Quebec wants to seize the opportunity presented by the thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States to open a permanent office in Havana. “It would be a very concrete gesture to show our determination to establish [a] sustainable and permanent relationship with Cuba,” International Relations Minister Christine St-Pierre told CBC News in a one-on-one interview.
An office in Havana would help Quebec businesses hoping to break into the island nation’s economy and help develop relationships in education, science and culture, St-Pierre said. “Ideally, it would happen fairly quickly,” said the minister. However, talks with Cuban authorities and the federal government need to take place before the province can establish a firm presence.
First official visit last November
St-Pierre accelerated steps to solidify the relationship after her official trip last November — the first by a Quebec international relations minister. She said realized Quebec needed to act quickly in order to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen relations with Cuba, only a three-and-a-half hour plane ride from Montreal.
International Relations Minister, Christine St-Pierre, would like Quebec to open a permanent office in Havana. (CBC)
Fifty countries were present at the trade fair in November, St-Pierre said, and many had the same idea.
“The Chinese are there,” she said. “The Germans are there, and they definitely want to do business with Cuba.”
After the mission, she expanded the responsibilities of Quebec’s mission in Mexico to include Cuba, as a first step towards developing stronger and more stable ties.
Quebec’s relationship with Cuba dates back to the 18th century, when French-Canadian explorers first travelled to the island. Today, Canadians make up a third of tourists in Cuba, with Quebecers making up 40 per cent of them.
Quebec already has 26 offices in 14 countries around the world. It opened a mission opened in Dakar, Senegal on March 4.
Under the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba, American authorities have the right to penalize foreign companies with U.S. business interests in Cuba. This has prevented some Quebec companies from entering the Cuban market.
However, the recent thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba is a signal that the Americans may eventually lift the embargo. This is why “Quebec [is] moving forward,” said St-Pierre.
Cuba’s human rights record
When it comes to Cuba’s record on human rights and freedom of speech, the minister believes Quebec can help promote democratic values by further developing its relationship with Cuba and its government.
“If you want to show what you are doing in your own country and the protection of values, democracy, human rights, I think it’s the best way to be with them and help them understand,” she said.
“They can see what we have in Canada. We have freedom of speech, and it’s very, very important in a democracy.”
Quebec and Canada have a “natural advantage,” when it comes to capitalizing on Cuba’s economic opening, says John Kirk, a Latin American Studies professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, because of the relationship both governments maintained with the country despite U.S. policy.
However, he says, until now, Quebec and Canada have not taken full advantage of that position.
“This is a no-brainer,” says the author and editor of 16 books on Cuba. “While Ottawa has been asleep at the switch under Stephen Harper and has frittered away its natural advantages, other countries have not,” he said.
“The government of Quebec is taking the lead, and I sincerely hope people in Ottawa will take notice and do the same thing themselves.”
* Ryan Hicks is CBC’s Quebec National Assembly correspondent. He has reported from Montreal, Winnipeg, Charlottetown and Ottawa – where he was a producer on Power & Politics in the Parliamentary Bureau.