Boosting Canada’s Latin American Strategy

The recent Latin American Summit in Cartagena didn’t generate much media coverage in Canada. It eventually broke down with controversies over drug policy and Cuba, and was even hijacked by a minor scandal involving the U.S. Secret Service. But it at least provided another occasion for the Prime Minister to assert the priority accorded the Latin American region since 2007. If that policy pronouncement of five years ago was designed to curry favour in Washington (as an article written on the basis of leaked American diplomatic cables alleged), it’s been pretty slow in getting out of the gates. The idea has never matured past a few platitudes, reinforced with reallocated development assistance money and the easy pickings of free trade announcements. And it’s been misconstrued to Canadian disadvantage (especially among the Africans, certain Asian states and Russia), possibly contributing to lack of success on other files, including our bid for a U.N. Security Council seat in 2010.

“A new Canadian approach to Central America and the Caribbean is an opportunity to put some meat on what has up until now been a pretty lean Latin American strategy.”

Yet there’s much to commend an emphasis on the Latin American region. Within the region there are important things to achieve, beyond the most obvious policies in the trade and investment areas. But possibly the biggest challenge—one that may define how the strategy is eventually judged—is the need for Canada to develop an entirely new sub-regional approach for Central America and the Caribbean.

Central America and the Caribbean is a modest chunk of the planet in terms of economic return. It’s a complex sub-region with problems galore, and lots of links to Canada directly, as well as to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. It’s also the area of Canada’s most proximate and continuing security concern. It therefore presents an opportunity for the government to show whether it can move beyond sound bites and photo ops into complicated foreign policy initiatives involving diplomacy, new resources and creative institutional partnerships.

Taking on a sustained, major role in a region close to home makes more sense for Canada than episodic, peripheral involvement in distant areas where our impact is negligible. A responsible Canadian contribution would be important to NAFTA partners now seeking regional stability in difficult times. Serious engagement would send important signals to Washington and others that we are doing our part at a time of American, British and French retrenchment. If this was the intention of the ‘tilt’ to Latin America at the outset of the Harper government, it’s time to get on with the job.

However, it’s a complicated task which would involve more money, or at least increased reallocations. Our diplomatic resources, for example, are inadequate to the new challenges of a more responsible role. Throughout the region, our diplomatic presence is thin (in some cases limited to the CIDA role), with some obvious major gaps; and there’s a lack of liaison officers from the RCMP and the Canadian Forces at a time when both will have roles to play.

A second challenge is aid resources. Apart from Haiti, our development assistance programs are hopelessly out of the major leagues; and the Prime Minister’s ‘announceables’ at the Summit verged on the pitiful. A $25 million security assistance package to Central America over five years may sound substantive, but it amounts to less than $1 M per country per year—more a rounding error than a real contribution. Size matters. Canada will never achieve an impact, or receive credit elsewhere for our efforts, without producing substantially more money where it counts.

We also need to reverse a curious anomaly of our assistance in the region. To become worthy of Canadian aid, a country generally needs to sink to an appropriate level of poverty, or, in the case of DFAIT’s partners, to join the club of ‘failed or failing states’.  This places us in the hopeless position of responding mainly to the worst challenges of development, with levels of assistance which have minimal impact. In Central America, for example, we are right to focus on Guatemala, because it’s confronting the brunt of the spill-over from Mexican drug wars; but its needs are huge, and our contributions are almost negligible.

In contrast, the two states in which we could make the greatest immediate impact, even with modest amounts of funding, would be Belize and Costa Rica. Both face increasing challenges on the security front, yet neither currently qualifies as an aid recipient. This myopic focus on the least capable states needs to change. A more balanced approach to assistance in Central America and the Caribbean would bring assistance to the more successful states before they become basket cases.

The Canadian government also needs to re-visit some of its instruments of assistance, which are thinly deployed because of their cost. In the security area, neither the Canadian Forces nor the RCMP is the right vehicle for a new international security role. We need a new approach to keep costs containable and enable Canada to cover more ground with greater impact. The best way forward is through the non-governmental sector: possibly through an organization like CANADEM, with oversight provided by DFAIT and the RCMP.

The real test of the 2007 policy on Latin America is tackling a tough issue effectively, building partnerships along the way, and delivering a timely and beneficial program which builds lasting, sustainable relationships in a key area. The region is looking to Canada, and it’s taking the measure of our rhetoric against our real commitments. We shouldn’t slink away from an opportunity to exert leadership where it might count.

And this is the right moment, when a larger Canadian role would be highly appreciated by our closest friends. True, Canada shares a lot of their constraints; but let’s weigh the resources needed to deliver an effective program now against the resources we will eventually require if we fail to act in a timely way. A new Canadian approach to Central America and the Caribbean is an opportunity to put some meat on what has up until now been a pretty lean Latin American strategy.

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