The Financial Times
Bernard Simon (Toronto) and Anastasia Moloney (Bogotá)
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Canada has launched a drive to strengthen trade and investment ties with Latin America, presenting itself as an alternative to both the US and the economic nationalism exemplified by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

Proposing a "new model of partnership", Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, said in Santiago, Chile, on Tuesday that "too often some in the hemisphere are led to believe that their only choices are to return to the syn-drome of economic na-tionalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare, or to become 'just like the US' ". "This is, of course, ut-ter nonsense. Canada's very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one."

The Canadian initiative co-incides with uncertainty in Washington about whether the Democrat-controlled US Con-gress will ratify trade ag-reements negotiated by the Bush administration with Colombia, Peru and Panama.

The Democrats demanded that Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe makes more progress in human rights.

By contrast, Mr Harper praised Mr Uribe during his stop in Bogotá. "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." Canada re-cent-ly began talks on bilateral free-trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Dominican Republic, and Mr Harper said Ottawa was eager to cement agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

With the notable exception of mining, Canada's commercial ties with the region are modest, but have grown significantly in recent years. Exports rose 14 per cent last year to $5.6bn (€4bn, £2.7bn), excluding Mexico. Imports totalled $13bn.

Annette Hester, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, linked Canada's new interest in the western hemisphere to its role as an emerging energy power, thanks to burgeoning oilsands development in Alberta.

Canada is also positioning itself as a more politically stable and reliable supplier than Venezuela and Mexico.

Carlo Dade, director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas in Ottawa, said that "there's a lot we can do here that we can't do in Africa or Asia".

Mr Dade said that Mr Harper's initiative ap-pears to have been planned by a small group of advisers in the prime minister's office with virtually no consultation with outsiders.