Trudeau Leery of Cuba Policy Change Despite Crackdown on Dissent


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(Bloomberg) — Justin Trudeau’s government appears unwilling to join the U.S. in hitting Cuba with targeted sanctions against those responsible for repressing a recent wave of protests on the island.

The U.S. Treasury Department listed a Cuban military leader and a special brigade of its security forces in issuing sanctions on Thursday. President Joe Biden said the moves were “just the beginning” of the U.S. response to Havana’s crackdown on dissent.

But while the Canadian prime minister has condemned Cuba’s aggressive response to the protests — human rights groups say more than 500 people have been arrested and are facing summary trials — there’s no indication his government will alter its policy toward Cuba.

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Foreign Minister Marc Garneau’s office declined to comment on the U.S. sanctions. His department is concerned by the crackdown and stands with those calling for democracy in the communist-ruled nation, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said by email Thursday, adding that sanctions are just one potential tool available in defending human rights.

To one former diplomat, the government’s caution is justified. “It would be hasty to threaten sanctions early on in a protest like this,” Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council, said in a phone interview.

With an election looming, Trudeau’s rivals are pressing him to act on other fronts.

The opposition Conservatives have called on the government to fast-track applications by Cuban-Canadians to sponsor relatives seeking to leave the island. Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Venezuela Comparison

Though he faced criticism for taking a softer line when first asked about the Cuba protests, Trudeau’s sharper tone in condemning Cuban state repression last week brought the government’s language more in line with its approach to other authoritarian regimes in the region.

The situation in Cuba, however, isn’t the same it was in Venezuela when national assembly leader Juan Guaido made a claim to the presidency in 2019, arguing Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 election win was illegitimate. Trudeau’s government backed that effort alongside other South American nations.

But for Canada to intervene in political crises abroad, “there should be local leadership of a democracy movement and a request for the international community to provide support,” said Rowswell, who was Canada’s ambassador in Caracas from 2014 to 2017. “I don’t think that the Cuban case has reached that threshold yet.”

The former diplomat expects the Cuban protests will “grow, not abate.” The repeated presence of crowds in the streets shows the “psychological barrier of fear” has been broken, Rowswell said, and conditions on the island show no sign of improving in the short term, despite an easing of restrictions on imports in response to the demonstrations.

“So the Canadian government should be open to shifting its policy as the conditions on the ground in Cuba shift, but not rush into anything and certainly not do it unilaterally,” he said.

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