Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wilson: Cuba, Passport babbles

Wilson pushes Cuba connection
Feb 17, 2007 Tim Harper Toronto Star

Canada's prepared to help broker Havana-U.S. ties after Castro dies, ambassador says

WASHINGTON–Canada is prepared to draw on its long relationship with Cuba to act as a "bridge" between Washington and Havana in the post-Castro era, Michael Wilson says.

Wilson, who is approaching his first anniversary as Canadian ambassador here, said in an interview yesterday he is acting on a mandate from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who wants Ottawa to become more active diplomatically in the Western Hemisphere.

"That's our neighbourhood," Wilson said.

He said Canada has developed relations not only with officials in Fidel Castro's government, but also members of the island's fragmented opposition groups, and Ottawa has pushed Havana to release political prisoners and open its economy.

Canada can also draw on its business investments and tourism spending in Cuba to curry influence, the former Conservative cabinet minister said.

"We have a dialogue, and that is different from the United States because they have nothing like this type of dialogue," Wilson said.

"Because of that dialogue, we have an understanding of how Cuba thinks. We also have an understanding of how Washington thinks. Cuba sees us as a North American country with which they can have some sort of dialogue.

"We can build a greater understanding between the two countries."

The 80-year-old Castro handed power provisionally to his brother Raul last July 31 and has undergone unspecified abdominal surgery. He has not reappeared in public since.

Fidel Castro's health has been the subject of numerous conflicting reports, but his son said this week he expected his father to fully recover.

Raul Castro has stated publicly that he is open to negotiations with the U.S. government on an equal footing.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba two years after Castro took power in 1959 after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled, and has had only low-level contacts since.

The Bush administration is banking on Cuban communism collapsing, although all signs point to more of a smooth political succession with the opportunity for some flexibility with Raul Castro at the helm.

The U.S. is building new holding pens at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay in anticipation of an influx of migrants after the death of Fidel Castro.

Wilson also spoke of two other bilateral issues that have dominated his time since he took over the post from Liberal appointee Frank McKenna, the onetime New Brunswick premier.

He said he has been briefed on the U.S. decision to bar Maher Arar from the U.S. and disagrees with the American rationale. But unless another opportunity arises to plead Arar's case, there appears little chance of movement on the issue, he said.

"This is an area where two sovereign nations have agreed to disagree," Wilson said.

"But the matter has been taken to a very high level ... with three cabinet secretaries."

He also said uncertainty over U.S. plans to require passports at its land border crossings continues to hurt cross-border tourism, but admitted he wasn't in a position to alleviate that uncertainty as the first implementation date of Jan. 1, 2008, approaches.

"I can't sit here and announce what the Americans will require upon that date," he said.

"That is precisely the point we have been making. We need a greater degree of certainty."

Two key points await resolution, Wilson said.

It is still not clear how successful the Bush administration will be in developing and marketing its PASS card, the so-called "passport lite" documentation it will accept from its returning citizens.

And it's not known if the Americans will agree to a lengthy phase-in period for Canadians if enhanced drivers' licences – featuring the same security and recognition technology as the PASS card – are ultimately acceptable to the U.S. authorities.

With 10 provinces and three territories having to revamp their licences, Wilson said, the phase-in could be lengthy.

U.S. officials privately say Canada is dragging its feet on land border crossing regulations, and is pushing for enhanced drivers' licences even though they can't reliably prove citizenship because they're issued under provincial jurisdiction.

Wilson defended passport office staff in Canada, saying they're working overtime and weekends to distribute documents to Canadians who now need passports to fly to the U.S.

He also defended Ottawa's decision to issue passports valid for only five years – half of the lifespan of those issued by most western countries, including the U.S.

"The five-year term is better for security," Wilson said. "You have to have the security information reviewed on a more frequent basis."