As we enter the new Trump-Trudeau era, will we be able to safeguard our important Canada-U. S. relationship? Will Trump reopen a battle with Cuba, as he is doing on other fronts?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Cuban President Raul Castro say goodbye after an event with students at the University of Havana on Nov. 16. “Once more, there is a potential obstacle between a future president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. And once more, Cuba is inadvertently, playing a part,” writes Penny Collenette. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Most Canadians tourists, lying on the Varadero beach in Cuba, would likely be blissfully unaware of the strong influence Cuba has played in the relationship between Canada and the U.S, a legendary relationship, now under the microscope of President-elect Donald Trump.
Tourists would likely not remember the tension that existed between former PM John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy in 1962, as Diefenbaker hesitated to accede to Kennedy’s request to put the Canadian military into high alert when Russian nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba. The resulting frantic and frightening 13-day show down between Russia and the U.S. rattled the world.
Our ties with both countries are special. Canada’s diplomatic relations with Cuba, established in 1945, remained even after the Cuban revolution in 1959 when Canada and Mexico were the only countries in the hemisphere not to break relations. Those ties were deepened in the 1970s with Pierre Trudeau’s historic visit and his subsequent friendship with Fidel Castro.
The United States and Cuba parted diplomatic ways in 1961, but while Canada’s friendship created unease in Washington, our independent foreign policy did not prevent a unique bilateral friendship between Canada and the U.S. — two sovereign states that enjoy the world’s longest undefended border. That border is a visible sign that no matter the personalities of the respective leaders or differences in policies of the two governments, Canadians and Americans will “get along.”
But once more, there is a potential obstacle between a future president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. And once more, Cuba is inadvertently, playing a part.
It is unfortunate because, momentarily, it appeared the U.S., Canada and Cuba, might finally be working in tandem. During Prime Minister Harper’s tenure, two years of secret talks hosted by Canada (but not with our participation) and the Vatican helped to facilitate a historic rapprochement between President Obama and President Raúl Castro in December 2014, as they announced joint agreements in a variety of sectors. Obama later visited Cuba on March 21 of this year.
However, with the election of Donald Trump, the carefully negotiated alliance is under stress. In a Tweet, during the election, Trump threatened that “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” Trudeau and his ministers wisely avoided any untoward comments on the campaign, knowing full well that no country wants the interference of another country when deciding their own electoral fate.
Much is at stake for the Canada-U. S. alliance. Our two countries have traditionally been the world’s largest trading partners, although just recently Canada has been eclipsed by China. Nevertheless, nearly 9 million U.S. jobs depend on Canada for trade and investment. Furthermore, the Canadian ambassador to Washington raised eyebrows when he announced the Liberal government would be “happy” to renegotiate NAFTA, in response to another of Trump’s tirades.
In spite of wide differences in policies, it seemed to be business as usual.
But then, Fidel Castro died, just days after Trudeau’s Cuban visit. A foreign leader’s death is generally a pro forma announcement from the White House or the PMO. But not in this case. While Obama did issue a formal statement, both Trump and Trudeau deviated from the norm.
Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Certainly one of the most unconventional of the president-elect’s tweets. He also issued a statement calling Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
Meanwhile, Trudeau released an official statement, including unexpected sentiments that might have been better expressed in a personal condolence letter, but not in an announcement on behalf of the country. As well, Trudeau’s belated acknowledgement of Castro’s history as a repressive dictator unfortunately left the PM open to global criticism.
So, where do we go from here? As we enter the new Trump-Trudeau era, will we be able to safeguard our important Canada-U. S. relationship? Will Trump reopen a battle with Cuba, as he is doing on other fronts? If so, could Canada become collateral damage? Could Cuba be used as a proxy for disagreements with Canada?
In Havana, on Nov. 15, Justin Trudeau said, “For me, election results in the United States won’t change the strong relationship that is a friendship and a partnership between Canada and Cuba.”
Food for thought as you relax on that Cuban beach this winter.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.