, imposing further sanctions, recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president (which Canada and other Latin American states have done as well), withdrawing US diplomats from the country, and dramatically increasing the threatening rhetoric. In February, Trump declared, “We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open.”

Senior American officials including Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Bolton have positioned Cuba as directing events in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In an April 2019 speech about US policy toward Venezuela, Pence stated, “Cuba’s leaders are the real imperialists in the Western Hemisphere. The truth has to be told. For decades, Cuba has tried to create client states across this region. While normal countries export goods, Cuba exports tyranny and strong-arm tactics. Cuba’s influence has driven Venezuela’s failure, and the time has come to liberate Venezuela from Cuba.” In a February speech Trump asserted, “Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot, he is a Cuban puppet.”

"The speeches from the White House have become bellicose, taking the rhetoric back at least 40 years."

Canada has also had a complicated relationship with Venezuela for over a decade. Harper’s relationship with Chavez was fraught with tension. In 2012, Sorbonne scholar Jean-Michel Lacroix explained in International Journal: “As with America’s policy toward Venezuela, so too is Canada’s characterized by ideological divergences, accompanied by a dose of realism founded upon commercial and economic self-interest.”

Under Trudeau, Canada opposes Maduro, Chavez’s successor, who has been leading the country since his mentor died in 2013. While criticisms of the recent Venezuelan elections that saw Maduro re-elected are not unfounded, the Maduro government has a solid base of support in the country and even amongst those who oppose his rule, a majority are against foreign interference to overthrow him. Canada’s response to this crisis has largely reflected the American stance. Canada has attempted to influence the internal politics of Venezuela through sanctions and through Ottawa’s leadership role in the Lima Group, a body that was formed by a selection of states in the hemisphere in 2017 to respond to the crisis.

In January, the Lima Group threw its support behind Guaidó, who declared himself interim president. But as Stephen Kimber and John Kirk wrote in The Globe and Mail, “given the crisis in Venezuela, this attempt at ‘democracy promotion,’ as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calls it, may seem admirable. But it has little to do with democracy, and more to do with installing a government more to our liking – and may lead to violence, or even civil war.”

Most surprisingly, given the history of Canadian independence vis-a-vis Cuba, Canada has echoed the American characterization of Cuba as being involved in Venezuelan politics. As such, Freeland said that Canada calls on Cuba “to allow the Venezuelan people what they have a right to, and what they deserve, which is for their constitution to be respected and for them to be able to have a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Freeland also said, “On various occasions, we’ve raised and explained the lack of autonomy of the Venezuelan regime… The interference of the Cuban regime in decision-making in Venezuela is extremely well-known.”


Canada’s stance on the Venezuela crisis has now created tension in Canada’s relationship with Cuba. Josefina Vidal, the ambassador of Cuba to Canada, responded to a CBC news report that characterized Cuba as directing events in Venezuela. She stated, “The assertion that thousands of Cubans would allegedly be inserted into the structures of the armed and security forces of Venezuela, holding the government of (legitimate) President Nicolás Maduro, is a scandalous slander… It is unfortunate that CBC News plays into the hands of the government of the United States.”

Despite the tension over Venezuela, both Havana and Ottawa claim that the two countries remain allies. “Cuba is a country with which Canada has a longstanding relationship … a relationship that includes tourism, and where there’s a relationship with many Canadian businesses, and Cuba is a country where we have a relationship that allows us to raise serious concerns,” Freeland told CBC News earlier this year.

Freeland in Cuba
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Havana, Cuba, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Likewise, in an interview with CBC in April, Cuba’s ambassador explained that Canada and Cuba disagree about Venezuela but essentially agree to disagree and “speak about our differences in a respectful way.”

In early May, Trudeau discussed cooperation with regards to the Venezuela crisis in a phone call with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and reaffirmed weeks later that Canada “has a very different view” on Cuba than the United States.

And, most recently, after a meeting with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Toronto on June 7, Freeland emphasized that “Cuba will have a role to play in resolving the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.”

Despite these assurances, given that Canada and the United States have adopted similar positions on the political struggle in Venezuela and seem, at times, to share an interpretation of Cuba’s role in the crisis, this issue will continue to present a serious challenge to the Canadian-Cuban relationship. (Notably, Rodriguez’s summary of the same June 7 meeting referred to his encouragement of Canada to support dialogue with government of Venezuela “based on the principles of international law.”)

But as those tensions continue, another situation that has pitted the United States, and Canada to a certain extent, against Cuba, are the symptoms that have been reported by diplomatic staff at both the Canadian and American embassies in Havana. While less politically charged than the Venezuela crisis, these health symptoms have undoubtably created more problems for the Canada-Cuba relationship than have the tensions over Venezuela.

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Part 2: Symptoms of unease

In late 2016 and into early 2017, American officials and other workers at the US embassy in Havana began to report that they had developed hearing impairments, vertigo, dizziness and other related symptoms often following incidents of hearing high pitched noises.

The American media speculated that the symptoms were caused by what became known as “sonic attacks.” After as many as 26 American personnel claimed to be suffering from these symptoms, Washington recalled over half of the Americans staffing the embassy and, blaming Cuba, expelled Cuban diplomats in Washington in retaliation.

At a news conference in late 2017, Trump said he believed Cuba was responsible for the “unusual attack.” In response to the ejection of their embassy officials, Cuba’s foreign minister claimed that the United States was not cooperating in the investigation and argued that the US decision to expel the diplomats was “unjustified.” The US government also implied that American citizens who decided to visit Cuba were in danger.

By the summer of 2017, the media began to report that some Canadian officials stationed in Havana were also experiencing these unusual health symptoms. At this point the Canadian government’s response was circumspect. It refrained from referring to the incidents as attacks and asserted that they were working with the Cuban government to find the cause.

After investigators were unable to determine what was causing the ongoing symptoms, in the spring of 2018, Global Affairs Canada decided to designate Havana as an unaccompanied post. Consequently, staff working at the embassy would no longer be able to bring their families with them and the families of the diplomats currently living Havana were moved back to Canada. This was a significant development since this designation is usually reserved for what are widely recognized to be dangerous locales such as Afghanistan and Libya.

Ottawa’s response was criticized as not going far enough by the afflicted diplomats and their families, who initiated legal action against the Canadian government for $28 million in early 2019. The 14 parties to the suit charge that “throughout the crisis, Canada downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoarded and concealed critical health and safety information, and gave false, misleading and incomplete information to diplomatic staff.”

Following the news of the lawsuit, on January 30, Global Affairs Canada announced it would half the number of staff posted to Havana, that an ambassador would remain and that some programs “may be adjusted.” The statement added that “there is no evidence that Canadian travellers to Cuba are at risk.”

Canadian embassy
Tourists riding in a vintage car pass in front of Canada's embassy in Havana, Cuba, May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The decision to downsize the diplomatic presence concerned Cuba. Following the initial decision to remove the families, the Cuban government said that it “respects the Canadian government’s decision but considers it lacking justification.” Vidal also responded, saying it would “have an impact on the relations.”

This significant reduction in staff is having a major impact on the day-to-day relationship and — as research on the relationship between everyday consular activities, diplomacy and the relationships between states points out — problems in this area can quickly turn into larger issues that influence the high politics of international relations.

Already, immigration and travel between the two countries has become more difficult. Since the decision to reduce the staff was implemented, it has become much more difficult for Cubans to obtain a visa to visit Canada. Cuban scholars attempting to attend an academic conference this spring were confounded by the dramatic difference in the level of difficulty and time required to have their visa processed. By their account, it was challenging for them to even get a first meeting to present their documents to the embassy and then were told that there would be a significant delay in the processing time. They were then urged to do the application online with a credit card. The staff at the Canadian embassy in Havana would be aware that this is difficult to do for Cubans since many Cubans do not have access to the internet or to a credit card and have to seek assistance from friends and colleagues outside Cuba in order to apply online.

Then, the embassy announced on May 8 that the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Office in Havana would be closed, effective immediately, meaning that anyone requiring a visa would need to travel to an application centre outside Cuba. This presents an impossible situation — effectively eliminating the possibility of Cuban travel to Canada. The closure of the immigration office is creating undue hardship for many people, including for family visits, reunifications, and cultural and educational exchange. Canadians and Cubans alike are upset by this development; protests against the closure of the immigration office have occurred in Canadian cities and in Havana in recent weeks.

"The closure of the immigration office is creating undue hardship for many people, including for family visits, reunifications, and cultural and educational exchange."

Although withdrawing much of the diplomatic staff is certainly a major decision with significant consequences for bilateral relations, it is important to note the distinction between the Canadian and American positions. The US quickly assumed the symptoms were the result of an “attack” and thereby dismissed other possible causes, such as environmental or psychological factors, and warned Americans against travel to the island. Canada did not make this leap and reassured Canadian visitors that they were not at risk. Likewise, while senior American officials, including the president, accused the Cuban government of wrongdoing, Canadian officials have not assigned blame to Cuba and emphasize instead that they are collaborating with Cuban officials in the investigation. Earlier this year, The Guardian cited a senior Canadian government official as saying Cuba has been cooperating from the beginning and that Cuban officials were as frustrated as Canadian officials.

Although the Canadian government has emphasized cooperation, the discourse in the American media and government circles is undoubtedly influencing how Canadians, especially those in the opposition party, are viewing the situation.

Indeed, some Canadian members of parliament have begun to echo the US rhetoric, seeking to place blame on the Cuban government. In January, Conservative Member of Parliament Steven Blaney asked: “Does the government consider the Cuban government to be responsible for the mystery illness and, if so, what punitive measures, if any, has it taken against the regime in retaliation?”

Cuba has also voiced concerns. Vidal in particular criticized Canada’s move to pull its staff: “This behavior favours those who in the United States use this issue to attack and denigrate Cuba. It is well known that some individuals with high-level positions within US foreign policy are trying very hard to create a climate of bilateral tension seeking to portray our country as a threat.”

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Part 3: The final straw — Title III and Canadian business in Cuba

With Venezuela and the “Havana Syndrome” case making US relations with Cuba more tense than they have in been in decades, Trump’s treatment of Cuba has impacted one of the strongest and sustained bonds between Canadians and Cubans — the business sector.

Not only has Trump reversed some of the elements of the normalization process negotiated by Obama and Raul Castro in 2014 but he has, in one very significant way, intensified the embargo more than any president before him.

In March, Trump did not follow his predecessors in suspending Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which allows for US citizens to sue companies that they claim traffic in confiscated property in Cuba. Title III aims to prevent companies from other countries from investing in businesses on the island. Since the law came into effect in 1996, all US presidents had suspended this section of the law since it would most certainly bring the United States into conflict with countries, most notably Canada and Spain, which have major investments on the island.

When Helms-Burton was created in 1996, the Canadian government reacted swiftly to counter the extraterritorial provisions under the Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act (FEMA). FEMA was amended in 1997 to specifically block the enforcement of judgments under Title III of Helms-Burton by allowing Canadians to countersue in order to recover the money awarded against them in the US court. The Government of Canada also opposed the provision through NAFTA’s dispute-resolution process.

In 1996, Canadian opposition to Helms-Burton was widespread. MPs from all Canadian parties spoke out against what they saw as an imposition on Canadian sovereignty. Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy said on PBS NewsHour in 1997 that “Helms-Burton is bad legislation.” Also, as the PBS segment revealed, Arthur Eggleton, then the minister for international trade, explained: “Helms-Burton is unacceptable because it flouts long established international legal practices for settling disputes between nations regarding claims by foreign investors who have had their property expropriated… By choosing to ignore them now, Helms-Burton sets a dangerous precedent.”

"Trump has, in one very significant way, intensified the embargo more than any president before him."

More conservative Canadians responded in a similar way. Speaking about Helms-Burton, Charlie Penson, a former Canadian Alliance MP, explained in 1996, “I make the point that the United States has every right to challenge Cuba and to put trade sanctions of a binational nature in place. However, it is simply not within the international parameters of good citizenship or international trade to take that outside its borders and apply it to countries such as Canada.”

The American ambassador to Canada at the time, James Blanchard, in his book, Behind the Embassy Door: Canada, Clinton and Quebec, recalled that in Canada, “Helms-Burton was a headline story in all the newspapers and TV reports, because it looked as though Canadian companies and their executives were being told what to do by the American government. It became a sovereignty issue.”

Chretien
Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, right, stands with former Cuban President Fidel Castro on April 28, 1998. REUTERS/Andy Clark REUTERS

Likewise, Canada sought recourse against the US in international law and by working with other states. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien also encouraged other national leaders to protest the law to then-US President Bill Clinton. Axworthy said that Canada’s opposition to the law was “the beginning of a chain reaction among other countries in developing a collective response.” Indeed, as it has since been characterized, “Canada launched an all-out diplomatic assault on the anti-Cuba law.” This combined pressure helped to secure the initial six-month waiver that blocked Americans from suing foreign business for compensation under American law.

Canada’s reaction to the 2019 US decision not to continue to suspend Title III echoes in some ways the initial response in 1996. Canada has registered its disappointment and sought international allies in its opposition. In April, Freeland stated:

Canada is deeply disappointed with today’s announcement. We will be reviewing all options in response to this U.S. decision. Since the U.S. announced in January it would review Title III, the Government of Canada has been regularly engaged with the U.S. government to raise our concerns about the possible negative consequences for Canadians—concerns that are long-standing and well known to our U.S. partners... I have been in contact with Canadian businesses to reaffirm we will fully defend the interests of Canadians conducting legitimate trade and investment with Cuba.”

She also issued a joint statement with EU officials Federica Mogherini and Cecilia Malmstrom that asserted:

The EU and Canada consider the extraterritorial application of unilateral Cuba-related measures contrary to international law. We are determined to work together to protect the interests of our companies in the context of the WTO and by banning the enforcement or recognition of foreign judgements based on Title III, both in the EU and Canada. Our respective laws allow any US claims to be followed by counter-claims in European and Canadian courts, actions.

On May 3, Freeland reiterated, “As stated in FEMA, no judgment issued under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act will be recognized or enforced in any manner in Canada. FEMA also allows Canadians to use Canadian courts to sue the person who has initiated an action under Helms-Burton.” This statement reflected Canada’s long-term position on trade with Cuba, that Canada “will always defend Canadians and Canadian businesses conducting legitimate trade and investment with Cuba.”

Despite the similarities with Canada’s response in 1996, the 2019 reaction is different in important ways. Most notably, the widespread indignation that was voiced by the various political parties in 1996 is missing in 2019. In contrast to 1996, there seems to be very little attention paid to this issue in Canada’s parliament at the moment. A search of openparliament.ca done in early June revealed that this issue had not yet been raised in parliament.

Canada’s response to Title III and the possible reasons for the milder reaction was well articulated in an opinion piece published in an April issue of The Globe and Mail. Authors Stephen Kimber and John Kirk asked, “why is Canada’s response so muted? Where is Canadian backbone today?” Kirk and Kimber attribute Trudeau’s recent muted reaction to the implications of what his father once called “sleeping with an elephant.”

“Under the mercurial, unpredictable Mr. Trump, that elephant is rampaging madly off in all manner of dangerous directions – from rewritten trade deals to unjustified tariffs to personal insults,” they wrote, advocating that “[i]t’s time for the Canadian government to dust off our legislation and show some backbone, forcefully rejecting this U.S. aggression toward Cuba – not to mention protecting our own national interests in the bargain.”

Others believe that Canada’s milder response is tied directly to the Venezuela mess. According to columnist Thomas Walkom, “[t]his time, Ottawa’s reaction has been more muted. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she is ‘deeply disappointed.’ Her problem, however, is that the U.S. is justifying its move as part of an effort to force regime change in Venezuela - an effort Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government endorses.”

Regardless of the reasons behind the lack of outrage, Canadian-Cuban relations will be harmed by the extraterritorial imposition of the US embargo on Canadian businesses. Even before the US decision to no longer suspend Title III, US policy toward Cuba had a financial impact on foreign companies doing business in Cuba.

In 2014 David Pathe, the CEO of Sherritt International, a Canadian based nickel mining company that is Canada’s biggest investor on the island, said “There’s always been this uncertainty around political risk in Cuba as a result of the Cuba-America relationship…” Sherritt’s stock price quite obviously fluctuates according to the degree of tension in Cuba’s relationship with the United States. As such, Sherritt’s stock price increased significantly after news of the 2014 normalization. According to the Financial Post, this “reaction was not surprising, as the Toronto-based miner has always had a ‘Cuban discount’ baked into its stock.”

Consequently, even though Sherritt is well insulated from Helms-Burton because it does not have any assets in the United States, it has already felt the impact of the increased hostility in American policy toward Cuba. The company’s shares have declined in value by more than 50 percent in the first half of 2019 as tensions between Washington and Havana have increased. These tensions are largely responsible for Cuba’s new economic crisis. The decline in oil imports from Venezuela, the American imposed cap on remittances, and the new restrictions on US travel have created major disruption in the Cuban economy, which has hurt the ability of the Cuban government to pay Sherritt and other companies.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce believes that the law will create problems for Canadian companies in the mining, tourism and financial sectors in particular since these companies in these areas are heavily invested in Cuba. The Canadian embassy in Cuba cautions, “We encourage Canadian companies and investors in Cuba to familiarize themselves with the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Canadians with business ties to Cuba should also conduct their own due diligence regarding legal risks, including seeking legal counsel to assess their particular situation, as appropriate.”

Moreover, Title III will most certainly make current and potential investors wary. Former Canadian Ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle explained further:

Extraterritoriality is effectively an attempt to off-load responsibility to third parties and internationalize what is and should be a bilateral issue between the United States and Cuba. …. A number of Canadian companies engaged in lawful and legitimate business in Cuba could be harmed by this decision in at least two ways: either as a target of a lawsuit with the business costs that implies, or increased challenges in arranging financing in capital markets wary of being trapped in expensive lawsuits no matter how potentially specious and dubious.

Thus, even if Canada’s FEMA legislation is successful in protecting Canadian businesses in Cuba, the enactment of Title III will have a serious impact on the willingness of Canadians to invest on the island or on others to conduct business with those Canadian companies.


These are dark days for one of the friendliest relationships Canada has had with a partner in the Americas. The crisis in Venezuela has the potential to wreak havoc on Canadian-Cuban relations since the US contention that Havana is directing events in Venezuela is supported by Canada. This charge is vehemently denied by Cuba and has led to an ever-escalating war of words between Havana and Washington. While the Cuban government has not directed its outrage at Canada, the fact that Canada sides with Washington on this issue could easily lead to hostility between Ottawa and Havana, further damaging an increasingly troubled relationship.

Both the Canadian and American embassies in Cuba are now operating with a skeleton staff after sending many of their people home, which is certainly creating issues for both relationships. While Canada is working more collaboratively with the Cubans to solve the issue of health concerns of diplomatic staff, the inflammatory rhetoric and hostility created by the US interpretation of the situation is spilling over and could potentially create further tension. The Canadian-Cuban relationship will continue to be strained until Canada has a fully functioning embassy in the country.

Lastly, the US decision to allow lawsuits against investors in Cuba to progress directly affects the Canadian-Cuban relationship. Even though Canada has a law to counter Title III, the threat of legal action will certainly cause Canadian businesses and other investors to hesitate before they get involved with a Cuban venture. This will have a direct and possibly long-lasting impact on the relationship.

Each of these situations are influencing the bonds that have traditionally characterized Canadian-Cuban relations. The connections formed between non-state actors in Canada and Cuba in arenas such as economics, education and tourism have been crucial to the development and maintenance of the relationship.

Yet, recent developments are undermining these same people-to-people connections and resulting trust that have long undergirded the relationship between the two countries, essentially transforming Canada’s relationship with Cuba into one that looks much more like that between Cuba and our neighbour to the south. Canada needs to ask itself if it really wants to become more like the US, especially a US led by Trump.

As Queen’s professor Karen Dubinsky recently remarked in the Toronto Star, bemoaning the state of affairs and emphasizing the sinking reputation of Canadians now in Cuba: “Don’t pack your Canadian flag T-shirt, visitors. There’s little to brag about here.”

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