Chretien Visits Havana Monday

Article excerpt

TORONTO - Prime Minister Jean Chretien's visit to Havana on a trade mission beginning Monday will mark Canada's highest level contact with Cuba in 22 years and yet another sign the island nation is breaking out of its isolation after a papal visit in January.

Mr. Chretien, who plans to discuss trade, human rights and an improved legal system with President Fidel Castro, appears untroubled by criticism of the two-day visit from conservatives both in Canada and in the United States.

"Isolation leads nowhere," said Mr. Chretien, whose country does some $500 million in trade with Cuba each year. He said he believes "in a policy of engagement and dialogue" as the best way "to help the people of Cuba."

For 36 years, Canada has steadfastly maintained relations with Cuba while the United States has tried to squeeze its communist government with a stifling trade embargo.

Indeed, it's said that every cow and chicken in Cuba is descended from Canadian stock shipped when the U.S. embargo began. The island has become Canada's fourth largest trading partner in Latin America after Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, with sales to Cuba of $225 million a year.

That irks some American businessmen such as Holly Donaldson, executive director of the Western New York International Trade Council, who said Cuba "represents a tremendous opportunity. . . . We're all a bit envious."

But Mr. Chretien's critics accuse him of thumbing his nose at the United States and propping up a regime known for its human rights abuses and suppression of democracy.

Preston Manning, leader of Canada's conservative Reform Party, has accused the prime minister of hypocrisy for cozying up to Cuba while pushing to expel Nigeria from the Commonwealth for its human rights abuses.

However, even Mr. Manning's party supports open trade with Cuba, saying it opposes trade embargoes on principle.

Sophie Galarneau, a spokeswoman for Mr. Chretien, said the Canadian leader will raise human rights issues with Mr. Castro and "keep the pressure on Cuba to move to democracy."

The "prime minister of Canada has always been outspoken about human rights," she said, and while Mr. Chretien will likely brief President Clinton on the visit, she was doubtful "whether or not American minds can be changed. …