OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have brought a message of solidarity to Haiti's worse slum, ardently promoted free trade, and positioned Canada as a "third way" alternative to the U.S. - all while taking some less than subtle swipes at Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
But for all his efforts to broaden his foreign policy focus beyond Afghanistan and the United States, Harper's Latin American and Caribbean road trip could pay domestic dividends - particularly in Quebec where a series of byelections are looming.
"There's a lot of payoff if this goes well," says Andrew F. Cooper, a University of Waterloo political scientist and frequent writer and editor on Canadian foreign policy.
That's because Quebec, and particularly Montreal, have significant Haitian populations. By week's end, Harper must call a byelection in the downtown Outremont riding to fill a vacant Liberal seat, and will have to follow that with two more Quebec byelections, as well as two in Ontario.
Cooper says that even though it made good geopolitical sense for Harper to have gone to the Cite Soleil slum of Port au Prince to show Canada's support for the impoverished and backward Caribbean nation, it had the whiff of a domestic political calculation aimed at boosting Conservative totals in the House of Commons.
"It's a country that not only has a big diaspora but an influential diaspora in Montreal and Quebec more generally," Cooper explains.
"It is a population that has some sensitivity because they are in some swing seats in Montreal."
The Liberals already learned that tough lesson in the last federal election when former foreign affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew was bumped off by Haitian-born Bloc Quebecois Vivien Barbot in the east Montreal's Papineau riding, one of the most ethnically diverse in the country.
Many Haitian-Canadians blame the Liberals for supporting the U.S.-led ouster of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, another factor that could play into Conservative hands, Cooper says.
While it might make the prime minister cringe, the theme of Harper's four-country trip to Columbia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti, displayed thematic similarities with Pierre Trudeau's foreign policy vision of the 1970s, said Cooper.
Harper touted Canada as a "third way" political model, a regional alternative to the leftist philosophies of Venezuela's Chavez and Castro's Cuban communism versus U.S. capitalism.
"This constant re-jigging of Canadian foreign policy almost has the flavour of the Trudeau third option, a new pillar to Canadian foreign policy, but it's directed to the neighbourhood. It's got a logic," says Cooper.
Harper's version makes more sense than Trudeau's because the Liberal prime minister focused on Western Europe, Japan and parts of Africa, rather than this hemisphere.
Fen Hampson, the director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, says Harper finally has Canadian foreign policy on "a smart track" and expanding it beyond the narrow interests in Afghanistan or being a good neighbour to the U.S. Harper also did a good job of distinguishing himself from President George W. Bush, who visited Columbia four months before him.
"There was some danger that observers and critics would see this trip as following in Mr. Bush's footsteps. By pointing to Canada as a 'third way' he has adeptly done two things - said politely to his Latin America and Caribbean hosts that Canada is indeed different from the United States," says Hampson.
"But more importantly to his domestic critics, that he is not Bush's lapdog in the region. He also said these things in a way that will not offend Washington."
But Harper did not win unqualified approval from all his hosts. In Barbados, where reiterated his free trade pitch, Harper also took the opportunity to take a swing at the lack of freedom in Castro's Cuba, something that rankled Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur. "Our hemisphere is diminished when we do not recognize Cuba, and validly so, as a citizen of our hemisphere," Arthur said.
David Schwanen, director of research for Center for International Governance Innovation, was in Barbados networking with top business leaders. He says there were deeper concerns there than the political differences over Cuba.
"The leaders here including the deputy prime minister really emphasized the doubts they have about free trade. They want to be engaged but it seems to me it's going to take more than a few speeches," says Schwanen. "People are little bit skeptical."
Hampson says Harper is showing himself to be a good international statesman, which is pretty good for someone who had little interest in foreign policy when he took office a year and a half ago.
But Harper still needs to "articulate a more general vision of Canada's place in the world that Canadians will buy into" - something he should focus on when he hosts Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon at Montebello, Que. next month, says Hampson.
"There are other regions of the world - the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, Europe - where Canada's foreign policy priorities are not as clearly defined as they should be," he says.
"And there are a host of global issues - nuclear non-proliferation, the growing problems of failed and ailing states, health, refugees, the environment, etc. - where policy priorities are ill-defined and/or under-resourced."