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Wednesday , 18 May 2022

Editorial: Why Prime Minister John Diefenbaker decided not to sever ties with communist Cuba

In 1959 following the victory of Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba, the Canadian government, headed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, decided to maintain diplomatic and economic relations with Havana.

This decision to continue such relations would see opposition from the United States and strain relations between Canada and the US. To understand why Canada decided not to follow the US in severing ties with Cuba, the factors surrounding the decision must be examined.

Therefore, why did Prime Minister John Diefenbaker decide not to sever ties with communist Cuba?

Diefenbaker made a decision not to sever ties with Cuba and he says he had reasoning in doing so. But what main were the main supporters of his decision, and who at the time was against it?

John Diefenbaker

To understand why the decision was made not to sever ties with Cuba, we must look at John Diefenbaker himself and his reasoning in making this decision. First, it must be noted that the Prime Minister was very clear in his opinion that “The responsibility of the Canadian government was to consider Canadian interests first.”

In addition to this view, Diefenbaker was also very distrustful and hostile at times toward the members of his Department of External Affairs. As John Kirk and Peter McKenna explain he was “reluctant to approach the External Affairs officials for advice, and preferred to rely heavily on his own political instincts, deferring rarely to the official foreign policy advisors.” As many of these officials worked for years under Lester B. Pearson, former secretary of state for external affairs and leader of the opposing Liberal party, he was suspicious of this influence. To summarize these circumstances “John G. Diefenbaker himself wanted to formulate the national foreign policy, both for the nation’s good and to shore up his own political fortunes.”

 When it came to the decision on what to do about Cuba, Diefenbaker distanced himself from his counterpart in the United States point of view. He believed that “It was Canada’s duty to maintain with Cuba the cordial relations customary with the recognized government of another country.” Diefenbaker did not like the US meddling in Canadian business and this was a chance for him to do something that he saw was in the nation’s best interest. He further supported his reasoning to not sever ties with Cuba in his memoirs where he stated, “There were no grounds on which Canada’s departure from the normal diplomatic conduct could be justified, from either a legal or any other point of view.”

During the time of the Cuba decision, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the current President of the United States. Diefenbaker noted, “I found Eisenhower a warm and engaging person, and we became the best of friends.”

This relationship which the two both addressed each other on a first-name basis, was a supporting reason why Diefenbaker believed the decision not to follow the US position on Cuba would not strain Canada-US relations. The two referred to their-selves as “Mike” and “Ike” and Diefenbaker often boasted “that he could always phone up “Ike” and have any problem between the two countries speedily resolved.” This belief of support and friendship from the US President further persuaded Diefenbaker that he was making the right choice in not severing ties with Cuba.

Supporting the Cuba decision

After the successful Cuban revolution, Sydney Smith made it clear in a memorandum to the Prime Minister that, “as Canada has a large investment in Cuba, it is highly desirable that Canada should not lag in recognizing the new government.”

Canadian business had been successful in Cuba in previous years and it was recognized these investments should be protected. With the US severing economic ties with Cuba, this also presented the Canadian government with an opportunity to fill that gap.

As Raul Rodriguez noted, “Canada’s export-oriented economy was poised to benefit from the new opportunities offered by the Cuban market, and Cuba offered it a means to assert its sovereignty via forging an independent foreign policy stance.”

Both these reasons were valid points in deciding to continue relations with the Cuban government as it was clear this decision would be beneficial to the Canadian government and economy.

There was also a lot of pressure from Canadian financial institutions to ensure this relationship was not severed.

For example, the Royal Bank had experienced a lot of success in Cuba as illustrated by a 1950 report on Cuba by the World Bank that stated, “The Royal Bank was listed number one among all commercial banks in total deposits.” It had also “come into possession of at least 16 sugar mills and 300 acres of fertile sugar cane growing land.” The Bank of Nova Scotia was also performing successfully over in Cuba, establishing eight branches throughout the country. It was also very important for Canadian insurance institutions to put pressure on maintaining this relationship as, “By 1958 more than 70 percent of all life insurance policies held by Cuban nationals were underwritten by Canadian Manufacturer’s, Confederation, Crown, Imperial, and Sun-Life insurance companies.”

By severing ties with the Cuban government these large Canadian investments would be potentially lost and as the Cuban government was initializing “A nationalization program affecting foreign investments that were bound to hurt Canadian firms which had long-standing investments of importance on the island.”

The Canadian public also supported Diefenbaker in his decision not to sever ties with Cuba. “Fidel Castro was a popular figure among many Canadians, even when his reforms and increasing links with Moscow troubled most of them; and standing up to what was widely seen as yet another case of American bullying of a Latin American neighbour was supported by major elements of the Canadian body politic.”

The Canadian public admired Castro standing up to the American government and in deciding not to sever ties with Cuba, the general consensus was that Diefenbaker was doing the same. There was extensive coverage in the Canadian Press of the issues involved with dealing with Cuba and the Prime Minister knew he had the public’s support behind him as he mentioned in his memoirs stating, “Finally, and not at all least important, Canadian policy towards Cuba had the overwhelming support of Canadian public opinion and of Canada’s press.”

Against the Cuba Decision

The Eisenhower administration of the United States was not supportive of Diefenbaker’s decision not to sever ties with Cuba. Dennis Molinaro explains that “the American position on revolutionary Cuba fit perfectly into Eisenhower’s conception of the world and the communism threat facing North America.” Although the Prime Minister and President enjoyed a “close friendship”, they were clearly focused on dealing with Cuba in different ways. “The United States felt that Canada as a North American ally with a special relationship, especially in defence, should logically stand by its friend against communist infiltration of the hemisphere.” However, through Diefenbaker’s decision, he and Eisenhower maintained a partnership and were “never at odds with the US policy on the island nation.”

The United States was not the only one against Diefenbaker’s decision to continue relations with Cuba. The Canadian Ambassador in Havana at the time, Hector Allard, shared American apprehensions, if to a lesser degree, about the new government.” Having spent years over in Cuba and having great knowledge of the current conditions surrounding the revolution Allard was suspicious of the Castro government. He sent confidential dispatches explaining the various issues that have arisen with the Castro government taking control. These issues included general, political, international, economic, and diplomatic concerns. One exert expresses this concern as Castro was making a bid to be invited to Canada stating, “I believe more and more that this should be prevented at all costs as Castro is fast becoming the victim of his own verbosity and also a tool of communist elements surrounding him.”. Allard’s suspicions however would go unwarranted as mentioned previously that Diefenbaker did not take advice from External Affairs officials.

Analysis of the decision

In his decision not to sever ties with Cuba, John Diefenbaker did what he thought was right and that “the responsibility of the Canadian government was to consider Canadian interests first.” The decision was made understanding the opposition from the United States government. Many attribute this to the strong relationship he boasted of having with Dwight D. Eisenhower. He felt throughout his time in dealing with his American counterpart that any problem the two had could easily be solved quickly with a short phone call. Diefenbaker himself was as anti-communist as Eisenhower however he saw an opportunity with the Cuban relationship and did so knowing it would not have the support of his close ally. He believed “It was an accepted rule of international conduct that differences in philosophical outlook in political systems do not justify a refusal to maintain normal intercourse with another government. We might disapprove of various regimes but it had long been Canada’s practice to carry on normal relations with countries or governments whose philosophies were at variance with our own.”

In going against the US pressure to sever ties he did not ruin US-Canada relations as some might have thought would have happened. As John Kirk and Peter McKenna explain “The importance of Diefenbaker’s stand on Cuba should not be underestimated, for in essence Canada simply refused to go along with the clamor of opposition, generated by Washington, that sought to isolate Cuba from the Western World”

His distrust and reluctance to work with his Foreign Affairs officials also contributed to his decision. In a department filled with what he called “Pearsonites” he felt that the influence of their former boss and leader of the opposition party was too strong to adhere to their recommendations. Diefenbaker did want to formulate his own foreign policy and he knew in doing so it would shore up his own political fortunes. The pressure from the Canadian financial sector which had significant investments in Cuba was not taken into great consideration either. With the Nationalization program Castro was initiating, Diefenbaker knew that the Canadian investments would ultimately be affected however by continuing the Canada-Cuba relations these investments were shown special treatment.

I hope this brief history lesson showed you that John Diefenbaker did in the end what he saw was in the best interest of the Canadian government. He did not adhere to pressure from external forces trying to sway his decision. He was fed up with being what he said was being pushed around by Washington and decided not to side with his ally on the issue. In doing so he created a strong relationship with Cuba that continued many years after he was out of office. Most importantly his decision had the support of the Canadian public and showed to the international stage that Canada was asserting its sovereignty in making its own decision.

About Arthur C. Green

Arthur C. Green is an award winning journalist and is from Whitbourne Newfoundland. Green graduated from the CNA Journalism Program. Arthur also studied Business Marketing and Political Science at Memorial University in Essex England and St. John's Newfoundland. Green has worked for such organizations as CBC, CBC Radio, NTV, Saltwire, Great West Media, CKLB Radio, River Radio, Vista Radio, and Postmedia. He also loves Jiggs Dinner and can fillet a Codfish.