Harper is building bridges to Latin America

The prime minister is laying groundwork for the next meeting of the Three Amigos

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The Gazette, Monday, July 23, 2007

For decades, Canada declined to join the Organization of American States on the grounds that it was a puppet of the United States.

It was a very strange posture for Canada, which historically has expressed its support for the multilateral system by joining every international organization in sight. From the UN to NATO, from the Commonwealth to la Francophonie, Canada is a nation of joiners.

Thus, Canada was a partner with Barbados in the Commonwealth, and Haiti in la Francophonie, but with neither in the OAS in our own neighbourhood. It wasn't a very logical position.

When we finally joined the OAS in 1989, Brian Mulroney waved off the usual objections that Canada would be an American poodle, promising a voice, not an echo. And most Latin American and Caribbean countries have welcomed our presence as both a counterweight to Washington's overwhelming influence in the region, and as a channel to the U.S. government.

For example, Mexico was very happy that Canada joined the talks that produced the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992. The Mexicans found that Canadian trade officials were seasoned negotiators who drove a hard bargain with the U.S.

Fifteen years later, NAFTA is a significant success story, but the goal of a hemispheric free-trade area has proven elusive. The Free Trade Area of the Americas round of talks faltered and failed. Yet it was as an OAS member that Canada played host to the Summit of the Americas at Quebec City in 2001.

While Quebec is remembered more for street riots by anti-globalization activists, the meeting was also a statement that the northern-most member of the club that Canada belonged to the hemisphere.

Or, as Stephen Harper put it last week: "We are a country of the Americas."

Beyond being a statement of the obvious, this also a shift of emphasis in Canadian foreign policy. "Re-engagement in our hemisphere is a priority for our government," Harper said.

"Canada is committed to playing a bigger role in the Americas and to doing so for the long term."

Sitting nearby as he said this in Santiago was the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet.

Chile was the second stop on Harper's week-long swing through Latin America and the Caribbean, ending in Barbados and Haiti on the weekend.

The venue was carefully chosen and the speech was carefully calibrated. Chile fulfills the conditions of what Mulroney once termed "democracy and development" in Latin America. Harper put it differently, saying Canada wanted to promote its "foundational values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Since the democratic restoration in Chile, development has indeed followed democracy. It is, by far, the most prosperous country in South America. As Harper noted, 2007 also marks the 10th anniversary of the Canada-Chile free-trade agreement, and absent a hemispheric agreement, Harper signalled last week his intention to negotiate a series of bilateral agreements with interested Latin American countries. As he also noted, Canada has $100 billion invested in the region. And nobody is threatening to nationalize any of it.

The speech also offered Harper an occasion to sing the praises of open markets, while taking a polite distance from the United States.

Too often, he suggested, the choices for Latin America are framed as "the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare or to become just like the United States. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Canada's very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one."

Goodness, that could have been written on the editorial page of the Toronto Star.

In the timing of these trips, everything happens for a reason. Harper's South American and Caribbean swing is a prelude to his hosting the next meeting of the Three Amigos - with the U.S. and Mexican presidents - at Montebello next month. Harper has gone out of his way to develop a good relationship with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as well as with George W. Bush.

Hemispheric issues are bound to come up, and when they do, Harper can say he recently had a good visit throughout the neighbourhood.

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