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World Freeland meets with Cuban foreign minister to discuss Venezuela crisis

Canada’s foreign minister met with her Cuban counterpart in Havana on Thursday to discuss the political crisis in Cuba’s long-time ally Venezuela and other issues after the island’s Communist government said it was willing to help mediate.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reached out to Cuba two weeks ago on behalf of the Lima Group, a bloc of mostly Latin American countries seeking a peaceful resolution to the Venezuelan standoff.

A top Cuban diplomat said subsequently in an interview with Bloomberg that Havana was willing to help, but that leftist ally President Nicolas Maduro would have to be at the table.

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The Venezuelan opposition has rejected that possibility in the past, accusing Maduro of using talks as a distraction as he consolidated his power. Moreover, the opposition and United States both accuse Cuba of propping up Maduro.

But as the crisis has dragged on, and a short-lived uprising against Maduro failed earlier this month, the opposition’s stance may have softened.

“Cuba has a long history of playing a constructive role in settling conflict in which it has a stake – in Angola, Central America, and Colombia,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

“Cuba won’t abandon its ally and won’t agree to any solution that the Maduro government opposes, but it may encourage Maduro to be more flexible at the bargaining table,” he added.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s Havana visit comes as talks are under way in Norway between Venezuela’s government and “democratic” opponents, according to a government envoy.

It also follows U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comments in a CBS television interview saying the Trump administration was working with the Cuban government on Venezuela.

Pompeo’s remarks surprised many, coming days after President Donald Trump had threatened to impose a “full and complete embargo” on Cuba if it did not immediately end its military support for Maduro, charges Havana denies.

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The United States has tightened an already decades-old embargo on Cuba in recent months to pressure the government, including allowing lawsuits for property confiscated after the 1959 revolution. Such lawsuits can now target foreign companies with interests in Cuba.

Canada, the European Union and other countries have rejected the decision on lawsuits as contrary to international law and said they would defend their companies operating on the island.

Freeland said in a statement on Wednesday she wanted to discuss how to defend Canadians “conducting legitimate trade and investment in Cuba”.

Her visit marks the first by a high-ranking Canadian government official since Trudeau travelled to Havana in November 2016.

During her stay, Freeland was expected to visit Canada’s embassy, which has been reduced to skeletal staffing levels after an unexplained rash of mysterious illnesses among both Canadian and U.S. diplomats in Cuba over the last few years.

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