02/17/2013 01:34 EST | Updated 04/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Baird concerned with Iran ties with Venezuela, after democracy push in Cuba

OTTAWA - Canada is increasingly concerned with the growing cozy relations between Iran and Venezuela and intends to press the issue with the regime of Hugo Chavez in Caracas next week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Sunday.

"I'm concerned about Iran in general," he told The Canadian Press from Lima, Peru. "I'm concerned about their nuclear program. I'm concerned about their support of terrorism.

"And I'm concerned about their deteriorating human rights record at home. So I don't think we'll see eye to eye with Venezuela on that."

Baird is on an eight-day, six-country Latin American tour that also took him last week to Cuba, the hemisphere's most repressive anti-democratic country. He visits Caracas on Wednesday.

The Cuba-Venezuela bond was underscored as Baird arrived in Havana on Friday. He was greeted with the release of a new photograph of Chavez convalescing happily in a Cuban hospital, where he has spent the last two months receiving treatment for cancer.

Though Venezuela is a functioning democracy, it has in Chavez an aging and ailing iron-fisted leader similar to that of communist Cuba, where Raul Castro, 81, succeeded his iconic, 86-year-old brother Fidel five years ago, and has begun instituting modest economic reforms.

Baird said he is pushing for deeper economic and commercial engagement for Canada in both countries because that can promote change at what is looking like a pivotal moment in history.

The minister said he sees potential for Canadian companies in the financial services, energy and mining sectors.

But with Chavez potentially on his last legs, the Obama administration is hopeful it can reset relations with Venezuela. Chavez has courted Iran as an ally.

The Obama administration believes Iran is trying to gain a foothold in Latin America, including perhaps establishing a military base.

Last week, Venezuela had to explain a $46-million cheque found in the possession of Iran's former central bank chief when he was detained in Germany.

On Sunday, a report by Iran's Press TV said Venezuela's state-owned weapons manufacturer, CAVIM, would continue to do business with Iran in the face of sanctions by the U.S. State Department.

Baird said he is eager to bring up the Iran relationship with his counterpart in Caracas later this week.

"On Iran, we have strong views," he said.

Baird is also scheduled to meet with opposition figures in Venezuela.

"The elections held recently were by no means perfect but I think even the opposition conceded they were much better than anticipated," Baird said in reference to the ballot that returned Chavez to power last fall before his illness struck.

"Obviously, we want to promote democracy, and we want to promote political freedoms."

In Cuba, Baird said he had frank discussions with his counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, who at 54 is a political spring chicken compared the octogenarian holdovers from the 1959 revolution who still occupy high offices.

Since taking charge, Raul Castro has allowed a series of small, free market reforms, and eased travel restrictions on Cubans.

"I think there's a long way to go," said Baird. "They're beginning to make some significant economic reform, so I think there's some reason for optimism there."

He also said Cuba is beginning a transition to new leadership.

"There is beginning to be a change of the guard in the cabinet, and among the senior leadership — just a beginning — I think that gives us some reason for optimism," he said.

"Obviously, we want to see people in Cuba live in freedom and prosperity."

Baird said Canada still opposes Cuba's return to the Organization of American States when it holds its next summit in 2015, saying the country needs to go further on its reforms. Canada and the U.S. oppose the return of Cuba to the 35-country Western Hemisphere club.

But Canada supports Cuba's calls for the United States to end its five-decade long economic embargo.

"Obviously, we don't share views with our closest friend and ally on that issue," said Baird, who noted that the Obama administration has eased some of the provisions of the embargo in recent years.

Despite the embargo, Baird said he was surprised by the U.S. presence in Havana.

The American Interest Office, he said, which houses U.S. diplomats, "is the biggest foreign office in the country. There were Americans everywhere I went — in the elevator at the hotel."