They were secret talks at a high level, kept under wraps for 18 months. In June of 2013, a U.S. delegation started travelling to Canada for face-to-face discussions with Cuban counterparts.

The delegation, led by President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and senior Latin America specialist Richard Zuniga, came for meetings that covered a swap of prisoners and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations – a breakthrough after more than 50 years of U.S. embargo.

In all, they quietly travelled seven times to Canada in 2013 and 2014, holding six sessions in Ottawa and one in Toronto, according to a Canadian government source.

Canada’s role was one of host, not mediator, according to the source – to provide a site that was secure and assured the discretion that allowed “important but very sensitive negotiations.” It was a task handled by a small group of Canadian officials who dealt directly with the White House, rather than the U.S. State Department, one senior Canadian official said.

Few doubt that the secrecy of the discussions – a politically explosive initiative in the United States – made Wednesday’s surprise announcement possible.

None of the high-level discussions were held on U.S. or Cuban territory, U.S. officials told reporters. Key details of the release from prison of U.S. contractor Alan Gross and, in exchange, of three members of the so-called Cuban Five, were worked out in the other third-country site for talks, Vatican City, after Pope Francis played a key role in urging Mr. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to talk.

“I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role,” Mr. Harper said in an interview with CBC. “We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways of normalizing the relationship.”

But Canada’s role – highlighted Wednesday – by both Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro – was in keeping with its history. Canada kept its direct diplomatic ties to Cuba over the five decades when the U.S. had none. And under governments of all stripes, Ottawa kept encouraging Americans to reconsider the embargo, while Canadian diplomats in Havana passed messages between the two countries.

It’s well-known that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau struck a rapport with Fidel Castro, and visited Cuba in 1976. But while relations blew hot and cold, diplomatic ties were never severed. Mr. Harper, who took a very different view of the regimes of Fidel or Raul Castro, is also firmly against the U.S. embargo. When Mr. Obama, attending a Summit of the Americas as a new president in 2009, flirted with a thaw in Cuba relations, Mr. Harper supported it on U.S. conservative TV outlet Fox News. “You know, I am an anti-Communist conservative myself, but I believe strongly that … economic engagement is important in getting liberalization in the long term, so we would like to see that.” he said.

Keith Christie, a former senior foreign affairs official who served as ambassador to Cuba from 1997 to 2000, said the host role in these talks fit the role Canada long played.

“It is certainly consistent with our long-standing view that the two parties have to get together, in a world where everybody’s re-established relationships with the People’s Republic of China, and the U.S., as Obama himself pointed out, managed to come to terms a couple of decades ago with the Republic of Vietnam,” he said. “We had some very frank discussions with the Cubans and the Americans in that regard.”

The U.S. has a large Interests Section in Havana, with a big staff, just as Cuba did in Washington, but the Americans faced restrictions Canadians did not. “Their ability to actually have contact with senior government officials was extremely limited. And what we did on a number of occasions was sort of pass messages back and forth,” Mr. Christie said.

“We were always on the program for visiting U.S. Senators or representatives that were being hosted by the Interests Section and that the Cubans let in periodically, and our advice to the Americans was always, ‘If you’re looking to contribute to change in Cuba, get rid of the economic sanctions.’”

Now, Mr. Obama is moving that way – although, Mr. Christie notes, the devil is in the details still to be discussed, and the U.S. trade embargo and tourism ban remain in effect under legislation Mr. Obama cannot rescind.

Canada’s role didn’t just provide Mr. Harper satisfaction, it brought rare kudos from NDP foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. And the outcome fits the direction Canadian governments of all stripes have promoted.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 17 2014, 9:41 PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 18 2014, 3:12 AM EST