Hamster Wheel Diplomacy
Over the last eighteen months, Latin America has been one of our ministers’ favorite destinations: Ed Fast spent three days in the region in March 2012, and nine more in April; Diane Ablonczy, on Fast’s behalf, visited for five days in November; John Baird for ten in February 2013; Stephen Harper traveled South for three days in May; and John Baird is just back from another thirteen days trip to the region. Colombia was visited four times, Peru three times, Chile and Mexico twice, and Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil once each. Of the hemisphere’s significant countries, only Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela were left out, the latter dropped at the last minute as the scheduled visit overlapped with Hugo Chavez’ death. There is clearly nothing flimsy to this government’s commitment to the region, which it identified as a priority almost as soon as it was elected. That simple fact is no doubt welcome in a region that has seen Canada’s interest flutter wildly over the years. But at some point, both Latin Americans and Canadians will be wondering what all these trips are about. And that point may well have been reached.
The Conservatives’ agenda, like the Liberals’ before them, focused mostly on free trade. But now that agreements have been signed with virtually all the governments interested, there is little of substance left to do. Those who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon won’t do it soon. Indeed, it is hard to see any hint of free trade in the political debates of Brazil and its Mercosur partners, which now include anti-liberal Venezuela, and soon Bolivia and Ecuador. Some would like Canada to join the Pacific Alliance, but with free trade agreements already signed with all its members and support from them for Canada’s Asian/Transpacific Partnership strategy already secure, there simply is nothing substantial to gain without a readiness to liberalize immigration – something this government is not willing to contemplate.
Obviously, there is much more than trade to Canada’s relations with the region – a plethora of programs, ranging from technology and student exchanges to peacekeeping, human rights, good governance, public safety cooperation, training, and support have been set up. In addition, with each visit, a slew of mostly small projects and programs are dusted up, renamed, refinanced, or truly introduced. None of those announced recently, however, are really significant for the countries involved, and none truly matter for Canada.
Both critics and cheerleaders will say that active and visible diplomatic efforts impact Canadian companies present in those countries, sometimes positively, sometimes not. A number of large Canadian firms have become fixtures in the region’s mining and financial sectors but the complicated relations these firms often have with local governments rarely benefit when poorly-informed ministers breeze in for a short stay before returning to Ottawa.
At some point, insisting on progress in the face of paralysis becomes counter-productive. Consider the official press release from the meeting between Baird and Brazilian foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, according to which the ministers “initiated work toward the inaugural meeting of the Canada-Brazil CEO Forum”, a forum that was established during Stephen Harper’s visit in… August 2011. One can’t help but conclude that the two countries’ “Strategic Partnership Dialogue” is weaker than it sounds, and that it may struggle when awkward questions pop up about real problems and deeply conflicting views.
Two such delicate themes immediately come to mind: visas and drug policy. The cost and difficulty of obtaining visas is developing into a major impediment to closer economic relations with the region. Indeed, the only article from one of the region’s major papers to mention Baird’s most recent visit, published in Colombia’s El Espectador, points out that trade between the two countries has declined substantially in the last year, and it fingers visas as an important reason for this. The regions’ increasingly liberal view of drug policy, feeding on years of bloody confrontation with traffickers, is also clearly incompatible with the rigid stance of the Harper government on the issue. Without anything to offer on these fronts, which loom over the bilateral and regional agendas, Canada’s hyperactive, hamster wheel diplomacy looks at best irrelevant, and at worst counterproductive.
The sustained efforts of the last fifteen years have probably established for good Canada’s credentials as a significant political and economic player in Latin America. Mexico, Chile, and now Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru have become real and reliable partners. Linkages with Brazil are increasingly deep and diversified, and, although the two countries often don’t see eye to eye, their mature relationship befits their status as serious global players. Canada’s trade, investment, and aid presence in the smaller countries of the region has become “normal,” which means usually welcome, but sometimes criticized. Now, until the government has something substantial to put on the regional table, it would be wise to adopt a lower profile and let the diplomats posted in the region quietly do their job. Repeatedly showing up empty-handed will make even our friends wish we hadn’t shown up at all.