Today While the Press in the U.S. and Mexico Yawns, Harper Hosts Bush and Calderón in Quebec

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illustration by Margaret Scott

At today’s meeting in Montebello, Quebec, – which hasn’t exactly made headlines in Washington or Mexico City – the agenda is almost exclusively about expanding business operations drafted by big-business representatives and business-oriented appointees coming from the three NAFTA member countries. Prime Minister Harper hosts U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón at a gathering aimed at expanding commerce under NAFTA’s auspices, but it also is likely to hear the ventilation of Canada’s unhappiness over Washington’s passport policies and President Calderón will certainly bitterly refer to the lack of a new immigration policy on the part of the U.S. The three leaders are fancifully known as the “three amigos,” but it also would be accurate to describe them as each being discredited and marginal leaders who have all proven to their own populace that they are not up to their jobs (at least to public debate in their respective countries). The three desaparecidos will try to perpetuate the proven myth that NAFTA is a win-win situation for each of the three countries, while in actuality it is mainly a win for the big business and financial sectors of their own countries, and a target for loss for many of their less fortunate fellow citizens.

Prime Minister Harper Returns From a Six-Day Carefully Scripted Trip to Latin America
On July 15, 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper began a six-day journey to Latin America in an attempt to reverse Canada’s vanishing diplomatic presence among its neighbors to the South. Harper, who only lightly holds power at home, toured four nations in the Caribbean and South America: Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti, with his goal once again being to make Canada important to the region. To accomplish this, he metaphorically had a long trek to make and a practical mission to undertake. It was the first time that a Canadian Prime Minister has traveled to the region since 2004, a sad indicator of Ottawa’s heads up view of the hemispheres. Starting with scant evidence that Harper was all that interested in the region, what can be expected from the two-day meeting with Bush and Calderón? In claiming that it was important to maintain good relations because they were in the same “neighborhood,” Harper proposed a targeted agenda with each of his amigo countries, topped by a common theme featuring the central factors of trade, investment and energy policy, hopefully downplaying Canada’s ire at Washington’s new passport policy, which treats its neighbor as a near stranger, and Calderón’s fury at the U.S. Congress failure to enact an immigration measure.

Canada has chronically allowed itself to be pushed into the background of regional issues, often content to be hidden in the shadow of its powerful neighbor, a position which has been adamantly rebuked by some members of the parliamentary opposition along with the country’s lamentably ignored hemispheric specialists. In the last few years, the top priorities of Canada’s modest foreign policy initiatives have been dominated by its war in Afghanistan, as part of its NATO responsibility, and keeping smooth relations with the U.S. over Iraq, even though Canada is not directly involved in that conflict and in spite of the controversial imprisonment at Guantanamo of an underage Canadian national. Since 2001, Afghanistan has become one of the largest receivers of Canadian aid and a number of its troops have been killed as a result of Canadian forces being deployed in that country. Now, however, it seems Harper has had a late summer conversion to re-incorporate interested countries in the Caribbean and South America into his overall agenda, using the patently untrue boilerplate that “Re-engagement in our hemisphere is a priority for our government.”

Canada’s influence in the Americas peaked when Canada joined the Organization of the American States (OAS) 17 years ago, at a time that COHA was vociferously urging such a move. What COHA had in mind was that the then hemispheric human rights factor was scheduled to fade in the Reagan White House, and that Ottawa should be seen as a possibly new compensatory factor now that outgoing President Carter’s human rights facto would be out and President Reagan’s indifference to it would be in. At a reception given for Richard Gorman, the then Canadian observer to the regional body, at the Pan American Union by the then OAS Secretary General, Brazilian diplomat Baena Soares, to celebrate Canada’s accession to the organization, the Canadian diplomat laughing publicly accused COHA of dooming in perpetuity a stream of Canadian diplomats who would now have to listen to long-winded speeches by their OAS colleagues, due to COHA’s persistent calls for membership in the organization. However, since then Ottawa has only negligibly contributed to the organization.

Canada as a presence in Latin America arose once again in 2001 when Quebec City was the host for that year’s Summit of the Americas, where trade and development issues were discussed. But Canada’s interest waned almost immediately thereafter. Ottawa is now hopeful that its ties to the Americas will be strengthened and that such relations will be maintained into the future. Harper’s trip proved, however, that the reason for the sudden interest in the region was not simply a friendly visit, if that was even the case, but for Canada to assume precise economic advantages in Latin America, using the kind of neo-liberal techniques so revered by the Tories.

Several months ago, Harper ordered his Foreign Relations and Trade team to come forth with a position paper calling upon a new “American Strategy” for Canada. The region would be divided into three bands; the first would be composed of the Caribbean and part of Central America, the second would include Colombia and Peru (where Canada already has substantial investments, particularly in mining), and the third and most sophisticated band would be composed of Chile, Argentina, and Brazil (Brazil is already the fifth largest investor in Canada). This was partly inspired by a conversation that he had with President Bush the last time the two leaders met.

Canada and Colombia
The Prime Minister’s first stop in his visit was Colombia, a country that recently has boasted a controversial profile as the U.S. Congress snubbed the Colombian president not once but twice in short order, when it refused to move forward a FTA between the two countries. Washington was also prepared to slash the amount of U.S. military aid going there. With Colombia stuck in a dirty civil war that has lasted for decades, a major mission for Bogotá is the continuation of the enormous amount of U.S. foreign aid that it currently receives. The reason why the U.S. Congress recently stalled the aforementioned free trade agreement between the two countries was because the Democrats pledged not to sign any assistance legislation with it until Bogotá remedies various serious human rights delinquencies.

The corrupt administration of President Álvaro Uribe has been accused on the Hill of having close ties to the right-wing paramilitaries, the AUC, which has waged war against the leftist FARC and episodically against the Colombian military, all the while engaging themselves in the lucrative drug trade as a means to fund themselves. The aid provided by the U.S. through Plan Colombia has proven to be a qualified failure in curbing drug trafficking and aiding the Colombian military in its mission; drawing from this, many specialists have argued that given the explosive internal conditions in the country due to the problem of internal refugees and social discontent, it would be difficult for a free trade agreement to succeed on any account.

Canada’s Bent Policy Towards Colombia
Meanwhile, to a degree, Canada has somewhat drifted away from the U.S. magnet, and Harper’s traditional penchant to be the equivalent of Tony Blair to President Bush when it comes to unquestioningly supporting Washington’s hemispheric policies. He has done this by beginning trilateral free trade talks with Colombia and Peru, the first likely successful quest for a Latin American trade agreement since the one signed with Chile a decade ago. Ottawa has made it known that these two South American countries are attractive places for Canadian companies to invest, especially in the oil and mining sectors. This sentiment shows how far out of touch Harper is in his newly expressed concept that a deal with Bogotá would represent a coup for Canada.

Nevertheless, Harper intends to push through with his own free trade agreement, and supplant the U.S., if need be, in its newly stepped-up collaborative ties with the scandal-ridden and violence-plagued Uribe regime. Harper plans to go ahead with the pending trade agreements despite the large number of Canadians who condemn him for placing his misguided conservative inspired ideals of trade over all other considerations. By taking this approach, Ottawa is basically ignoring the bribes and payoffs made by high cabinet members to Parliamentary figures, AUC officials and sympathizers. Harper assured dissenting Canadians that, “When we see a country like Colombia that has decided to address its social political and economic problems in an integrated way, that it wants to embrace democracy and human rights, then we say, ‘We’re in.’” Furthermore, alluding to the position that the U.S. has taken, he said, “We’re not going to say ‘Fix all your social, political and human rights problems, and only then will we engage in trade relations with you.’ That’s a ridiculous position.” Ridiculous or not, it does establish beyond proof the shallowness of Harper’s thinking and the embarrassment he causes for other Canadians looking for some form of meaningful conservative engagement that Canada could play towards Latin American and be proud of the policies to which it subscribes.

In any case, Uribe has expressed his strong discontent and unease with the U.S. Congress’ decision to place a hold on the ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, just after Washington was professing that Colombia was the U.S.’ closest Latin American ally. Despite Uribe’s efforts to lobby the U.S. Congress during his two most recent visits, it seems that U.S. relations with Colombia will further deteriorate and that Harper’s theory that there are benefits to be made from these very problematic relations with Colombia is simply beneath contempt when it comes to the threshing of principles, and probably without merit even on a practical basis.

The Old Friend: Chile
Harper’s second stop was Santiago, Chile. The trip came at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement. Canada, in fact, was the first country to sign a trade agreement with Chile, and since then, commercial transactions between the two countries has increased by 215 percent, according to Forbes. In the last year, $1.3 billion worth of exports were sent to Canada, and Chile imported goods worth $436 million.

While in Chile, Harper met with President Michelle Bachelet and delivered a speech that was intended to be the highlight of the six-day trip, according to Keith Boag, CBC’s chief political correspondent. In his address, the Prime Minister re-emphasized his belief that Canada should be more engaged in that part of the world. When it ended, President Bachelet responded by saying, “after hearing you, we have no doubt about why we are advancing our relationship.”

Harper was not the only official intent on Canada’s strengthening of relations. Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados also claimed that it was important that his country revitalize ties with Canada. The Canadian leader responded by observing that Ottawa “viewed Barbados as a key partner in the region.”

On his third stop in Barbados, Harper used the occasion to assure his neighbors that he will not only begin trade negotiations with the Andean nations, but also with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). He met with the heads of nine CARICOM nations to discuss the issue of free trade. Edwin Carrington, the Secretary General of CARICOM, stated that he hopes that a free trade agreement will be signed within the next two years with Canada, and that its implementation will prove worthwhile.

The Final Stop: Haiti
Harper’s excursion concluded with a diplomatic first – his trip to Canada’s second largest aid recipient, Haiti. Canada has committed to spend $100 million a year until 2011 to help improve Haiti’s impoverished conditions. During his visit, Harper went to Cité Soleil, a shantytown near the capital, which was not safe to visit until a few months ago due to vigilante gang violence. Recent progress in dismantling the gangs has made the city more accessible, which allowed Harper to visit a Canadian-funded hospital where he donated a blood-analysis machine.

Even though Harper’s short trip to Haiti, like the motif of much of the rest of his journey, seemed more like a photo-op rather than a serious diplomatic mission, the Toronto Star, perhaps cryptically, claimed that “Even poverty-stricken Haiti has business potential.” Canadian investors are interested in the potential of Haiti’s gold industry, and since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004 (with help from Ottawa), Haiti’s atmosphere has become more business-friendly under the newly installed administration of Rene Préval.

Days Later, Harper Hosts Mexican and U.S. Presidents to Discuss NAFTA and Other Issues
Long before Harper was advised to rekindle Canada’s traditionally emphasized ties to Latin America, free trade questions were already of considerable concern throughout the Americas. On January 1, 1994, the umbrella free trade pact of NAFTA went into effect between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. A currently heated topic among U.S. presidential candidates is NAFTA’s score card, which was aimed to increase trade among the three nations by eliminating tariffs. Between 1994 and 2005, the International Herald Tribune noted that, “total trade among the three countries grew by 128 percent to reach US$772 billion.” However, while the figure may be impressive, there are many that argue that NAFTA did harm to many. Put another way, the original three signatories of the trade pact insisted to their pueblos that NAFTA would be a win-win situation for them, but, as it turned out, there may have been more losers than winners.

U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Hillary Clinton, has acknowledged that NAFTA “has hurt America” even though her husband, when president, was its most aggressive promoter and perhaps its most skillful dissembler. Former Senator John Edwards said that he would work to eliminate free trade agreements that inconvenience Americans, and Senator Barack Obama has promised to alter NAFTA. The reasons behind their concerns are that NAFTA’s shortcomings in the areas of adequate labor rights, environmental and agricultural matters are a function of resulting job loss and attendant unemployment. An often criticized result of NAFTA has been the huge loss of jobs for Mexican farmers. Due to booming imports of corn and other agricultural produce into Mexico, even subsistence farmers are being undersold in the medium market by U.S. subsidized crops. As a result, over one million Mexican farmers have lost their jobs, as corn coming from such major U.S. agro-multinationals as Archer, Daniel, and Midlands has undersold local output. In turn, hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers have chosen, due to harsh conditions back at home, to leave their country and migrate, often crossing illegally into the U.S., or, as a last resort, they are forced to work in maquiladoras, better known in the U.S. as sweatshops. As many already know, the working conditions in these facilities are no where near acceptable, due to a notorious absence of strongly enforced labor laws and worker protection.

The Conference
Today’s meeting of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Bush, and Harper in Montebello, is not so much to discuss ways in which to improve the many problems that NAFTA has generated, but to discuss and adopt new measures, agreed upon at an August 14 meeting in Vancouver, on how to tilt the pact in an even more pro-business direction than as of now, without any input from the average citizen or other concerned sectors. In other words, Montebello has been fixed to deliver a new track of pro-business benefits and not to take an inventory of how NAFTA has performed for each nation. Immediately following the visit, Calderón will accompany Harper to his vacation home in Quebec. The trip there indicates that its purpose is more of a photo-op, reminiscent of the infamous so-called buddy session staged by the ebulliently friendly Bush and former Mexican president Vicente Fox at their respective country homes, and out of which nothing seemed to occur other than wood-chopping.

These largely wasted effects, created a “made in Crawford” brand of mock friendship meant to improve the respective presidents’ images at home, at a time when they are usually badly needed. Prior to the three leaders’ gathering, senior U.S., Canadian and Mexican trade specialists and CEOs representing a number of business sectors from each of the three countries, met to inventory how to expand their commercial activities. Their intentions were to expedite the flow of goods and services within the Western Hemisphere without having to formally revisit NAFTA. Rather than a formal revision, which would be akin to opening up a can of worms, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, Canadian International Trade Minister David Emerson and Mexico’s Secretary of the Economy Eduardo Sojo, in just two short days, believe they had accomplished their goal at Vancouver. Even before the meeting convened, there was talk about improving the movement of goods and services into their respective countries, reducing barriers on the trade of swine, steel, and consumer electronics, and increasing the range and volume of goods and services that receive special treatment under NAFTA. “For its time, NAFTA was really a forward-leaning and well ahead of its time in terms of including labor and environmental provisions,” Schwab said at Vancouver in hopes to boost a slight willingness to tinker with the agreement to make it appear to better serve labor and civic society. However, NAFTA created an un-level playing field with regards to the rights of Corporate America, Canada and Mexico. Despite NAFTA’s demonstrable failures, Harper will continue pursuing new FTAs based on its formula with these Latin American countries prepared to reciprocate, yet without according sufficient scrutiny to what could be desirable restraints on trade regarding the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

At a time when the U.S. has detached itself from some of its Latin American neighbors as a result of some species of neglect, Canada aspires to supplant Washington with an ideology of beaming good will and an agenda of tired formats, weathered clichés and failed initiatives. But, if the past is any guide, the issues that will be addressed in Montebello will have more to do with bread-and-butter questions of overwhelming importance to only one narrow sector—business and trade. Honest commitments to other factors such as social justice, which tend to be applied with paternalistic dosages rather than in a spirit to achieve social harmony through fair-minded initiatives, are the order of the day. Canada’s interests under Harper have been limited to business as usual in both a literal and symbolic sense. This would be in keeping with a prime ministership that, if not yet failed, is making its way to that destination.