A former ambassador to Cuba warns that Canada needs to re-engage with Cuba, or cede its decades-old advantage

President Barack Obama has just finished a visit to Cuba that can only described as historic by any standard. The impact of the Obama visit cannot be judged by the package of announced agreements and deals that usually accompany foreign visits by political leaders. This was a rare class of visit that had a transcendent purpose: to attempt to change the psychology of a relationship in a long-term, sustainable and irreversible way.

Cuba and the United States have made remarkable progress in the 15 months since December 17, 2014, when both presidents announced on the beginning of a process to re-establish relations between their two countries. The process is often described as “normalization,” but, in fact, there has never existed a normal relationship between the United States and Cuba — the United States effectively treated Cuba as an economic and political colony throughout the first half of the 20th century. Rather, the two presidents are now creating a new and more normal relationship. This is a construction project that will take several years.

There remain rocky crevasses to traverse to get to “normal.” For the foreseeable future the dialogue will be characterized by a background hum of American exhortations about political reform and human rights in Cuba, and Cuban demands that the United States cease meddling in its internal affairs. But to unlock the full potential of this rapprochement, there are bigger issues on the table that both governments must address. On the US side of the ledger are the claims for compensation for properties expropriated in the early 1960s. The Cuban side is seeking an end to the US trade and investment embargo; it is also looking for American withdrawal from the military base at Guantanamo Bay, which it sees as an aberration and an affront to Cuban national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Cuba also has claims against the United States for alleged harm and damage caused to the Cuban economy and to individual Cuban citizens by the embargo. In his extraordinary address to the Cuban people, President Obama’s language indicated an unprecedented American understanding of the nuanced reality of Cuba, and it has created optimism for the future.

Where do these stunning developments in the US-Cuba relationship leave Canada?

With 70 years of unbroken diplomatic relations with Cuba, maintained despite considerable pressure from the United States, Canada has an earned diplomatic asset that internationally only Mexico also possesses. But the relationship is like an isotope with a half-life that has been steadily counting down, and it needs to be systematically refreshed. Successive Canadian governments have been content to let the asset sit on the shelf.

But the breakout moves by President Obama place in stark relief the absence of official Canada in Cuba. It is supremely ironic that with all the hostility and antagonism that has marred the US-Cuba relationship for six decades, the president of the United States of America could get himself to Havana before even one senior Canadian minister could. Parallel to its opening to the United States, and as a counterpoint, the Cubans reached a new comprehensive accord with the European Union just days before Obama’s arrival in Havana. Hence the succession of visits to Cuba over the past year by the heads of state of France and Italy, the vice-chancellor of Germany, numerous Spanish cabinet ministers, and a UK trade minister. The Mexicans are aggressively deploying their earned diplomatic asset in Cuba. These visits carry important strategic weight in Cuba, as signs of respect for the countries’ relationships with it and a calibration of its importance to each country.

Despite already having this unique diplomatic asset on the shelf, Canada is not a player in this evolving situation. There is every reason to believe that Canadian business could recapture the role it played even before the Cuban Revolution, when it had significant presence in key sectors and served as an antidote to Cuban nationalist concerns about the tendency of the United States to overwhelm. Canada is another North American partner with access to large pools of capital and expertise.

President Obama’s visit has shown Canada the fork in the road. Canada should now show up to play or cede the Cuba game to the US and other nations, after 70 years.