In 1976, the former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau spent three short but productive days in Havana. He was the first of NATO leaders to visit Cuba after the Cuban Revolution. As a result, his visit cemented a strong friendship between him and Fidel Castro, a relationship that would deepen and last for decades.
Trudeau returned to Cuba several more times even after his retirement from public life. This provided opportunities for the two men to continue the friendship. Castro was among the world leaders who attended Trudeau’s funeral in 2000 as a pallbearer of the casket. The legacy of this lasting friendship led to an extraordinarily warm relationship between Canada and Cuba; a relationship that the two countries still enjoy today.
The beginning of the Cuba – Canada relationship goes back a lot further than the friendship between these two leaders. Historians have traced it back to the 1700s when Cuba and Canada traded cod and beer for sugar and rum from the Island.
In 1945, Cuba and Canada officially established diplomatic relations with the opening of its first embassy in the Caribbean located in Cuba. The historian Emile Vaillancourt served as Canada’s representative at the embassy at the time.
Ties between Canada and Cuba have been tested several times in recent history but have proven to be resilient, withstanding the passage of time. Other Western nations may have turned their backs on Cuba but Canada remained a friend. Trudeau and Castro’s friendship only deepened what already existed.
Between 2006 to 2014, the conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper operated a policy of “shunning” Cuba. However, the policy changed rapidly in December 2014 with the announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. At the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Harper sat down with President Raul Castro a few hours after Obama met with him.
Prior to the announcement of detente, what is most interesting is that the cities of Ottawa and Toronto were used as locations for the secret talks between Cuba and the U.S. In total, Canada hosted seven of these “back-channel” meetings between the two countries.
It is expected that another Golden Era for the Cuban-Canadian relationship will blossom after the decade of neglect under Harper’s government. Now that Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, is the head of the government, there’s no doubt he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps as far as Cuba is concerned. In March of this year, President Castro invited the new prime minister for an official visit to Cuba.
In spite of the Harper policy, Canadian trade connections continued to flourish over the years. Canadian investment in Cuba is the one of the largest among all of its trade partners. For example, Sherritt International, a Canadian company is the single largest investor in Cuba, operating on the Island since 1991. Canada also has a large presence at the annual FIHAV trade fair in Havana.
Most Canadian investments can be found in the power, agriculture, oil, and mining sectors. Cuba has the distinction of being Canada’s top market in the entire Caribbean. The bilateral trade between Canada and Cuba is worth more than a billion dollars per year. While this is already substantial, there’s still a lot more room for growth.
Canadian businesses have been advised to take advantage of the trade opportunities that come with their status with Cuba before the Americans lift their embargo. The time is now for Canadian businesses to go to Cuba. In view of this, earlier this year, Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. One of the goals of these talks was an exploration into new areas of bilateral collaboration.
Tourism is certainly one of the brightest spots in this dynamic. Canadians are the largest group of tourists that visit the island year after year. The official count has it pegged at 1.3 million annually. However many Canadians are now worried that with the influx of American tourists, Cuba will no longer be the affordable winter escape paradise it always was.
Honouring Canada’s travel relationship with Cuba, Canada was Cuba’s guest of honor at this year’s FITCuba 2016 tourism event in Havana.
Canada has had long-running international development programs in the island. These development projects are aligned with government priorities such as the enhancement of agricultural productivity and public service delivery. There is also a public advocacy program that aims to improve the understanding of Canada’s multicultural society among Cubans.
Canadian development programs currently in Cuba include the projects, “Strengthening the Capacity of Auditors in Cuba,” “Local Economic Growth and Food Security,” “Cuba Program Support Facility,” and “Cultivating Skills for Employment and Growth in Cuba.”
On the 70 year anniversary of Canada – Cuba relations, the Canadian embassy in Havana hosted several cultural and academic events. There was a joint theater production between Canadians and Cubans of Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles Soeurs.” Other performances at the anniversary included an orchestra, dance troupes, and musicians. More than five thousand Cubans enjoyed the show at the Plaza Vieja.
To further commemorate the 70 year old relationship, a reception was held at the Official Residence, of Canadian Ambassador Yves Gagnon. The reception was attended by government officials, academics, and local partners. It provided everyone with an opportunity to think about accomplishments and the future potential of continued collaboration. Ambassador Gagnon is optimistic about the partnership. He stressed that Canada is ready to advance this important friendship with the belief that both countries stand to gain mutual benefits from their long term relationship.