(Adds Harper comments, background)
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Canada’s decision to host secret talks between the United States and Cuba on normalizing relations allowed the two countries the discretion they needed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday.
In a brief statement, Harper congratulated the two on their successful dialogue and said Canada supported a future for Cuba that fully embraced the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
“We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks. We were just trying to make sure that they had the opportunity to have the kind of dialogue they needed to have,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The first direct talks between the United States and Cuba took place in June 2013 in Canada, which hosted the bulk of meetings, U.S. officials said.
Canada has had full diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1945 and Canadian companies have long operated there. Shares in natural resources conglomerate Sherritt International Corp , Cuba’s biggest independent energy company, soared 36 percent on Wednesday.
Not all Canadian companies have had the same success as Sherritt. In September, Cuba jailed businessman Cy Tokmakjian for corruption and the affair helped cut Canadian export financing for companies operating there.
Canada and Mexico were the only countries in the hemisphere to maintain ties with Cuba after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
The high mark of bilateral relations came when former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau spent three days in Havana in early 1976 for talks with Castro. In October 2000, Castro served as an honorary pallbearer at Trudeau’s funeral.
Canada, which does C$1 billion in annual trade with Cuba, is also the island’s largest source of tourists, according to Canadian government figures, representing about 40 percent of all visitors to the island.
Canada’s right-leaning Conservatives have long had a distrustful attitude towards Communist governments and Harper told the CBC that he believed changes were coming to Cuba.
“I think that’s an economy and a society just overdue for entry into the 21st century. Time will tell, but I think probably when the current generation of leadership passes, you’ll see some changes,” he said, adding that he thought the country would eventually hold fair and free elections.
Government officials did not respond to requests for additional details of how and where the negotiations took place. (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Additional reporting by Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Amran Abocar, Toni Reinhold)