Not So Magnificent Obsession: The United States, Cuba, and Canada from Revolution to the Helms-Burton Law

By Randall, Stephen J. | Canadian-American Public Policy, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Not So Magnificent Obsession: The United States, Cuba, and Canada from Revolution to the Helms-Burton Law


Randall, Stephen J., Canadian-American Public Policy


Stephen J. Randall, FRSC, held the Imperial Oil-Lincoln McKay Chair in American Studies at the University of Calgary from 1989 to 1997 and is currently serving there as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Among his recent books are (with G. S. Mount) The Caribbean Basin: An International History (1998); (with J. H. Thompson) Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies (revised 1996); Hegemony and Interdependence: Colombia and the United States (1992); and (with Roger Gibbins) an edited volume titled Federalism and the New World Order: Papers from the Gorbachev Symposium (1994). He is also editor of The Canadian Review of American Studies and past editor of International Journal. E-mail: srandall@ucalgary.ca

* A list of acronyms used in this article is provided on page 26.

Few events in the past decade have illustrated so vividly the extent to which Canada can be affected by U.S. foreign policy initiatives, where the primary target of that policy is not Canada, as in the Helms-Burton law. As a major trading partner of Cuba and with extensive investment on the island in terms of finance and political capital Canada and Canadian policymakers could have anticipated that any dramatic deterioration in Cuban-United States relations would ultimately impact on Canadian interests.

The latest Cuban-American crisis was triggered by the actions of the Cuban air force on February 24, 1996, in shooting down two civilian aircraft operated by the Brothers to the Rescue, one of the groups involved in the ongoing anti-Castro propaganda warfare over Cuban territory. While these flights may not have been violating Cuban airspace on this occasion, previous flights had been a persistent part of the U.S.-supported anti-Castro propaganda campaign, and since their primary objective was to have leaflets reach the hands of Cubans, it is difficult to imagine how the mission could be achieved without eventually entering Cuban airspace.

The shoot down occurred on the same day that the Concilio Cubano, seen by U.S. officials as a broadly representative group of independent non-governmental organizations, was scheduled to hold its first public meeting. The Cuban government arrested most of the leaders, and the meeting did not take place. The U.S. official, congressional and public condemnation of the Cuban action against civilian aircraft was swift and angry, and it was not limited to the United States. Canada supported the UN Security Council's request for a full investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and later supported the ICAO Council's resolution condemning Cuba for its use of lethal force against the civilian aircraft. ICAO also found that the two Cessna aircraft were in international, not Cuban, airspace as Havana authorities had contended. The reaction in the United States, as we shall shortly observe, was sharper and with more wide-reaching consequences, provoking a crisis not only in Cuban- American relations but also between the United States and its allies.

This latest crisis, which has had a serious impact on the bilateral United States-Canada relationship, underlines the basic fact that Canada and the United States, allies as they were throughout the Cold War years and enjoying that much vaunted "special relationship," have nonetheless pursued very different approaches to Cuba since 1959. Both countries have been consistent in their dealings with Castro's Cuban regime over those years, with the United States adhering after 1961 to a hard line, including non-recognition of the Castro government, rejection of official bilateral relationships, an economic embargo on all trade and investment with the island nation and an active anti-Castro propaganda campaign. Canada, on the other hand, in spite of equally serious reservations about Cuban-Soviet linkages and with an ongoing concern about violations of human rights in Cuba by the Castro government, has consistently pursued a policy of constructive engagement with Cuba. …

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