Chrétien Visits Cuba

There was not much time during Jean Chrétien's dash-in, dash-out visit to Cuba to get a long look at the physical and spiritual rubble of Fidel Castro's revolution.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 11, 1998

There was not much time during Jean Chrétien's dash-in, dash-out visit to Cuba to get a long look at the physical and spiritual rubble of Fidel Castro's revolution.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 11, 1998

Chrétien Visits Cuba

There was not much time during Jean Chrétien's dash-in, dash-out visit to Cuba to get a long look at the physical and spiritual rubble of Fidel Castro's revolution. Havana is crumbling into Sarajevo-like destruction, though its cityscape of gorgeous colonial and Art Deco buildings suffers from neglect rather than bombardment. While some of Old Havana's beautiful columns and villas are being restored for the tourist trade, the rest of the city decays and collapses. Electricity and water supply are sporadic. Any man with American dollars to spend is accosted by an army of prostitutes, desperate for money in a society where a doctor's pay tops out at $50 a month. After its 1959 revolution, Cuba became a one-industry economy. Its cash crop: supporting the Soviet Union's foreign machinations. The end of the Cold War effectively put Cuba out of business, and the aftermath is the misery so tragically visible on Havana's rutted streets.

If Castro is disillusioned that his utopian dream has sunk to these depths, he hides it well. His speech welcoming Chrétien on the tarmac outside a new Canadian-built airport terminal was a throwback to the days of Cold War tantrums, reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations. Castro called the 38-year-long U.S. economic blockade of his island "genocide," and argued that American leaders should be "taken before an international court to stand trial as war criminals." But Castro does not get many visiting prime ministers these days - there had not been a Western leader in Havana for 12 years. So he fawned over Chrétien, calling him a "man of peace, of irrevocable talent who understands the problems of Latin America." Canada, suggested Castro enigmatically as Chrétien's plane prepared to take off for home after the 41-hour visit, could be "the system of the future."

Few observers really expect the 71-year-old Castro to renounce his lifelong political beliefs and set Cuba free. He sees himself as the guardian of his revolution's ideals, although Chrétien maintained, in an interview with Maclean's after returning to Ottawa last week, that Castro "is changing." But progress, said the Prime Minister, must be measured "one step at a time." In that regard, Chrétien's working visit produced marginal gains: a Canadian insurance company received $13-million compensation for Cuban assets confiscated after the revolution, and the leaders agreed on modest exchange programs in health, sports and audiovisual productions.

The real shift Cuba-watchers want to see is Castro relaxing his intolerance towards political dissent. Chrétien was criticized at home for not making a more forceful public appeal for human rights upon arrival when he was given the extraordinary opportunity to speak to Cubans on live television. But the Prime Minister insisted that he was aggressive on the subject during private meetings with Castro. "You get absolutely nowhere if you go down and try to tell them what to do," explained one senior Canadian official.

But private bull sessions with Castro usually require the visitor to listen rather than talk. So instead of allowing the Cuban president to launch into one of his legendary monologues, Chrétien said he jumped in as soon as the first meeting began, demanding Castro release political prisoners. Chrétien slipped a card to Castro with the names of four prominent dissidents now in Cuban jails. "You're getting to the toughest issues first," said the Cuban president, who was taken aback by the Prime Minister's assertiveness, according to Canadian officials. "We only have so much time," Chrétien replied. Castro was noncommittal on the fate of the four jailed Cubans, but he kept the card with the names on a table in front of him throughout the meeting. "I know these people," was his only direct remark on their cases. The Canadian analysis of whether Chrétien's intervention will bear results was a simple "wait and see."

But Chrétien's private pitch seemed to satisfy U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had urged the Prime Minister beforehand to raise the question of human rights with Castro. As long as Chrétien did so, said Clinton, then the Canadian approach of meeting with Castro "could serve our common goal." Clinton's refusal to criticize the Chrétien visit reflects the administration's own softening attitude towards Cuba in recent weeks, and Canadian officials had received indications from White House officials - though no surefire promises - that Chrétien's trip would not arouse Washington's ire. "We felt we could easily manage the slight negative consequences of the visit," said Raymond Chrétien, Canada's ambassador to Washington and the Prime Minister's nephew.

Canadian officials also forcefully denied Ottawa has been asked to play an intermediary role between Castro and Clinton. "Did the Americans encourage us to make this trip? No," Ambassador Chrétien told Maclean's. "But the American business community is starting to put a lot of pressure on Washington to ease the sanctions. Castro is still seen as the devil, but he is the devil of a war that no longer exists. And the Republican majority in Congress is not only silent now, but they are being pushed to make a move by their own constituency of businessmen." The Prime Minister and Clinton spoke by phone at week's end, and agreed to discuss Cuba when they meet in Birmingham, England, at the G-7 summit of industrialized countries this month.

In that encouraging atmosphere, the Havana visit was a perfect foreign policy stroke for a Canadian leader who beams whenever he is given a chance to show independence from Washington. Liberal advisers say their successful stewardship of the global land mines treaty last year made it clear to them that they could find a niche in foreign affairs that pays political benefits at home. Not only was the land mines treaty popular with Canadians, it was treated with a rare lack of cynicism by the Ottawa press corps. So when the American Congress refused last year to give Clinton authority to negotiate a wider free trade deal in the western hemisphere, Chrétien saw an opportunity to assume a leadership role. At a summit in Santiago, Chile, last month, Canada agreed to chair the first round of negotiations aimed at forging a trade pact throughout the Americas.

Reintegrating Cuba into what Chrétien has taken to calling una gran familia of countries was an obvious follow-up, a piece of outstanding hemispheric housekeeping left over from the Cold War. Chrétien said he felt he was well placed to convince Castro that capitalism does not have to descend into dog-eat-dog savagery. Like others of his generation, he had been an early admirer of Castro in the late 1950s. "He was a very popular person, a young man taking on the Batista regime," the Prime Minister recalled last week after returning from Havana. Castro was a romantic figure then - "He had been in jail, he had risked his life, he wanted to change society," said Chrétien. "At that time, I was fighting the Duplessis regime [in Quebec], so, as a student, he was a star for a lot of us."

That star fizzled in the West as Castro's revolution aged along with him, and the reality of Cuban life fell far short of the revolutionary ideals. "He still wants to use communism; I don't believe in it, it's been proven it doesn't work, and I told him that," said Chrétien. But while the two men are very different politicians - Castro the self-styled visionary, an ideologue wedded to discredited ideas; Chrétien the pragmatist willing to reject vision in favor of whatever works - last week's encounter was not without common ground. "I'm a practical politician - that doesn't mean I don't have goals, that I don't want to have social justice," said Chrétien. "I'm just not doctrinaire on the means. My view is we have to have growth in the world so there will be more money for governments to give to people who are suffering in society. I'm not in politics to make the rich richer. Castro wants the same thing. He has a different technique."

That sense of common purpose colored the more freewheeling discussion between the two leaders over dinner. Typically for Castro, the meal was called for a later hour than the early-to-bed Chrétien is accustomed to. In a brightly lit dining room, the two gathered with just a handful of aides at 9 o'clock for drinks before dinner. The banter over wine and rum-based mojitos was friendly and animated, chatter ranging from the environment to the situation facing Canada's native peoples. "Castro was very much interested in picking the PM's brains about the world that was out there that Cuba is not a part of," said one official who was at the dinner.

But Chrétien had a more focused discussion in mind for the conversation over rock lobster and turkey: how countries can adapt to the forces of globalization. "Castro is convinced that globalization is a zero-sum game, in which the people suffer and a few neoliberals get rich," said one of the Canadian officials at the dinner. "The Prime Minister has confidence about the future, and made the case that it's not all bad news."

The key phrase for Chrétien, one he kept coming back to, was the need to adapt to change. The choice of words was important since Castro does not accept the premise that planned economies must manage a transition to capitalism. In Castro's mind, "transition" conjures visions of the criminal chaos that befell the countries of the Soviet Union, and the slogan "No to transition" is splashed in paint on Havana's cracked brickwork. But Castro seemed less hostile to the term "adapt," and Chrétien argued that Canada was an example of a prosperous liberal democracy in which disparities of wealth are not so great.

"That's why it's very important that he said Canada was a model for the future," said Chrétien once back in Ottawa. "I'm surprised the president picked it up." Castro's musings about the Canadian system may have been little more than mischief from a man who remains appalled by the social casualties of capitalism, and who famously declared, "history will absolve me." But offering Castro another perspective on the world outside his island can hardly hurt, a modest contribution from a pragmatist who may have given the ideologue something to consider.

"I think he is changing"

The day after returning from his historic visit to Havana, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sat down with Maclean's Ottawa Editor Bruce Wallace and reflected on his meetings with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Maclean's: What went through your mind on the tarmac when Castro denounced the United States so harshly?

Chrétien: I was not very happy because the words were too strong. I told him that. It was a very tough speech. But I wasn't warned that he would use the occasion to make what, for Cuba, is a normal speech.

Maclean's: Why not respond?

Chrétien: Because I was satisfied that I was raising all the points I wanted to raise. What was important was to tell everybody there that change is coming and you'll have to adjust. He was in the past. I was in the present and the future.

Maclean's: When you learned your speech would be carried live on Cuban TV, why did you not use the opportunity, as the Pope did, to make a strong pitch for democracy directly to the Cuban people?

Chrétien: I made a strong speech. I was telling him: "Sir, adjust to the new reality." If you think that is mild, fine. I thought it was very clear, but it was done in a civilized way.

Maclean's: Do you really expect Castro to change? Or are we simply laying groundwork for a post-Castro Cuba?

Chrétien: I think he is changing. The fact that my speech was on the air is a big change; the fact that I met the Cardinal in public. But if people naïvely thought I would go there and train the leader of the opposition, it was too high an expectation. One step at a time.

Maclean's: So change is possible while Castro is in power?

Chrétien: Probably, yes. For some people it will never be enough. But if you do nothing, there will be an embargo that remains, and Castro and [U.S. Senator Jesse] Helms will make the same speeches. And who pays the price? The poor people in Cuba, the cousins of those people who are living in Miami and New Jersey. Give them a break. The boycott has not resolved anything.

Maclean's: How did he react when you raised the issue of political prisoners?

Chrétien: It was tough, the first 20 minutes. He was shocked. He does not accept the words "political prisoners." He says: "They are prisoners. Don't you have prisoners in Canada?" I had to say yes. But how many are political prisoners? He said they are condemned under the laws of the country. I said: "Yeah, but I have a good case on some of them because they have not been tried." He said: "Have you never had somebody in jail in Canada who has not had a trial for six months?" And I know that we have that once in a while. He told me the Pope gave him a list [of political prisoners] and a lot of the people on that list were not in jail any more and some were dead.

Maclean's: Did the success of the land-mines treaty affect how you see Canada's role in international affairs?

Chrétien: Oh yes. And I said he should sign [the treaty]. He said: "I cannot. I have an American base on my ground." He feels terrorized by the Americans. He's afraid that he will get it.

Maclean's: But is that realistic?

Chrétien: Well, he knew I had an attempt on my life. He said: "You're lucky to have had only one."

Maclean's May 11, 1998