Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Missed Opportunity: Canada's Reengagement with Latin America and the Caribbean

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Missed Opportunity: Canada's Reengagement with Latin America and the Caribbean

Article excerpt

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Chile in July 2007 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement, he made a point of visiting the Santiago headquarters of Toronto-based Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold mining company, with major investments in Chile, including the controversial Pascua-Lama project. This is a proposed gold, silver, and copper mine straddling the border with Argentina and lying in proximity to glaciers high in the Andes Mountains. In contrast, when representatives from Chilean civil society asked the Canadian embassy in Chile to facilitate a visit between the prime minister and communities affected by Canadian mining companies, their request was denied (MiningWatch 2007). These events highlight the tensions and complexities inherent in Canada's renewed commitment to the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region.

The visit to Chile was part of the prime minister's tour of four LAC countries, (1) aimed at signalling Canada's re-engagement with the region (MacKay 2007) . His decision to visit Barrick Gold rather than meet those affected by the company's practices is particularly telling, given the message that drove his visit: free trade and open markets will lift the region's countries out of poverty. This message--which strikes a very different chord among LAC business elites than among representatives of labour, indigenous, environmental, women's, and other popular groups -is the same one that both Liberal and Conservative governments have been expounding for almost three decades. What has recently changed though, and dramatically so, is the mood of citizens across the region as well as their appetite for more doses of this neoliberal-inspired development model.

Advocates of this approach believe that a lean and efficient state allows the market to liberate productive energies, which in turn stimulates growth, allowing the state to resolve social problems. For vast sectors of the region's people, perceptions of this model are strikingly different. They view neoliberalism as a discredited dogma that has failed to deliver on its promises of greater shared prosperity and limited social costs (Castaneda 2006). As a veteran writer on the region, William LeoGrande (2005, 32) notes, Latin Americans clearly "fault neoliberal economic policies for slow growth, no improvement in poverty rates, and sparse investment in human capital through health and education." In a subsequent article the author also points to a Latinobarometro poll that shows three quarters of Latin Americans to be dissatisfied with how the market economy is working in their countries (LeoGrande 2007). These sentiments are likely to have been deepened by the September 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession, universally ascribed to excessive deregulation, depredatory market behaviour, and financial speculation. We can expect all this to feed the "pink tide" that is sweeping the region and the efforts by governments of various stripes to find their distinct responses to the social, economic, and ecological crises that envelop the region.

It is noteworthy that Ottawa seems unmoved by the changed mood in the region as it deploys its re-engagement strategy. Despite the complex and unsettled conditions in LAC, Canada has been steadfast in its devotion to free market policies advanced by a collection of Washington-based actors--US State Department, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Inter-American Development Bank--and like-minded ones elsewhere, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Canadian corporate lobbies in Ottawa, and domestic elites and multinational corporations active in Latin America. Notwithstanding the winds of political change in the region, including the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, Canada's approach to the region seems inexplicably committed to the status quo.

Again, with the exception of sustained support to development and democratization efforts in Haiti, after three years of re-engagement with the region Ottawa's crown achievements thus far seem to be free trade agreements (FTAs) with Peru, Panama (still to be ratified), and--controversially--with Colombia, ratified after a prolonged struggle due to its notoriously problematic human rights record. …

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