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Chretien shakes hands with Castro

Castro and Chretiens
Castro makes a remark to Chretien's wife Aline  

Canadian leader begins whirlwind Cuban visit

April 26, 1998
Web posted at: 9:06 p.m. EDT (0106 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) -- Defying the U.S. policy of keeping Cuba diplomatically isolated, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien arrived in the communist island nation Sunday evening for a historic meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"The winds of change are blowing through our hemisphere and indeed around the world, and we must all adapt," Chretien said after being greeted by Castro at Jose Marti International Airport.

His journey marks the first time in 22 years that a Canadian leader has visited Cuba and is the first visit by the head of a Western government since Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's trip in 1986.

Chretien said his first trip to Cuba was "long overdue," and he defended his country's policy of engaging, rather than isolating, the Castro regime.

Canadian Prime Minister Chretien and Fidel Castro
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CNN's Susan Candiotti discusses Chretien's visit to Cuba
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"Through good times and bad, our two countries have always chosen dialogue over confrontation, engagement over isolation, exchange over estrangement. And we have always done this in an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other's independence and sovereignty," Chretien said. "I'm proud of that example to the world."

The United States, a key Canadian ally and trading partner, reacted coolly to Chretien's overture toward Castro. But Sunday, Mack McLarty, President Clinton's special envoy to Latin America, stopped short of outright criticism of the Canadian leader.

"His travel schedule is his own decision," McLarty said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We, obviously, take a different approach."

Chretien cuts a ribbon
Chretien officially opens the new terminal at Jose Marti International Airport that Canada funded  

Cuba, Canada have forged economic ties

Chretien is scheduled to be in Cuba for only 30 hours, but the aftershocks of his talks with Castro and other Cuban leaders may be felt for years. What makes this trip one to be watched by politicians, Cuban dissidents and business leaders from around the world is what Canada represents to Cuba -- money.

The economic importance of Canada to Cuba was in evidence at Chretien's arrival at Marti airport, where he disembarked at a new terminal built with Canadian capital.

Canada and Mexico -- both partners with the United States in the North American Free Trade Agreement -- are the only countries in North and South America that never broke off relations with Cuba after its communist revolution in 1959.

Today, Canada is a leading investor in Cuba, one of the world's poorest nations. It sends more tourists to Cuba's beaches than any other nation.

Since 1994, it has sent some 12.5 million Canadian dollars to Cuba, as well as helping with programs aimed at getting Cuba to adopt market-style economic reforms.

"The Canadian trip will remind American business people about what could be done in Cuba, if there were no embargo," said John Kavulich, president of the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York.

Sheritt International, a Canadian company, is the most prominent non-Cuban company operating on the island, with stakes in nickel mining, farming, cellular telephones and tourism.

Under a U.S. law known as the Helms-Burton Act, Sheritt's executives have been barred from entering the United States, because the company uses mines that were owned by U.S. entities until Castro seized them when he came to power in 1959.

Castro and Chretien
Castro greets Chretien as he arrives in Cuba  

Chretien: Human rights issue to be raised

Canada's prime minister likely will save the thorniest issues on his agenda for his private talks with Castro.

"Of course we will raise the question of human rights and political rights," Chretien told reporters Sunday before leaving Canada. "Isolation leads nowhere. But if we are engaging them, discussing with them, offering help ... the people of Cuba and the president of Cuba will certainly be happy to have a dialogue."

"He's on a tightrope and has to handle this visit very delicately," one Western diplomat in Havana said. "He doesn't want to offend his host too much just as he's trying to show the world that dialogue with Castro is best. But neither can he appear to have sold out on the democracy issues."

Chretien is also scheduled to meet Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, which is gradually emerging as an alternative public voice on the island.

The last Canadian prime minister to visit Cuba was Pierre Trudeau in 1976. Trudeau angered many anti-Communists worldwide by snorkeling with his host and at one point reportedly yelling "Viva Castro!"

Pope and Castro
Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba  

Other countries also warm to Castro

Canada isn't the only country warming its ties to Castro. On Sunday, Spain dispatched a new ambassador to Havana for the first time in 18 months, ending a standoff caused by Cuba's rejection of the last ambassador.

The Dominican Republic this month also renewed full diplomatic relations. And in recent weeks, diplomats or large business delegations from Spain, Japan, France, Ukraine, Mozambique and Lebanon have ventured to Cuba.

Foreign ministers from Mexico and Brazil are to visit the Caribbean nation in the near future, and several countries are pressing for Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of American States.

And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Commission refused to condemn Cuba's human rights record for the first time since 1991.

U.S. businesses look to future

While the U.S. government is standing firm in its policy of isolation, U.S. business leaders are already looking toward the future and predicting change.

Kavulich estimates that close to 3,000 U.S. business leaders will travel to Havana this year, compared with 500 in 1994.

Last month, representatives from several major oil and pharmaceuticals companies -- including Mobil, Texaco and Bristol-Myers Squib -- stopped over in Havana for a day and met with Castro.

About 130 firms have expressed interest in taking part in a proposed trade show in Cuba next year. If approved by the U.S. government, the trade show will be the first one for the United States in Cuba since 1959.

"Since 1994, the (Clinton) administration has implemented a strategy of incremental openings focusing on the business community," Kavulich said. "That's the way I expect the administration to continue, with a lot of small changes."

Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.


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