BY MICHEL PRAIRIE
MONTREAL - "Jean Chrétien came and went, and Fidel Castro stood firm," wrote the Toronto Globe and Mail in an accurate summary of a highly publicized 40-hour trip to Cuba by Canadian prime minister Chrétien April 26-28.
This was the second such visit to the island by a Canadian head of state since the Cuban revolution, the first one having been by then-Premier Pierre Eliot Trudeau in 1976. While in Cuba, Chrétien co-inaugurated with Cuban president Fidel Castro a third terminal, partly financed by Canadian interests, at the José Martí International Airport in Havana. He also held two private meetings with Castro for a total of six and a half hours and met with Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and representatives of three Cuban nongovernmental organizations.
In the days leading to Chrétien's visit, government officials and the media across Canada projected the trip as a major step by this country's imperialist rulers toward increasing their investments in Cuba against their U.S. competitors. U.S. companies are prevented from doing business in Cuba by Washington's decades-long embargo against the Caribbean nation. The trip was also billed as a means to put pressure for political concessions on Cuba's socialist government, under the guise of "defending human rights" and the supposed need for Havana to adapt to a "changed world."
Several dozen Canadian companies have invested Can$610 million (Can$1 = US$0.70) in Cuba between 1992 and 1997, mainly in mining, construction, tourism, and biomedical industries. Total trade is about Can$700 a year between the two countries, a significant increase from the early 1990s. Today, Cuba is Ottawa's fourth-largest trading partner in Latin America, and Canada is the second-biggest foreign market for Cuba, accounting for 11 percent of exports.
Like their capitalist counterparts in other countries, Canada's rulers have waged an ongoing campaign to paint the Cuban government as a one-man, one-party dictatorship. Their class hatred is based on the fact that Cuban workers and farmers led a powerful revolution in 1959, taking power out of the hands of their capitalist exploiters and using it since then to build a society based on human needs, dignity, and international solidarity.
On the economic front, the only concrete outcome of Chrétien's trip was an agreement for the Cuban government to pay Can$12 million for a Canadian insurance company nationalized in the early 1960s. Most Canadian businesses that were expropriated at the time of the revolution have been compensated as of 1981. Only a handful of insurance companies are still negotiating payment with Havana.
Fidel Castro used his welcoming remarks at the airport on April 26 to sharply denounce the criminal embargo imposed on the Cuban people by Washington. "No country should give itself the right to kill another people with hunger and disease," said Castro. "This is a genocide."
In their first meeting the next morning, Chrétien asked Castro to release four people currently jailed in Cuba and described by the media here as "political dissidents." According to Chrétien, Castro said he would consider the request. In early April Ottawa welcomed 14 Cuban prisoners released after a January visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II.
In Washington, U.S. president William Clinton commented on Chrétien's visit to Cuba, "We can have different approaches to a common goal, and I do think we have a common goal."
Many media and political commentators here underlined the irony of Chrétien going to Cuba supposedly to preach democracy, and then cutting the visit short to be back in time to defeat a motion in the federal parliament proposing that the government compensate all victims of hepatitis C who contracted the fatal disease through tainted blood transfusions under Canada's national blood system in the 1980s. Ottawa is offering a financial aid to only a portion of the thousands of people who were infected.
As Chrétien's plane was leaving Havana, Castro replied
to a journalist who asked him if he would take some specific
steps to change Cuba following the visit. "The revolution is
the biggest change in history," Castro declared, "and we
aren't going to give it up."
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