CANADA is pulling out all the stops to help defeat US legislation that aims to penalize nations that allow their companies to do business with Fidel Castro Ruz's Cuba.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, wants to knock away Mr. Castro's financial supports. But his new legislation risks alienating North American Free Trade Agreement partners Canada and Mexico, and other countries.
At least 230 joint ventures between Cuba and foreign companies from at least 25 countries are ''one of the main reasons'' the Castro government is still afloat, says John Kirk, a professor of Cuban studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Last month, Canadian and Mexican officials vowed to fight the Helms bill together.
Canadian officials acknowledge Castro's poor human rights record and agree it would be best if he were gone. But for decades, Canada has parted company with the US on the way to lift the ''maximum leader'' off his perch. And the US has honored that difference of opinion, tolerating Canada's role as Cuba's economic backdoor to North America.
NOW the US is using ''bully-boy tactics,'' says Professor Kirk. ''It's time the US realized that the whole world is fed up with the US stance on this. Most of Latin America and the world want better relations with Cuba.''
Canada's US Embassy is operating on overdrive, with Prime Minister Jean Chretien's nephew -- Ambassador Raymond Chretien -- making the rounds on Capitol Hill to tell legislators why the Helms bill is bad.
''This problem is a lot more serious than a lot of congressmen may realize,'' Bill Graham, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons, said. ''They say 'Come on, this is Cuba. You shouldn't get fussed about it.' But what we're really talking about here is the ability of smaller countries to be independent in their relationships with other countries.''
While the US has embargoed Cuba for three decades, Canada has expanded its ties. Canada-Cuba trade was $220 million last year. In winter, direct flights from 11 Canadian cities zip warmth-seekers to Cuba's beaches.
Countries that help Cuba are ''a pain in the neck,'' Senator Helms told a large audience of supporters last month. ''I'm talking about Canada. I'm talking about England -- all the rest of them who say we can do business with Castro.''
Such remarks have greatly irritated Canadian officials and editorial writers. ''No Canadian should be surprised at the gall, the arrogance, the blind assumption of right sometimes exhibited by the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world,'' said an editorial by the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper.
Canadian officials say the Helms bill violates international trade agreements, infringes on Canada's right to make its own foreign policy decisions, and would cost Canadian companies about $500 million. Worse, it will probably lead to a trade war between the US and Canada.
''The American Congress is saying, 'We don't care about trade agreements we've signed, there are no rules, just US power politics,' '' Graham says. ''Canada is entitled to have an independent foreign policy.''