On June 2, the Trudeau government took a further step in its campaign to support “regime change” in Venezuela when it officially suspended operations at its embassy in Caracas. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she is now “evaluating the status of Venezuelan diplomats appointed by the Maduro regime to Canada.”
Canada has effectively broken its diplomatic relations with Venezuela, echoing the Trump administration’s baseless allegations that its government is “illegitimate” and “dictatorial.” Ottawa has backed Juan Guaidó, the self-appointed leader of an ongoing coup attempt that has been notably unsuccessful in winning popular or military support within Venezuela.
Canada is a leading participant in the Lima Group, a rightist bloc of mainly Latin American governments seeking the overthrow of the Maduro government. The bloc operates in close alignment with the U.S. government and the U.S.-led Organization of American States (OAS).
Venezuela is not the only target of this campaign, which is aimed at those governments in Latin America most prominently known for their opposition to imperialism, support of national sovereignty, and efforts to surmount the ravages of neoliberal capitalism through decreasing inequality within their populations.
Among the victims is Cuba, a steadfast supporter of Venezuela’s sovereignty. The Canadian government recently and abruptly closed its immigration and visa section in its embassy in Havana, after reducing embassy staff by almost half. Cubans wishing to visit Canada now have to travel to a third country (the nearest being Mexico) to apply for a visa.
The following article by Yves Engler canvasses the issues involved in these moves. It was published first on Engler’s web site, https://yvesengler.com/. It is followed by statements issued by the Canadian network of solidarity with Cuba and by the leading association of Canadian scholars of Latin America studies.
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Trudeau government squeezes Cuba
By Yves Engler, June 3, 2019
Ottawa faces a dilemma. How far are Trudeau’s Liberals prepared to go in squeezing Cuba? Can Canadian corporations with interests on the island restrain the most pro-US, anti-socialist, elements of the ruling class?
Recently, the Canadian Embassy in Havana closed its Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship section. Now most Cubans wanting to visit Canada or get work/study permits will have to travel to a Canadian embassy in another country to submit their documents. In some cases Cubans will have to travel to another country at least twice to submit information to enter Canada. The draconian measure has already undercut cultural exchange and family visits, as described in a Toronto Star op-ed titled “Canada closes a door on Cuban culture”.
It’s rare for an embassy to simply eliminate visa processing, but what’s prompted this measure is the stuff of science fiction. Canada’s embassy staff was cut in half in January after diplomats became ill following a mysterious ailment that felled US diplomats sent to Cuba after Donald Trump’s election. Four months after the first US diplomats (apparently) became ill US ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis met his Canadian, British and French counterparts to ask if any of their staff were sick. According to a recent New York Times Magazine story, “none knew of any similar experiences afflicting their officials in Cuba. But after the Canadian ambassador notified his staff, 27 officials and family members there asked to be tested. Twelve were found to be suffering from a variety of symptoms, similar to those experienced by the Americans.”
With theories ranging from “mass hysteria” to the sounds of “Indies short-tailed crickets” to an “outbreak of functional disorders”, the medical questions remains largely unresolved. The politics of the affair are far clearer. In response, the Trump Administration withdrew most of its embassy staff in Havana and expelled Cuban diplomats from Washington. They’ve rolled back measures the Obama Administration instituted to re-engage with Cuba and recently implemented an extreme measure even the George W. Bush administration shied away from.
Ottawa has followed along partly because it’s committed to overthrowing Venezuela’s government and an important talking point of the anti-Nicolás Maduro coalition is that Havana is propping him up. On May 3 Justin Trudeau called Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to pressure him to join Ottawa’s effort to oust President Maduro. The release noted, “the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Lima Group [of countries hostile to Maduro], underscored the desire to see free and fair elections and the constitution upheld in Venezuela.” Four days later Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland added to the diplomatic pressure on Havana. She told reporters, “Cuba needs to not be part of the problem in Venezuela, but become part of the solution.” A week later Freeland visited Cuba to discuss Venezuela.
On Tuesday Freeland talked with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Venezuela and Cuba. Afterwards the State Department tweeted, “Secretary Pompeo spoke with Canada’s Foreign Minister Freeland to discuss ongoing efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. The Secretary and Foreign Minister agreed to continue working together to press the Cuban regime to provide for a democratic and prosperous future for the people of Cuba.”
Ottawa supports putting pressure on Cuba in the hopes of further isolating/demonizing the Maduro government. But, the Trudeau government is simultaneously uncomfortable with how the US campaign against Cuba threatens the interests of some Canadian-owned businesses.
The other subject atop the agenda when Freeland traveled to Havana was Washington’s decision to allow lawsuits for property confiscated after the 1959 Cuban revolution. The Trump Administration recently activated a section of the Helms-Burton Act that permits Cubans and US citizens to sue foreign companies doing business in Cuba over property nationalized decades ago. The move could trigger billions of dollars in legal claims in US courts against Canadian and European businesses operating on the island.
Obviously, Canadian firms that extract Cuban minerals and deliver over a million vacationers to the Caribbean country each year don’t want to be sued in US courts. They want Ottawa’s backing, but the Trudeau government’s response to Washington’s move has been relatively muted. This speaks to Trudeau/Freeland’s commitment to overthrowing Venezuela’s government.
But, it also reflects the broader history of Canada-Cuba ties. Despite the hullabaloo around Ottawa’s seemingly cordial relations with Havana, the reality is more complicated than often presented. Similar to Venezuela today, Ottawa has previously aligned with US fear-mongering about the “Cuban menace” in Latin America and elsewhere. Even Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who famously declared “viva Castro” during a trip to that country in 1976, denounced (highly altruistic) Cuban efforts to defend newly independent Angola from apartheid South Africa’s invasion. In response, Trudeau stated, “Canada disapproves with horror [of] participation of Cuban troops in Africa” and later terminated the Canadian International Development Agency’s small aid program in Cuba as a result.
After the 1959 Cuban revolution Ottawa never broke off diplomatic relations, even though most other countries in the hemisphere did. Three Nights in Havanaexplains part of why Ottawa maintained diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba: “Recently declassified State Department documents have revealed that, far from encouraging Canada to support the embargo, the United States secretly urged Diefenbaker to maintain normal relations because it was thought that Canada would be well positioned to gather intelligence on the island.” Washington was okay with Canada’s continued relations with the island. It simply wanted assurances, which were promptly given, that Canada wouldn’t take over the trade the US lost. For their part, Canadian business interests in the country, which were sizable, were generally less hostile to the revolution since they were mostly compensated when their operations were nationalized. Still, the more ideological elements of corporate Canada have always preferred the Cuban model didn’t exist.
If a Canadian company is sued in the US for operating in Cuba Ottawa will face greater pressure to push back on Washington. If simultaneously the Venezuelan government remains, Ottawa’s ability to sustain its position against Cuba and Venezuela is likely to become even more difficult.
Canadian Network On Cuba Calls on Ottawa to Reopen Visa Office in Cuba
The following statement was issued May 10, 2019 by Isaac Saney, Spokesperson of the Network.
The Canadian Network on Cuba (CNC) is deeply concerned by Ottawa’s abrupt decision to shut down the section of its Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) Office in Havana through which visas were processed for Cuban citizens wishing to visit Canada and those seeking work or study permits. This measure follows the 50 per cent reduction of the staff of Canada’s embassy in Cuba which took place in January of this year. Cubans now have to make their applications through a visa application centre in a third country (the nearest being Mexico). Those having to submit their biometrics (photo and fingerprints), a requirement instituted in 2018 that will apply to most, will have to travel to a centre outside of Cuba to record this information.
These decisions have introduced unreasonable delays and significant financial obstacles for those Cubans seeking to travel to Canada, and will, amongst other things, cause significant damage to business, cultural, scientific and sporting relations. Indeed, they have already had a drastic impact on academic exchanges between Canada and Cuba with some of the Cuban academics scheduled to attend the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies on May 10-12 not able to procure visas.
Canada and Cuba have enjoyed uninterrupted diplomatic relations since 1945. This development represents a serious departure from the relations which have existed all those years. Canada, along with Mexico, refused to break diplomatic relations with Cuba in the 1960s when the United States established the all-sided blockade it has maintained since then. At that time the U.S. demanded that all members of the Organization of American States (OAS) sever any connection with Cuba and, even though Canada was not a member of the OAS at that time, it still did not follow suit.
One wonders what crime Cuba has committed against Canada to make Canada take what can only amount to hostile actions against Cuba? Why now, at a time the U.S. has reversed the Obama government’s attempts to bring an end to the failed policy that Washington has maintained against Cuba for 60 years?
In 2014, the world rejoiced to see the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba and held out great hopes that relations between the two countries would be normalized. Canada helped by providing a venue for the talks which led to the improvement of those relations.
Everyone knows that sanctions target the people and deprive them of food, medicines and normalcy in the conduct of elemental commercial, financial and other relations. For 27 years, the vast majority of countries of the world have overwhelmingly rejected the U.S. all-sided economic war against Cuba. In 2018 alone, 189 countries voted with Cuba to end the blockade and only 2 voted against, of which one was the U.S. itself.
And now this! Is Canada so attracted to the Trump administration’s anti-democratic counter-revolutionary attacks against Venezuela’s right to self-determination as to take its revenge on Cuba? Or it is poised to admit that the United States dictates Canadian policy? Shame on Canada either way.
Who will benefit from the closing of the Havana visa service? Not Cubans trying to have normal relations with Canada and Canadians. What wrong has Cuba ever done to Canada?
The CNC calls on the Canadian government to reinstate the discontinued services at the IRCC Office in Havana, so that visa processing may proceed in a reasonable manner. If the abrupt shutdown is simply the result of the lack of necessary staff, as the Ministry of Global Affairs asserts, then Ottawa should issue a clear statement that visa and other related operations will resume once staffing issues are resolved.
Canadians, thousands upon thousands of whom visit Cuba for many reasons including tourism, business, academic, political and cultural exchanges of all kinds, want Ottawa to pursue a foreign policy based on mutual respect and equality. The CNC is confident that Canadians will reject any course of action taken by Ottawa which undermines the long-standing diplomatic relations based on norms recognized by the international rule of law and the ties of friendship and solidarity that exist between the peoples of our two countries.
CALACS public statement on visas for Latin American scholars
Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,
On behalf of the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CALACS), we write to express our concern with the Canadian visa application process for Latin American and Caribbean scholars who wish to visit Canada for academic meetings and conferences. Our Association held its 50th annual conference at York University in Toronto on May 10-12 — a milestone for Latin American and Caribbean studies in Canada — and, unfortunately, four distinguished Latin American scholars, three Cuban and one Brazilian, never received their visas allowing them to travel to Canada, despite having undertaken the process more than three months in advance and having paid for all their travel and lodging expenses.
In the case of the Cuban scholars, the treatment they received from the Visa Section at the Canadian embassy in Havana was cavalier and disrespectful. The Canadian government only informed them that their visas were not going to be processed and that they would have to reapply outside of Cuba on May 8, just two days before the start of the conference. This conduct does not meet the standards we expect and demand from the Canadian public service.
We acutely felt the absence of these Latin American scholars and strongly debated the issue at our conference. At CALACS, we feel that Canada’s failure to deliver their visas interferes with our mission to foster the ongoing development of a dynamic Canadian-based, international intellectual community, to support research and teaching and to provide the infrastructure and capacity to facilitate knowledge mobilization and engagement strategies in Canada and abroad.
CALACS reaches out to and establishes partnerships with Latin American and Caribbean communities, NGOs, research institutions, and international academics. In addition, our Association works to inform policy makers, and public and private sector organizations through its events, publications, communications media and virtual resources. In so doing, we contribute to developing strong and long-lasting Canadian networks in Latin America and in the Caribbean and we promote Canada’s image and influence in the region. In this sense, Canada’s failure to provide visas for Latin American and Caribbean scholars in timely and respectful fashion can only be understood as a failure.
We appeal to you to make sure that Canadian visa processes never again stand in the way of scholarly activities, of free thought and of critical debate. Academic freedom can only promote and develop Canadian interests at home and abroad and is critically important for maintaining excellent political, economic and cultural relations with Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The Board of Directors of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
 This is presumably a reference to the book by Robert A. Wright, Three Nights In Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War World. – R.F.