Last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City, the seventh meeting of hemispheric heads of state, may go down in history as the “handshake summit.” Barack Obama and Raul Castro’s greeting marked the beginning of the first official meeting between presidents of the United States and Cuba since Raúl and his brother Fidel marched into Havana during the revolution of 1959. That handshake is a foreign policy achievement for both sides. It also rescued the Summit process, which many observers thought might not continue if Cuba was not included this time. Indeed at the last Summit in Colombia, the United States and Canada were isolated by their hard-line positions – particularly on Cuba and on appropriate responses to drug-related violence. Every other country in the Americas called for Cuba’s inclusion. The fact that they eventually got their way heralds the more multipolar distribution of power that is gelling in the hemisphere and at the global level.
The Summit in Panama was not marked by unity on every issue. Prior to the event, the United States marred its historic opening to Cuba by imposing ill-conceived sanctions on some Venezuelan officials, calling Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security.” As a result, no unanimous declaration came out of the meeting, since Latin American and Caribbean countries wanted to speak out in opposition to the sanctions, while Canada and the U.S. refused. But in general the level of antagonism was much reduced, as representatives of Latin America and the Caribbean celebrated Castro’s involvement and adopted a constructive approach to promotion of “equity with prosperity”, mainly through education policies.
How did Canada fare at the meeting? Prime Minister Harper had little choice but to back down on his previous opposition to Cuba’s involvement and could in fact take some credit for Cuba’s invitation, since closed door meetings leading to this outcome were facilitated by Canadian diplomats. Harper also met with President Castro in Panama and raised concerns about democracy and human rights, while promoting Canadian business interests in Cuba. The Prime Minister and Canadian business leaders participated in a major CEO Forum, where Harper announced eight large cooperation projects in areas ranging from like agriculture and rural development, to extractive sector governance. Accompanied by Foreign Minister Nicholson, he also announced 16 new cooperation projects in the areas of public health, public security and justice reform, border management, as well as initiatives to support peace in Colombia. Many of those projects had been in the pipeline at DFATD. The Summit provided a great opportunity to make $254 million of “announceables” to rekindle relations with many bilateral and multilateral partners in the hemisphere, including Cuba and the Organisation of American States (OAS).
The relative success of the Summit also offers an opportunity to rethink Canada’s approach to the hemisphere. The focus of the Americas Strategy announced by Harper in 2007 has been mostly economic to date — yielding free trade agreements with friendly governments, the promotion of Canadian mining investment and considerable development cooperation with long-standing partners like Haiti.
A new Canadian government could complement those advances with a more balanced approach by:
- Removing the visa requirement for Mexicans — the major irritant in Canada-Mexico relations — while more consistently promoting rule of law reforms in Mexico;
- Supporting much better mining practices by Canadian firms and a “levelling-up” of extractive industry regulatory regimes in the region;
- Actively backing a peace accord and its implementation in Colombia;
- Being considerably more transparent about security cooperation in the hemisphere, especially in sensitive countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti;
- Helping to revitalise the OAS by getting it to focus on its comparative advantages. Ottawa could start by naming an ambassador to the OAS immediately.
Canada could also develop a more open posture towards regional institutions, particularly with regard to emerging institutions like the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Community (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Developing more supportive responses to innovative approaches to democratic development countries like Bolivia and El Salvador, and a much more sophisticated response to the crisis in Venezuela, would also enable us rebuild our credibility. In contrast, continuing to side with unpopular U.S. stances will prevent Canada from reaping the benefits of the opening to a broader reengagement signalled by Harper in Panama.