The Canadians have it right on Cuba. During his visit last week to Havana, Canada's Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced a 14-point accord with the Cuban government that calls for stepped-up cooperation and engagement between the two countries.
Though it appears fundamentally at odds with American policy, this Canadian initiative could well advance United States interests in Cuba. The Clinton administration should try to find ways to take advantage of it.
Not a panacea
Canada's efforts, no matter how successful, probably won't bring democracy to Cuba or even significantly ease repression in that country. President Clinton and his advisers are right to be skeptical on this score. But short of military action, which is currently inconceivable, there is nothing the US or any other government can do to depose President Fidel Castro Ruz or induce him to make Cuban politics more democratic or humane. Neither the US policy of isolation nor the Canadian strategy of engagement will achieve these goals.
What the international community can and should do is help set the stage for a quick and peaceful transition to a democratic government and a market-based economy in a post-Fidel Cuba - and, to the extent possible, reduce the hardships of the Cuban people until that transition takes place.
As the experience of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe made clear, political and economic transitions are always traumatic and often violent, as old institutions, relationships, and ways of doing business are destroyed and new ones constructed from scratch.
There is another lesson to be gained from the former Soviet bloc: Change in those countries that had developed strong prior relations with the US and Western Europe - Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for example - was less painful and turbulent than in those that had remained closed and isolated, such as Albania and Bulgaria.
That is what the Canadian initiative is designed to do - to begin to engage Cuba and the Cuban people in a web of relationships with Canada. To be sure, Canada's motives are not totally selfless. Canada has an important stake in promoting trade with Cuba, its second largest trading partner in Latin America, and in defending the rights of Canadian companies to invest in Cuba, regardless of the extraterritorial provisions of the US's Helms-Burton legislation.
But even here, there are long-term benefits for the Cuban people, as foreign investment forces changes in the Cuban economy and points the way toward Cuba's future integration into the global economy.
Parts of the Canadian-Cuban accord - the proposed people-to-people exchanges and support for nongovernmental organizations - are consistent with, indeed virtually mirror, US policy. US efforts in this regard, the so-called "track two" strategy, are moribund. The deep, mutual suspicion between the two countries has effectively precluded any sustained program of exchange or engagement. There are officials in both governments who consider such programs US subversion of Cuba.
Actually, a minimum of civility between governments is essential for people-to-people diplomacy to work. It is impossible to establish a program of exchanges with a country's citizens without dealing with that nation's government and leaders. Little can be done to help the Cuban people and prepare them for a different future without helping the Cuban government. There is no way out of that dilemma. A hard choice has to be made.
The United States and Canada are unlikely ever to agree on a common policy toward Castro's Cuba. But instead of emphasizing its differences with Canada, Washington should seek to identify areas of agreement, where joint efforts may be possible.
The two countries concur that the overall aim must be a peaceful democratic change, and both are concerned about the protection of human rights.
More important operationally, Canada and the US appear to share an interest in strengthening independent organizations in Cuba and encouraging people-to-people exchanges of different kinds. It should be possible for the two to work together in designing and carrying out such programs.
Canada has achieved a greater influence for itself in Cuban affairs. That influence isn't enough to change the Cuban regime's behavior in any significant way. But Canada will be able to help shape Cuba's inevitable transition in ways that the US, unless it changes its approach, will not.
With a little imagination, the US - while continuing to oppose the current Cuban regime - should find it possible to cooperate with Canada in helping build a bridge to the 21st century for Cuba.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.