Was Canada's Cuba Visit Designed to Irk the US?

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy is happy to sup with Fidel Castro Ruz to promote Cuban human rights, even if it irritates the United States. And, some suggest, he's even happier to do so precisely because it does.

Polls show Canadians savor those moments when their government tweaks its superpower neighbor. Such a moment came last week with indignant US officials criticizing Mr. Axworthy's visit - a humanitarian mission that dovetailed nicely with domestic politics in this Canadian election year, analysts say.

"What better way to show the Canadian electorate how independent you are on foreign policy than to snub the US over Cuba?" says Bruce Campbell, publisher of the Canadian Political Observer, an Ottawa-based newsletter.

For Canada, trade with Cuba has long been a key area of differentiation from US policy. While the US last year strengthened its embargo of Cuba, Canada expanded trade ties to become Cuba's largest trading partner.

In 1976, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited Mr. Castro, irking the US but shoring up public opinion at home. Cuba has once again become a hot button for Canadians since the US last year adopted the Helms-Burton law, which aims to punish in US courts foreign companies doing business with Cuba.

Playing politics?

Whether Axworthy's trip was designed to irk US officials is unknown. In an interview last week after his return, Axworthy acknowledged that the trip and the negative American reaction to it "may play well with Canadians."

But he stoutly denies domestic politics were the motive behind his two-day visit to Cuba, the first in more than 20 years by a top Canadian official. Instead, he says, his was "a window" by which Canada hopes to achieve more freedoms for Cubans.

"We never said that we would agree to go along with the US strategy [on Cuba]," he told a group of reporters last week after his return. "We said, 'We have our own way of doing it.' "

Most Canadian analysts doubt if Axworthy had to go to Cuba personally to bring home the mildly worded set of agreements to discuss rights issues. But that sort of high-profile visit virtually guaranteed a reaction from North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, cosponsor of the Helms-Burton law.

Pushing US hot buttons

As it turned out, there was a bonus reaction from US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, who said Axworthy's high-level visit would "reward a dictator." Senator Helms echoed a comment he made last year that Canada's policy was "appeasement" of the sort Neville Chamberlain, then prime minister of England, showed Adolf Hitler.

Any comment by Helms attacking Canada is guaranteed air-time on Canadian TV and has the effect of making Canadians proud of their independence - causing them to rally to the government.

This is a lesson Prime Minister Jean Chretien learned well in 1993, when he promised Canadian voters his government would keep its distance from the US. Mr. Chretien won that election.

Showing off foreign policy differences may work well domestically, but it can be overplayed, analysts warn. Yet both countries know the rhetorical and other diplomatic boundaries that must not be crossed to retain warm relations. And warm is how both Chretien and President Clinton want US-Canada ties to remain in anticipation of Chretien's visit to Washington, expected this spring.

Just as quickly as the temperatures began rising at the State Department last week, the fires were quenched. Within hours of his first heated statement, Mr. Burns downplayed his own comments. On Thursday, Mr. Clinton set the official tone by welcoming Canada's overture if it would help human rights in Cuba - but expressing deep skepticism that anything would change.

"The US understands the need every government in Canada will have to show that it has a foreign policy that is able to stand on its own feet - but there are limits," says Charles Doran, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Axworthy says the trip wasn't about politics - it was about reaching out to Cuba and helping its people. And even though Castro heaped praises on Canada "for talking to us," Axworthy says he is not optimistic about any immediate breakthrough on human rights. "I'm not having any Pollyanna hopes," he says. "I'm not going to take [our agreements] at face value. We'll see how it works out. If the results are good, we'll take it step by step."

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