John Baird is making a rare visit to Venezuela by a Canadian foreign affairs minister and the first official visit to Cuba since 1998, his office announced Thursday.

Baird is spending the next few days in Latin America, visiting six countries over the next week. While his first stop was Thursday in Mexico, Baird will be in Havana, Cuba's capital, on Friday morning.

The trip to Cuba will be the first trip to the country by a Canadian foreign affairs minister since Liberal Lloyd Axworthy visited in 1997. Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien went in 1998. 

Baird will visit Venezuela next Wednesday, the first visit by a Canadian foreign minister since Axworthy attended an Organization of American States meeting in the country in 1998. Joe Clark visited the country twice in the 1980s, including a bilateral visit in 1986, during his time as external affairs minister.

Both Venezuela and Cuba restrict personal freedoms and repress political opponents.

A spokesman for Baird says "he will use this opportunity to press the need for economic liberalization and respect for human rights."

'Need for action on civil rights'

"Canadian interests and Canadian values are very much intertwined, and the minister will be using this opportunity to express Canada's view on the need for action on civil and political rights in particular," Rick Roth, Baird's press secretary, said in an email.

"While in Venezuela, the minister will meet with government officials and opposition figures, as well as civil society groups, to discuss human rights, free and fair elections, and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech …. Venezuela has an opportunity to make great strides on these issues, and Canada will be a willing partner to see through this transformation."

He added: "Canada and Canadian businesses can also participate in and prosper from these changes."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says he hopes Baird doesn't just lecture Cuban and Venezuelan officials, but listens and engages with them.

"We've let the relationship languish and just at the time when things are opening up in Cuba," Dewar said.

About one million Canadians travel to Cuba every year, according to Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs.

Canada is Cuba's largest source of tourists, making up almost 40 per cent of visitors to the country. While the U.S. strictly limits trade with Cuba, Canadian companies can do business there, and the Canadian International Development Agency runs aid programs in the country.

To meet Venezuelan opposition

Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's school of international development and global studies, says the visits come as a surprise.

"There's not much on the agendas with other countries, free trade agreements and other stuff," Dade said. "Obviously, he's going to have to say something about human rights and governance in the countries."

The trip will be useful, he said, to remind Latin America that Canada's policies on Cuba and Venezuela are different from those of the United States.

"We'll talk to them, we'll engage with them, but we have real concerns about human rights," Dade said.

While he's in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, Baird will meet with the country's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, and Vice President Nicolas Maduro, as well as the executive secretary of the opposition coalition. Baird will also meet with civil society and pro-democracy groups, as well as Canadian business representatives.

In Cuba, Baird will visit a synogogue, meet with Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and meet with Canadian business representatives.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that John Baird's trip to Venezuela was the first-ever bilateral visit there by a Canadian foreign minister. In fact, it is the first since Joe Clark's bilateral visit in 1986.
    Feb 15, 2013 9:28 PM ET