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July 12, 2007

Harper goes South: but has he done his homework?

 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that this summer, as a foreign policy priority, Canada will “re-engage” with Latin America and the Caribbean. Between July 15 th and 20 th Harper will visit Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti.

Will Harper be ready to listen and learn while in the region, or has his mind been made up to peddle ‘free trade' and help Bush regain control over events in their ‘backyard'?

Certainly the four nations Harper plans to visit are a curious choice. It would appear that he is shying away from any of the economic powerhouses on the subcontinent while also avoiding any ‘engagement' with the majority of South America governments that are bringing-in significant changes in policy directions.   

A lot has changed in Latin America and the Caribbean since Canada last paid any significant attention. Our Prime Minister needs to note how all 12 South American Heads of State are building a new community of South American nations – UNASUR. Even if just wearing a trade hat, Harper should recognize that UNASUR represents some 377 million inhabitants (more than the US) with a GDP greater than $1.5 trillion. In fact, Canada would do well to ask for observer status at the next UNASUR heads-of-state meeting in January 2008.

Canada has a lot to learn from how Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are dealing with transnational oil companies. Those three countries have been able to increase their share of the revenue pie generated by rising global crude prices while Canada is the only significant producer in the world reducing taxes and handing oil companies a gusher.

As the Canadian government ponders how best to ‘handle' our First Nations, Harper should note how indigenous peoples in the South are throwing off more than 500 years of colonialism and moving into positions of responsibility in several Andean nations.

South American countries are moving ahead to establish the new Bank of the South to invest in local community initiatives. Canada should support the creation of the Bank of the South and the new emphasis it will place on sustainable development.

Decades ago Canada established the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to help strengthen ties across this enormous country and provide a space for Canadian content. For many of these same reasons Latin American nations have launched TELESUR to allow people in the region a voice of their own. Canada should look for ways to support the TELESUR initiative by, for example, funding documentary co-productions involving our National Film Board.

In the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol, the President of Ecuador has announced that he is prepared to leave proven deposits of oil located under indigenous lands and ecologically sensitive areas, in the ground . Ecuador's challenge is that instead of an investment of $ 700 million to exploit these hydrocarbons, the international community could contribute half that amount to a fund that Ecuador would then use for improving health care and education for its impoverished citizens. Several European nations are discussing a response to this novel challenge, what about Canada?

In Latin America and the Caribbean there is a wide-spread consensus on closing US military bases south of the Rio Grande. Brazil did not allow a permanent US military presence in Alcantara, and Ecuador has served notice that the US base in Manta must go. While in the region Harper could state the obvious that there is no terrorist threat in this hemisphere capable of endangering US national security, and declare Canada's support for an end to any foreign military bases in the Americas.

One area where Canada famously ‘punches above its weight' is in mining, but the story here is abysmal. Harper should take the opportunity while in Colombia and Chile to announce the introduction of tough legislation that would allow prosecution in Canada for those resource corporations found to be damaging the environment and poisoning the water and lands of local communities.  

In his upcoming trip, Harper has an opportunity to re-position Canada in the hemisphere by looking beyond seeking economic advantages. The rapid changes occurring in the south of our hemisphere are inspiring. They relate well to some of Canada's own core values like universal health care, environmental preservation, an end to poverty, and a concern for human rights.

The long awaited change-train is departing the Americas station and it's time for Canada to get on-board.


 

Author : Rick Arnold

Organizations : Common Frontiers-Canada*

Address of person submitting this comment piece : 784 Packer Road, Roseneath, Ontario. K0K 2X0

Telephone : 905-352-2430

E-mail : comfront@web.ca

Web-site : www.commonfrontiers.ca

* Common Frontiers is a multi-sectoral network of national organizations in Canada that collaborate around the CF table in opposing 'free trade' and working to pose alternative options for integration. It has been in operation since the late 1980s, and was instrumental in founding the Hemispheric Social Alliance which now has member networks throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. 

  

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