Canada-Cuba Relations Poised for Progress under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

By John M. Kirk*

Cuba Canada

Photo Credits: Wisegie/ Flickr / Creative Commons, Pixabay / Creative Commons

After a decade of ignoring Cuba under the government led by Stephen Harper, Canada is on the cusp of an era of a significant improvement in bilateral relations with the island.  Many constants supporting this longstanding relationship remain: Canada, along with Mexico, was the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to break relations with revolutionary Cuba in 1962; Pierre Trudeau was the first leader of a NATO country to visit Cuba (1976) and developed a strong friendship with Fidel Castro (who was an honorary pall-bearer at his funeral); Canadians make up the largest tourist group (1.3 million a year) there; and the largest single foreign investor in Cuba is the Canadian firm Sherritt International.

Justin Trudeau, elected prime minister in October 2015, has undertaken several significant foreign policy initiatives, mainly in Asia and Europe.  Steps to improve relations with Cuba have been taken slowly, but are noticeable.  In May Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez visited Ottawa and Quebec City, while Canada’s Minister of Tourism Bardish Chagger attended the International Tourist Fair in Havana, at which Canada was the “invited country of honor,” reciprocating an earlier visit by her counterpart.  In December the Canadian Senate held a special session to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations.  Canada has been invited as the country of honor to the International Book Fair in Havana, in March 2017, and it is rumored that Trudeau will shortly visit Cuba.  Significantly, the gradual improvement of bilateral relations is due mainly to Canadian initiatives, and not to developments in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

  • Investment and trade, however, have not kept up with diplomatic initiatives. Annual bilateral trade remains about $1 billion, mainly because of uncertainty over Cuba’s economy.  Canadian business has yet to take advantage of its privileged relationship, concerned with existing U.S. legislation and the looming wave of U.S. investment once the embargo is lifted.

After a decade of neglect, Canada and Cuba have the potential to rediscover their deep-rooted ties.  Trudeau’s willingness to work with Cuba and his diplomatic initiatives were unthinkable under the Harper government.  A complicating factor for business has been the arrest and imprisonment of two Armenian-Canadian entrepreneurs, found guilty of corruption.  Canadian civil society ties remain strong, with Canada making up 43 percent of tourists to Cuba.  Again, however, concern exists at how Canadian tourists face skyrocketing prices when Americans are allowed to visit the island.  In sum, Canada-Cuba relations are at this point characterized by political commitment to improve ties, largely untapped commercial potential, and anxiety about the ramifications of closer U.S. ties with Cuba.  The big question is whether Canadian trade and investment will provide the energy to propel relations beyond their special past status into a new era of collaboration.

August 8, 2016

*John M. Kirk is Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada.  He is the author/co-editor of 16 books on Cuba, and also works as a consultant on investment and trade in Cuba.

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