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Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala in Lima in May 2013. Harper has roughly twice as many trips to the region as President Obama. (Photo: Canada Government)
Foreign Minister John Baird with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in July 2013. (Photo: Canada Government)
Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Latin America: Continued Canada Focus

Canada remains strongly focused on Latin America despite eliminating a government post for the region, experts say.


Inter-American Dialogue 

Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird, in mid-August wrapped up a two-week tour of seven countries in Latin America, his second such trip this year. His visit followed closely on the heels of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's elimination of a junior minister position that handled relations with Latin America, which had raised concerns that the country may be disconnecting from the region. Is Canada withdrawing from involvement in the region, or does the minister's trip signal increased engagement? What's at stake in the Canada-Latin America relationship, and in which countries and in what ways should Canada's government be focusing its efforts on the region today?


Barbara J. McDougall, former secretary of state for external affairs of Canada: Continuing to build a strong relationship with Latin America is a deliberate and long-term strategy of Prime Minister Harper's government. In 2011, the appointment of a junior minister responsible for relationships in the region was intended both to signal the government's commitment and to provide more continuity. In practical terms, however, despite Minister Ablonczy's excellent work during her term, it is the signals that come from the senior minister and from the prime minister himself that provide the relationship with depth and heft. Thus Foreign Minister Baird's two trips to the region this year and the Prime Minister's four visits to date should be seen as the significant--and substantive--indicators. Of course each country in the region is distinct, and relationships will be built with sovereign governments, not with a 'region.' At the same time, Canada's approach to the Pacific Alliance, where it has observer status, has been deliberate and strategic and hopefully will lead soon to full membership. Renewed participation on the part of the private sector is bearing fruit and a more practical approach to development assistance, with emphasis on job training and creation. There are irritants: Visa requirements with several countries, including NAFTA partner Mexico remain in place; and setbacks: Canada has signed five new free-trade agreements in the region, but a major agreement with Brazil, the regional powerhouse, has to now remained elusive. Thus, Minister Baird's travels to the area are a long way from ended, and Canada's door remains open to return visits--not just from regional political leaders, but from business leaders and other decision makers.


Marina Jimenez, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas: Canada is certainly not disengaging from the region; far from it. I wouldn't attach too much significance to the elimination of the role of minister of state for the Americas; that just means that Foreign Minister John Baird now takes the lead. His recent 13-day trip to the region was a big investment of his time and a powerful statement of the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to Canada. That visit followed on the heels of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's three-day trip south in May. Canada is smart to have sought observer status at the Pacific Alliance and to reach out to new partners and opportunities. Of course it is no surprise that Ottawa gravitates toward like-minded countries such as Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Chile, but it has also made overtures to Venezuela, Cuba and other countries in the region. While the Canada-Brazil CEO Forum has not yielded any tangible results, the two countries maintain a cordial relationship, and there are a lot of exchanges and activity. Soft diplomacy remains a useful tool to promote trade and investment, as well as ideas. The single most important issue Canada could tackle to improve its relations in the region is to modify the visa system, which many complain is cumbersome and expensive. It remains a major irritant in countries such as Mexico, where it was introduced in July 2009 over concern about a vast number of false refugee claims. Ottawa could consider revoking the visa requirement for Mexicans, especially in light of reforms undertaken to tighten up Canada's refugee process and a subsequent drop in the number of Mexican claimants.


Carlo Dade, director of the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation and non-resident senior associate in the Americas Program at CSIS: Foreign Minister Baird's visit continues a policy of high visibility trips to address the past criticism that Canada never showed up or only showed up when it wanted something. The fact that Prime Minister Harper has roughly twice as many trips to the region as President Obama underlies Canada's commitment, while the lack of headline grabbing announcements is in line with the government's desire to prioritize strengthening relationships over photo-ops. The decision not to keep a junior minister for Latin America indicates that Canada's policy of focusing resources on Latin America as a priority has run its course, and the goal now is to maintain gains. The current round of free-trade agreements has created a de-facto priority for the Pacific Alliance countries and a distancing through inaction with the rest of hemisphere. Not that relations with other countries in the hemisphere have been actively downgraded; rather they have not advanced as quickly or as strongly as have relations with the Pacific Alliance. This is as much, if not more, the result of actions taken by those countries than by Canada. This shift aligns well with Canadian hard national interests, not an everyday occurrence for Canadian foreign policy, and positions the country well for the coming Pacific trade century. There is some question, though, as to whether the government can capitalize on this. In this regard, the decision by Canada not to seek full membership in the Pacific Alliance, while at first puzzling, is turning out to be more of a pause to see how the Pacific Alliance develops than an outright rejection. The government has done well in the region in ways that matter for hard national interests. And, while the government has done well, the same cannot be said for the Canadian private sector, which, with the exception of Scotiabank, has not knocked on doors the government has opened in the region. Though Canadian trade with the region remains robust, it has not grown as much or as widely as one would expect given the investments by the Canadian government.


Jean Daudelin, associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University: Canada is in Latin America to stay. The relationship with the Pacific Alliance countries is very sound, with converging government outlooks on trade and domestic economic policy and a strong presence on the ground by Canadian companies, particularly in the mining and financial services sectors. Mexico, Chile and now Colombia are stable countries, and Ottawa's commitment to sustaining and deepening bilateral relationships is not a matter of whims and shouldn't change during or after the Harper era. By contrast, the current government's rigid attitude on drug issues, which matter a lot in the region, probably dooms attempts at serious cooperation in the crime field, at least until a change of regime in Canada. With the Mercosur/ALBA block, Canada's narrow economic agenda doesn't resonate, and the Harper government's somewhat shrill stance on democracy, human rights and press freedom is unlikely to find support among the current slate of leaders in those countries who favor more 'pragmatic' approaches (as Harper arguably does at home). Things could change quickly with the narrowly resource-based economies of that bloc (that is, everybody but Argentina and Brazil): a change of government or a change of position (for example, Ecuadorean President Correa's turnabout on the Yasuni park) and a desire to avoid becoming hostage to China could lead to rapidly warming relations with Canadian investors and the government. In the meantime, relations with Brazil testify to the maturity of Canada's engagement and to the size of Canadian companies' investments in the region: the two countries see eye to eye on few issues, but no longer fall into the childish confrontations that have poked the relationship in the past.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor


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