WATCH: The critical meetings that lead to the announcement of changes in the U.S. relationship with Cuba took place in Canada. Vassy Kapelos reports.
OTTAWA – Canada hosted about seven secret meetings in both Ottawa and Toronto between the United States and Cuba – meetings that lead to President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the two countries have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations.
The meetings were held in both 2013 and 2014, a government official confirmed to Global News.
Harper tried to play down Canada’s contribution, telling the CBC in an interview that Canada did not mediate or direct the talks. But he called Wednesday’s announcement an “overdue development.”
“We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways of normalizing the relationship,” Harper said. “I personally believe changes are coming in Cuba, and this will facilitate those.”
Nonetheless, the prime minister said, those changes will come slowly to an economy and a society he called “overdue for entry” into the 21st century.
“Probably when the current generation passes, you’ll see some changes,” he said.
“Although we have some tainted democracies in the hemisphere, this is really the only place where there are elections that completely non-competitive.”
The U.S. and Cuba agreed to open economic and travel ties, marking a historic shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island after a half-century of enmity dating back to the Cold War.
WATCH: Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave the Republican rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s announcement that relations with Cuba would be normalized Wednesday. Responding to reporter’s questions after his statement, Rubio said he was in favour of normalizing relations with Cuba, but “first Cuba has to be normal”.
Canada has had relations with Cuba since 1945 – and was one of only two countries from the hemisphere not to break diplomatic relations with the Caribbean country following their revolution in 1959.
Harper told another interviewer in 2009 that the American strategy towards Cuba – its half century-old embargo – had simply “not worked.”
U.S. officials say the first face-to-face talks with the Cubans took place in Canada in June of last year, with several other discussions taking place since then.
Harper also issued a statement congratulating the two countries on reaching their agreement.
WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama talks about U.S.-Cuba relations
“Canada supports a future for Cuba that fully embraces the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Harper said in his statement.
“Canada was pleased to host the senior officials from the United States and Cuba, which permitted them the discretion required to carry out these important talks.”
Pope Francis was also personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.
The announcement coincided with the release of American prisoner Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.
WATCH: Alan Gross arrives in the U.S. after release from Cuba
Obama said Gross’ five-year imprisonment had been a “major obstacle” in normalizing relations. Gross arrived at an American military base just outside Washington Wednesday, accompanied by his wife and a handful of U.S. lawmakers. He went immediately into a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
‘A friend to both nations’
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Canadian diplomats deserve thanks for their hard work on the file.
“This is an example of constructive diplomacy, something that Canada is very good at,” Dewar said in a statement.
“Today is a great day for those who believe in engagement as the most effective tool of diplomacy. We should see more of this constructive approach in Canadian foreign policy.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau tweeted his own congratulations, calling his party a “friend to both nations.”
The iconic former Cuban president Fidel Castro attended the funeral of Pierre Trudeau in 2000, eschewing his traditional military fatigues for a dress suit. In the 1970s, the two leaders struck up a friendship after the elder Trudeau visited Havana.
At an event in British Columbia, Trudeau recalled watching Castro and then U.S. President Jimmy Carter speaking at Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. Carter later became the first U.S. president – in or out of office – to visit Cuba since its 1959 communist revolution.
“I think Canada has played, historically, an important role as being a buffer, a go-between,” Trudeau said.
As part of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities. Tourist travel remains banned.
Licensed American travellers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.
The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.
-With files from Global News