Canada's Foreign Minister: U.S. Influence Will Make Cuba Better

The Conservative politician agrees with Obama: America's opening will help transform the island.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird (Chris Wattie/Reuters )

President Obama is receiving sustained criticism from Republican senators, conservative media, and many Cuban Americans for his efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and bring about the eventual end of the U.S. economic embargo. But he has strong allies in Canada's Conservative government, which has otherwise taken a more aggressive approach to such issues as Vladimir Putin's Ukraine adventures, and to supporting the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, than a) one might expect Canada to take; and b) the Obama administration.

I met with the Canadian foreign minister, John Baird, in New York a couple of days ago. I will post my full interview with him next week (he made very interesting comments on Syria, Middle East peace, and Hillary Clinton, to name just a few subjects), but I thought I would share his views on Cuba now, since they are particularly relevant to the current debate. Canada, of course, hosted secret talks between the Cuban government and U.S. negotiators, and it has always maintained normal diplomatic and economic relations with Havana, despite previous U.S. hopes that it would participate in the 50-year boycott of the Castro regime. (Canada's tourists have traditionally flooded Cuba, and believe themselves to be noble and demure while doing so—which is not always the case, as I've seen on my visits there, but more about this another time.)

Despite Canada's historically un-U.S.-like relationship with Cuba, it was still somewhat surprising to hear the right-leaning Baird endorse enthusiastically Obama's overture to Raul Castro. "I agree with this policy. I don't think previous U.S. policy has been effective," he said. "If you flood Cuba with American values, American people, and American investment, it will help transform the country."

Critics of this theory point to China and Vietnam, two countries with deep economic ties to the U.S. in which one-party communist rule still obtains. I asked Baird about this argument, and he responded by nodding in the direction of a popular counterargument—that Cuba has been held to a separate and hypocritical double standard by successive U.S. presidents.

"It's hard to compare two situations together, but if you can have normalized relations with Vietnam, why wouldn't you normalize relations with Cuba?" Baird asked.

Normalization with Vietnam has not made it any freer, I argued. "Certainly it's improved the economic lot of the Vietnamese people. The average family is better off today than it was 20 years ago." He then noted—in very diplomatic terms—that even bigger changes are coming in Cuban politics. "Obviously there will be further change when people move on," he said, a reference to the age of the Castro brothers.

I raised one other issue with Baird on this subject: whether he thought the Iranian regime might interpret Obama's opening to Cuba (an opening the Cuban government is naturally framing as a victory for the revolution) as a sign of American weakness in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. "Did anyone say that the U.S. was a pushover when you normalized relations with Vietnam?" Baird asked. "I don't accept that."

Do you think, I asked, that the Iranians have a full understanding of American will on this subject?

"No," was Baird's one-word answer.

Do you have a full understanding of American will on the subject? I asked.

"I take the president at his word," he said. "They say they'd rather have no deal than a bad deal." Then Baird smiled. "We might have a different understanding, however, of what constitutes a bad deal."