Despite crackdown, Canada must continue to engage Cuba Further isolation could push Cuba down North Korea's path

The recent arrest, trials and imprisonment of 78 Cuban dissidents has led to a mini-debate about Canada's policy towards the Caribbean island nation, that is likely to heat up in the wake of last week's ruling by Cuba's high court, which upheld the 20-year sentence of poet Raul Rivero.

The Castro crackdown is unprecedented in the number of its victims, the length of sentences given and the harshness of the dissident's prison conditions. Yet while Canada cannot afford to ignore these actions, the overwhelming evidence indicates that a moderate response remains the best course.

Although Canada is one of Cuba's largest sources of trade and investment, these form only a minute percentage of our GDP. Canada's interests in the matter stem from the 400,000 tourists that visit the island nation each year and a genuine friendship that exists between Cubans and Canadians, especially Quebecers.

Foreign Minister Bill Graham's response to recent events has been to condemn the crackdown, to continue to limit high-level meetings between the two countries and to work through multilateral bodies such as the U.N. and the Organization of American States to encourage change.

Any assessment of Canadian policy must be made in light of the more than 40-year old U.S. blockade against Cuba, that has largely contributed to making the island an economic basket case.

While for many Canadians the word "blockade" seems innocuous, when seen close at hand its results are devastating. Cubans can't get spare parts for their cars, machinery and equipment, are deprived of medical and information technology, and an estimated annual market of five million U.S. tourists are barred from visiting the island.

To give idea of what a similar blockade would do to Canada, consider that our exports to the U.S. comprise close to one third of our GDP, and imports are about the same. A U.S. blockade is a massive weapon, which if one day turned against Canada, would transform us into a third world nation overnight.

But by almost any objective measure the U.S. blockade of Cuba has been a colossal failure in terms of encouraging change. It has made life miserable for ordinary Cubans, deprived American companies of substantial trading opportunities and limited the flow of people and ideas that almost surely would spur liberalization and innovation in Cuba.

The Castro regime is no ordinary tin-pot dictatorship, that will lamely accept marching orders from the brass-knuckled back-room boys of the U.S. state department.

Along with North Korea, Cuba is one of the two Orwellian Cold War era remnants. Many in the Cuban regime remain true believers, and despite the unimaginable hardships of Cuban life that are immediately evident once you get a half mile out of the tourist enclaves, Castro clearly retains substantial political capital.

Any substantial further isolation of Cuba from international institutions will only continue a vicious cycle of increased internal hardship, more dissent and increasingly tougher crackdowns.

Indeed as bad as conditions are in Cuba, one cannot exclude that they will in fact get worse. North Korea provides a prime example of a country that has faced a vicious cycle of increasing international isolation, economic decline and massive internal repression. There is a strong possibility that an increasingly embattled Castro administration could slide down the same path.

Probably the best judges of what policy other countries should adopt remain Cuba's internal dissidents, not those sitting on Miami beaches. The internal dissidents are the ones closest to the situation and who are thus best able to assess both the results of the U.S. blockade, as well as the more open policies of Canada and the EU. The dissidents are also the ones who will bear the brunt of further economic sanctions or of intensified crackdowns by the Castro administration.

While there is no way to poll Cuban public opinion the anecdotal evidence is that the majority of Cuba's dissidents oppose the U.S. blockade, and believe that the best way to encourage change is to increase economic contacts to keep lines of communication open.

Indeed according to Cuba's leading human rights activists, Canada has a special role.

"Things are so bad now between (the Castro and Bush administrations) that Canada, which can talk to both countries can be a very important player," said Elizardo Sanchez., president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Recognition, in a recent interview. "Because right now we need dialogue more than ever."

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