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Harper zeroes in on Latin America

WikiLeaks: Canada’s improved relations with emerging nations could win sway with other powers


August 8, 2011
by The Canadian Press

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the midst of a six-day mission to boost trade in Latin America as Canada’s largest trading partner, the U.S. is struggling to get its financial house in order.

And there are other reasons why Canada is looking for new export partners, according to an April 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, published by WikiLeaks.

According to the classified document, a chat with former Australian prime minister John Howard got Harper thinking that Canada could hold more sway if the country had strong relations with other countries in the region.

“Harper had long been favourably impressed by Australia’s ability to exert outsized influence with the U.S. in particular —and other powers as well— by emphasizing its relations in its own neighborhood,” the cable says, referring to a conversation with a senior Foreign Affairs official.

“PM Harper hoped to gain similar benefits for Canada by increased attention to Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Harper stops in Brazil first, where Canadian business is growing. This June, the Conservative government dispatched International Trade Minister Ed Fast on a mission there with 19 Canadian companies, including Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin.

Some 400 Canadian companies already operate in Brazil, which is now Canada’s 10th largest trading partner. Exports of Canadian merchandise totalled $2.6 billion in 2010, a 60 per cent jump from the year before.

Despite that, Canada and Brazil do not have a free-trade agreement. Disputes over agriculture andaerospace during the 1990s and early 2000s hampered trade talks. The countries have recently however agreed to co-operate on science, technology and innovation in a two-year deal worth $1.5 million.

The WikiLeaks cable says University of Calgary academic Annette Hester told officials at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa that the deal showed the “absurdity” of Canada’s Americas strategy and the “irrelevancy” of Canada to Latin America, since energy giant Petrobras alone is spending $174 billion on research and development through 2013.

After his stops in Brasilia and Sao Paulo, the prime minister goes to Colombia, where he is expected to talk up a free-trade deal that comes into force Aug. 15, mere days after his visit.

The two countries inked the agreement in November 2008 amid opposition from the New Democrats over Colombia’s dubious human-rights record.

In the U.S., a free trade between with Colombia has been stalled for years by American lawmakers concerned about the country’s history of deadly violence against labour unions.

The leaked WikiLeaks cable suggests Harper didn’t come easily to doing a deal with Colombia.

“It was a painful but deliberate choice for the prime minister,” another senior Foreign Affairs official told the U.S. embassy, according to the document.

The cable says Harper backed former president Alvaro Uribe “despite potential domestic political costs” because he “wished to support someone he viewed as courageous and trying to change his country for the better.”

Two-way trade between Canada and Colombia was nearly $1.4 billion last year. Canada’s merchandise exports to Colombia were worth about $644 million in 2010, while imports totalled $717 million.

After his visit in Colombia, Harper will make stops on the Central American isthmus in Costa Rica and Honduras, where he plans to make headway on a new free-trade deal.

The Canadian government has been in free-trade talks for a decade with the so-called Central American Four, consisting of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Canada is closer to striking a deal with Honduras than any of the other countries. Officials from both countries held trade talks in Ottawa in December and again in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa in February.

Honduras would become the second Central American country with which Canada would have an agreement on free trade. There has been a deal in place with Costa Rica since 2002.