Embassy story on Harper’s speeches in Latin America

The following story appeared in Embassy, August 24, 2011.

Harper avoids sticking points in Americas speeches

By Anca Gurzu

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speeches in Latin America show he appreciates more than ever how Brazil projects power over the region, say experts—and how he is willing to avoid sticking points.

Mr. Harper’s speeches in Brasília and São Paulo painted a flattering picture of the South American giant. They both had rhetorical flourish, which was especially apparent in the latter. But Latin American analysts say they also took great pains to leave out uncomfortable topics in the region such as the Organization of American States and the Mercosur trade bloc.

They argue his speeches in Bogota, San José and San Pedro Sula, on the other hand, were still warm but considerably more formal, and thus re-emphasized that the prime minister’s true challenge was Brazil.

Praise for Brazil leaves out sticking points

Mr. Harper visited the four countries from Aug. 7 to 12 on a six-day trip widely seen as an attempt to diversify trade links, but also to bolster an Americas Strategy that was seen as lacking focus even from within the Foreign Affairs department.

The prime minister’s first two speeches in Brazil highlight Canada’s clear interest in the economic opportunities the BRIC country has to offer. Especially in the second speech, Mr. Harper evoked “powerful energy and enthusiasm” coming from the “soaring buildings, the bustling construction activity, the beauty of the surrounding region.”

He lavished praise on the country, saying Brazil is a “new industrial power,” “a clean energy giant” and “a powerful democracy at the hub of a great continent.”

The prime minister’s courting also aimed to put Brazil on equal footing with Canada at the international level, stressing the two countries’ collaboration on a variety of global issues including Haiti and the global economic recovery in the G20.

In fact, only in Brazil did Mr. Harper put Canada, the host country and the rest of the world in the same context, said Max Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia and an expert on Latin America.

“Not many countries in Latin America have the capacity to project power over the region and Harper acknowledges this about Brazil,” he said.

But what was missing in the foreign policy discussion is any mention of the Organization of American States—outside of acknowledging the return of Honduras to the body. The OAS is an entity that Canada has been highly engaged in, but which is not on Brazil’s favourites’ list, said Jean Daudelin, a professor at Carleton University who specializes in Latin America.

“There is no point in trying to push those institutions there, and that was clever,” Mr. Daudelin said.

Mr. Cameron also said that the OAS “is not the alpha omega of [Brazil’s] foreign policy,” and that its lack of presence in the speeches in Brazil is a recognition that the country prefers other types of sub-regional multilateralism.

As well, only twice did Mr. Harper directly allude to the current exploratory trade talks between Canada and Mercosur, the trade bloc consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Instead, he chose to emphasize the continuous exploration of bilateral trade and investment opportunities.

He singled out existing and new Canada-Brazil agreements, like the CEO forum, but also specific industries where the two countries could find mutual benefits, such as aerospace and infrastructure.

Mr. Daudelin speculates that Mr. Harper chose not to emphasize a trade deal with Mercosur too much due to Venezuela’s efforts to become a member. The Harper government has been cool to the government of Hugo Chavez, saying he was “shrinking democratic space” in the country.

Other speeches shorter

While the prime minister delivered uncommonly flowery speeches in Brazil, he returned to the usual formal and direct, but still warm, discourse in Colombia, Honduras and Costa Rica.

That’s because the real test of Canada’s America’s Strategy was indeed Brazil, Mr. Cameron said.

During Mr. Harper’s visit to Bogota he announced the official launch of the free trade deal between Canada and Colombia; in Honduras he announced the two countries have concluded negotiations; and in Costa Rica he spoke about updating the already-existing trade deal.

There was nothing in those moves that indicated big changes in Canadian foreign policy, Mr. Cameron said.

“It’s all business as usual. The test was to go to Brazil and make a commitment to spend more time in the region. I think that is novel.”

But the prime minister could have used his trip to Honduras, for example, to make a stronger statement on the importance of defending democratic institutions, Mr. Daudelin said, especially since Canada supported the re-inclusion of the country in the OAS.

Honduras was suspended from the OAS in 2009 after a coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. In his speech, Mr. Harper re-iterated Canada’s support for Honduras and praised the country for establishing a ministry dedicated to justice and human rights.

But Mr. Daudelin said the prime minister’s speech in Honduras was disappointing, considering Canada’s strong leverage there.

In Colombia, Mr. Harper acknowledged the country’s progress in security and human rights, while observers describe the prime minister’s trip and relationship with Costa Rica as “easy.”

agurzu@embassymag.ca

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