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Canada’s less than helpful role at the Summit of the Americas

Prime Minister Harper with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa in August for the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries.

Prime Minister Harper with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa in August for the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries.

Hemispheric leaders, including Prime Minister Harper, are in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend for the 6th Summit of the Americas. CBC reports that the two main topics will be the drug trade and trade generally and there are sharp divisions on both files, not to mention the problem that Cuba was excluded from the meeting altogether.

On drugs, a number of Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, are pushing for new strategies to fight the war on drugs, such as legalization or other “market alternatives.”

Folha.com reports that Guatemala will lead an effort by Central American countries “to propose monetary compensation by [illegal drug] consuming countries and the end of penalties, as well as the creation of a legal mark to regulate drug production, transit and consumption.”

But U.S. President Barack Obama and PM Harper “have so far signalled they are opposed to any moves to relax their drug laws,” writes CBC.

The Vancouver Sun reported yesterday that Harper’s stance on Cuba being excluded from the summit at Washington’s request (he supports it) will also put him at odds with (literally) all other Latin American countries. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s recent comments about the Prime Minister and Canadian mining operations in Latin America may or may not have informed Harper’s opposition.

The title of the summit is “Connective the Americas: Partners for Prosperity,” with regional integration being the underlying theme. So excluding a major player like Cuba isn’t going over well with many countries, especially Ecuador, which has boycotted the summit because of it. Colombian President Santos even admitted this will be the last Summit of the Americas without the communist country at the table.


What’s Harper’s agenda for the summit? After crossing “See Shakira Perform Live” off his bucket list (she’s performing at the opening ceremony, though I have no idea of the Prime Minister is a fan), it’s all about free trade.

“Given the fragile state of the global economy, it is imperative that real progress be achieved on trade and investment liberalization in the Americas and beyond,” said Prime Minister Harper in a media statement. “I look forward to working with Summit leaders towards enhancing trade flows and security in the hemisphere, making it a safer, more prosperous place to live.”

The media release adds, “During his visit, the Prime Minister will also participate in the Americas Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Summit where he will be promoting Canada as a trading nation and investment destination of choice and a key partner for the development and sustainable management of resources.”

But the Americas Policy Group, a coalition of about 40 Canadian NGOs, labour unions, research institutions, church and solidarity groups, says today that “Canada has been under fire for negotiating free trade agreements with countries that have poor human rights and democratic governance records. It has also been widely criticized for the performance of its extractive sector, which has too often been linked to death, displacement and environmental damage in Latin America.”

The Harper government has ratified free trade deals with Colombia and Peru, signed deals with Honduras and Panama, and is moving the latter through the House of Commons, despite human rights, labour rights and environmental records in those countries. The federal government claimed at each step that providing “legitimate” economic opportunities to Latin American countries through trade and investment pacts was the only way to help them to develop sustainably. It was all talk with little empirical evidence behind it.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council in February this year claiming there have been “few tangible improvements in the overall human rights situation,” despite commitments by President Santos:

Guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and the security forces continue to be responsible for crimes under international law. Those particularly affected include Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendent and peasant farmer communities, human rights defenders and trade unionists.

The government must implement effective measures to dismantle paramilitary groups and to break their links with some sectors of the security forces and powerful economic and political groups. It must also put an end to the violations, still being committed by the security forces.


The same controversy that erupted in Canada over the Colombia FTA, and which delayed its passage for 18 months, has taken hold in the United States. Colombia and the U.S. have a completed free trade deal and could announce an implementation date at this weekend’s summit. The deal was being blocked by Democrats in Congress but a Labour Action Plan signed with Colombia last April, which was supposed to ensure the protection of workers and prosecution for those threatening or killing union members, paved the way for passage of the FTA.

“But, as human rights defenders pointed out, the Action Plan had no teeth,” writes Alex Main of the Center for Economic Policy Research in Al Jazeera this week. “[I]t required Colombia to create institutions and programmes nominally dedicated to protecting union activists, but established no benchmarks for reducing the killings.”

Main continues that, “Obama is now expected to announce Colombia’s compliance with the Labour Action Plan – possibly during the Cartagena Summit itself – despite the fact that killings of trade unionists continue (at least 30 in 2011 and four so far this year) and over the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, the US’ largest trade union federation.”

Main argues that despite hope for a new era of North-South cooperation with the election of President Obama, it’s obvious that the Bush-era policies of aggressive free trade, a military response to the war on drugs, and containment of left-leaning governments has won out. It is not winning hearts and minds in the region, and nor is Harper’s identical posture. Main writes:

Unlike 10 years ago, the majority of Latin American governments now lean to the left. They support state-led responses to poverty and social exclusion that clash with neoliberal policies promoted by the US. Furthermore, both left- and right-of-centre governments champion alternative regional groupings that exclude the US.

In addition to Mercosur, several regional political alliances have recently emerged that don’t include the US or Canada as members. These include the Bolivarian Alliance for Our America – Spanish acronym ALBA – which first appeared in 2004 as an alternative to the FTAA and now includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and several Caribbean nations.

The group promotes health and education programmes targeting the poor, energy co-operation and financial integration mechanisms such as the unified system of regional compensation, or SUCRE. It also has defended positions as a bloc at multilateral fora such as the WTO and UN Climate Change conferences.


These are precisely the areas that the Americas Policy Group and Oxfam Canada suggested Canada should focus on in its own engagement with Latin America in their submissions to a Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade public consultation on Canada’s Americas strategy. The groups summarize their ideas in an Embassy Magazine article this week. They include:

1. Canada should “refrain from concluding free trade agreements with countries that have poor human rights records” because FTAs “tend to increase the kinds of investment that are most associated with violence and forced displacement, such as gold, oil, and plantations for biofuel.”

2. Canada should actually address democratic governance as it said it would in its 2007 Americas strategy. “In Honduras… since a coup d’état in June 2009,” they write, “hundreds of regime opponents have been intimidated, arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, tortured, and killed. Instead of condemning these violations and pushing for a verifiable improvement, Canada has adopted a business-as-usual approach, signing a trade deal with Honduras and unequivocally endorsing its highly criticized truth commission.”

3. A new Canadian policy towards the region “would put more emphasis on corporate accountability for Canadian companies operating in Latin America.” Bill C-300, which would have gone some way to holding Canadian mining and extractive firms accountable for their activities abroad but which was defeated in Parliament in 2010, “would have been a useful step in this direction,” say the groups in Embassy.

4. “Finally,” they write, “a revitalized Americas strategy would analyze the root causes of drug and criminality problems in the Americas and recognize that militaristic approaches are often detrimental to public security. Since the war on drugs in Mexico was declared in 2006, there has been an unprecedented rise in crime and violence in the country, with over 47,000 people violently killed in the past five years. Innocent citizens are caught in the crossfire every day, and the drug war is often used as an excuse for impunity and increasing violence against women.”

It may be unrealistic to hope such suggestions will make it into Canada’s new Americas strategy and that’s putting it mildly. As Jennifer Ditchburn reminds us in the Toronto Star today, Harper’s last trip to the Summit of the Americas was less than diplomatic.

“Antagonist, cold-war socialism, rogue nations – the prime minister didn’t hide his disdain for left-wing leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez,” she writes. “His former spokesman awkwardly referred to Latin America at the time as Canada’s ‘backyard.'”

Ditchburn adds that, “Harper will spend a substantial amount of time with top Canadian executives who will be involved in a CEO summit happening at the same time as the leader’s summit. He will also meet with businesspeople when he travels to Chile on a bilateral visit.”

By contrast, she says, “there is very little involvement by Canadian non-governmental organizations in a series of civil society meetings attached to the summit. Consultations on the revitalized Americas Strategy were heavily weighted to the trade side.”

Harper and his trade minister, Ed Fast, might not even focus on trade with Latin America while in Latin America. Instead, they may use the summit to once again try to crawl into Trans-Pacific Partnership talks with countries like Australia, the U.S., New Zealand, Vietnam and several others. It seems an odd use of time and more proof perhaps, for Latin American countries, that Canada has no role to play, or at least no constructive role, in the region’s ongoing economic and social transformation.