Meeting Castro: Harper fails history, feigns support for democracy

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Stephen Harper met Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City last weekend. Officials called it a "pull aside" to signify it was not a formal sit-down meeting, but the prime minister still described it as "a long and detailed" conversation.

If Stephen Harper has gotten his way, Cuba would still be uninvited to the regular get-togethers of heads of government, held under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS).

In 2012, both Canada and the United States opposed Cuba attending the 2015 summit. Then U.S. President Obama decided to move to normalize relations with the country's neighbour, and Cuba got its first invitation to attend an OAS meeting.

The more famous Fidel is a difficult act to follow, but Raúl Castro did his best brotherly imitation, taking one hour to present the history of Latin-American resistance to American imperialism.

The story of how in the late 19th century, José Marti, delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, fought for the independence of his country and warned about attempts of the U.S. to dominate not just Cuba, but all of the Americas deserves to be better known in Canada. Stephen Harper should have been taking notes.

Annoyingly, the Canadian prime minister seemed not to know his own country's history of relations with Cuba. Harper described his Cuban policy as based on recognition this was the time to engage with Cuba, not leave it isolated.

Harper could have been reading from American talking points.

Engagement is the word the U.S. authorities were using to explain the decision by the U.S. president to meet with his Cuban counterpart after years of boycott following the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Engagement with Cuba is precisely what Canada decided to do decades ago, as generations of Canadian tourists to the Pearl of the Caribbean can attest.

Canadians make up more than 40 per cent of all tourist visitors to Cuba. In 1976, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau became the first Western leader to visit the island since 1960.

While the U.S. imposed its 56-year embargo of the island, Canada continued to carry on normal commercial and diplomatic relations (along with Mexico, the only countries in the Western hemisphere to do so).

Amazingly for anyone following Harper Conservative policies, the prime minister decided to use his time with the Cuban leader to lecture him on democracy. According to the Canadian Press report, Harper, the instigator of unfair elections legislation and the perpetrator of electoral wrongdoing, wanted Castro to know all about the importance of free elections.

The prime minister, a foremost opponent of trade unionism, even insisted on mentioning freedom of association.

While U.S. President Obama was pointedly referring to the Cold War being over, Stephen Harper is building a memorial to anti-communism.

Anti-communism is as strong an ideology as the one it purports to detest, and has as many failings. Former Nation editor Victor Navasky has written an essay describing ills the anti-communist ideology inflicted on the U.S. These include demonizing public health care, fostering the secretive CIA, promoting the arms race, neglecting class analysis, and chasing China experts from the government, leading to misunderstanding Vietnam, invading it, and losing the subsequent war.

Despite the Harper Conservative misgivings about Cuba the communist state, Ottawa was the site of secret talks between the Cuban government and the Obama administration that led to the U.S. diplomatic shift. The potential gains for Cuba of an eventual end to the U.S. embargo are not going to blind the island leadership to the dangers inherent in U.S. domination of its economy.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, an association of 33 states, was created in Caracas, Venezuela in 2011. Like the U.S., Canada was left outside. The new grouping is designed to respond to American hegemony through greater regional co-operation in building a new world order.

Canadians need to pay attention to what is being said by Cuba about sovereignty over natural resources, and other conditions it wishes to see as part of normalizing its relationship with the U.S. Rather than lecturing Cuba, Canada should be thinking about how to build new relationships with a Latin America determined to create a zone of peace in the world.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: OEA - OAS/flickr

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