For some observers, perhaps even some within the Canadian government, the escalating U.S.-North Korea crisis is heading in the decidedly wrong diplomatic direction. They surmise that the two countries are getting dangerously close to the nuclear tipping point.
In an effort to defuse this worrisome situation, Canada has offered the services of its “good offices.” No one is really certain, though, whether that diplomatic overture will be welcomed by the two parties in question.
Still, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Dec. 19th in Ottawa to discuss the ongoing crisis, and Canada will co-host a meeting of interested foreign ministers early in the new year. For its part, the Trudeau government has sought to keep the two sides talking to one another, even if the North Koreans won’t be present at the forthcoming Vancouver meeting.
A key component of that approach is Canada’s cordial engagement with Cuba, a country that does have full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. As Canada’s Global Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, explains: “Cuba is a country that Canada has good relations with, and so we have conversations.”
Although she acknowledged that the Cuban government would not be acting as a messenger for Ottawa, Ms. Freeland would not go into further details. “That is all I am going to say about our conversations.”
Advocates of Canada’s efforts have been quick to highlight Ottawa’s long-standing and storied diplomatic relationship with Havana. It is true that Canada was one of only two countries in the Americas (the other being Mexico) not to sever official contacts with Cuba in the early 1960s. And the Cubans have always appreciated the Canadian government’s decision, irrespective of political party stripe, to vote consistently in the UN against the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba. Last, and not insignificantly, the Trudeaus have had a very close personal relationship with the Castros over the decades.
Ever since the disastrous U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Canada has offered to mediate the dysfunctional U.S.-Cuba relationship. Though it was not always clear that Ottawa’s interventions were appreciated, both countries played along, knowing full well that nothing substantive would come of them.
Both Washington and Havana had their own reasons — mostly of a domestic nature — for why they preferred a non-existent diplomatic relationship. That may well be the case today with respect to the motivations of Washington and Pyongyang.
Nonetheless, some will point to Canada’s role in helping to normalize relations between Castro’s Cuba and the United States in the summer of 2014. But as officials close to those discussions have intimated — and much still remains unknown about Canada’s precise role in the bilateral talks — Ottawa played a strictly facilitative function and not one that involved direct mediation.
So I think that the Canadian government should be very careful here and not get its hopes up. Yes, the Cubans will listen politely and intently because it is coming from Justin Trudeau. But they will most assuredly not take their marching orders from Ottawa. Indeed, the Cubans are known internationally to march to the beat of their own drum— and no one else’s.
I’m not even sure that the Cuban government would be interested in playing a mediation role between the United States and the North Koreans. They certainly don’t feel any loyalty to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has sought to roll back various elements of Barack Obama’s December 2014 entente with the Cubans.
Far be it for the Cuban government to try to get Trump out of the diplomatic corner that he has thoughtlessly painted himself into. It is even possible that Havana views Trump’s entanglement with North Korea as shifting his focus away other places like Cuba and Venezuela (a Cuban friend in the region). And in the absence of a direct plea from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, I’m not convinced that the Cubans would want to assert whatever diplomatic leverage they may have in this particular case.
Moreover, Cuban President Raúl Castro is not going to sacrifice its coveted bilateral relationship with China by sticking its nose somewhere where Beijing would prefer it did not. The Cubans are far too pragmatic to let that happen.
Having said that, there’s nothing inherently wrong with hosting an international meeting or talking to the Cubans on the side. But let’s not expect anything earth-shattering to come from them, given that the odds are largely stacked against it.