London Times January 24 1997
CANADA angered and baffled Washington yesterday by reaching a 14-point agreement with Cuba that includes co-operation on human rights and striking back at the controversial American law designed to penalise Cuba's foreign investors.
The agreement, which runs counter to US efforts to isolate Cuba's Communist Government, was reached after a three-hour dinner between President Castro and Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's Foreign Minister, followed by a lunch of similar length for the pair the next day.
American reaction ranged from a conviction that the Canadians were naive to assertions that they were determined to embarrass the United States. Or maybe they were trying to flaunt their independence from European allies who also oppose the Helms-Burton law, which seeks to impose sanctions on those trading with Cuba.
President Clinton praised Canada for trying to improve human rights in Cuba, but questioned whether Mr Axworthy's Havana trip had accomplished a breakthrough. He was sceptical that the talks would lead to any advances and he was still convinced that America's approach, based on its 35-year trade embargo, had a better chance of winning democratic reform.
Jesse Helms, the crusty Republican senator who co-authored the Bill, reacted with scorn, comparing Mr Axworthy's visit to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Canada should examine its principles, he said, but he stopped short of saying that America should consider retaliation against its northern neighbour. A Helms aide said the Cuba-Canada agreement would not improve the human rights of a single Cuban citizen.
As if to underline Cuba's disregard for human rights, three dissidents were arrested during Mr Axworthy's 24-hour visit for trying to produce economic and independent news reports outside the state-controlled media. Two were later released.
Under the agreement, Canada and Cuba made an opaque pledge to broaden and deepen co-operation on human rights through joint seminars and academic exchanges between officials, professionals and experts. Mr Axworthy said he had requested the release of specific political prisoners in Cuba, but did not say if he had received any assurances about them.
Roberto Robaina, the Cuban Foreign Minister, said there were no taboo subjects for Cuba, as long as it was treated with respect. But he made it clear that Cuba would accept lessons from no one and that human rights there were a strictly Cuban responsibility.
Canada and Cuba agreed to negotiate how to strike back at the US over Helms-Burton, but gave no details. They also agreed to co-operate over justice, including exchanges of judges and judicial training.
Unlike America, Canada has no trade embargo with Cuba and is President Castro's largest overseas trading partner. Mr Axworthy said the agreement was the Canadian way of doing things.