Posted on July 19, 2007

Everything about Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s trip to Latin America/Caribbean feels creepy. It’s way too reminiscent of Marlon Brando, playing the much hated diplomat in the film, “The Ugly American,” oozing all over the southern half of the Western Hemisphere. Looking to strike a wicked free trade deal, discussing plans for sinking Canada’s tentacles into Haiti, and explaining to Barbadian PM Owen Arthur why he has a standard policy of dissing Cuba, ‘ole Harper never saw PM Arthur’s left hook coming. Harper got his come-uppance when Arthur whacked him over his remarks about Cuba. Tonight, I feel a little less creepy.

Harper, Barbadian leader air differences on Cuba

Updated Thu. Jul. 19 2007 6:50 PM ET

Canadian Press

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — Prime Minister Stephen Harper waded into the sticky topic of relations with Cuba for the first time Thursday, putting him slightly out of step with his Barbadian host.

Harper is in the Caribbean region pushing his hemispheric prescription of democracy, open markets and free trade, and said Canada is ready to start talks on a pact with the 15-member countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

But when asked if he had plans to visit Cuba, the largest country in the region and one of the biggest economies, Harper said he had no such plans. He said Canadian governments have often, ”expressed concerns about certain aspects of governance and human rights in Cuba.”

Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur responded by underlining Cuba’s right to choose its own path.

He said ”civilized relationships’

‘ between civilized countries were not based on teaching lessons but on ”respect for people’s sovereignty and non-interference and the right for people to pursue alternative paths to their development.”

Arthur has been trying to integrate Cuba into the Caribbean community of nations. Cuban President Fidel Castro has been resolute in keeping the country he has ruled since 1959 out of the group.

Harper had emphasized Canada’s long-standing, normal diplomatic relationship with Cuba, and the continuing investments of Canadian firms in the country. Last summer. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay underlined that Canada had an “independent policy” on Cuba from that of the United States, which cut off normal relations over 40 years ago.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien visited Cuba in 1998 in an effort to further engage the country and press for improvements on human rights issues. But only a few years later, he said he was putting some “northern ice” into the relationship after Castro dealt severely with dissidents Chretien had personally raised with him.

Harper and Arthur found broad areas of agreement on free trade after a one hour meeting.

”We are aware that Canada has been somewhat negligent in recent years,” Harper told Arthur. But ”we are moving forward full throttle on the development of a new economic partnership with this region.”

In a late afternoon speech after meeting 11 Caribbean leaders, Harper put it more succinctly.

”One of the key purposes of my visit here is to launch free trade negotiations between Canada and our CARICOM (Caribbean Community) partners.

”Now I know there is some skepticism within the region about free trade,” he added.

”But frankly, there is no better way to boost living standards over the long term. And your region is following a proven path by working toward a single trading block.”

Arthur welcomed the announcement, adding that in fact the region has been ready for free trade since 2001.

He said the time had come to move past from the one-way traffic of Canadian aid and preferential access on a limited number of goods to ”a modern trade agreement.”

That agreement would include free trade in goods as well as services, the fastest growing sector in many Caribbean countries, and a dispute resolution mechanism, Arthur said.

Arthur also doubted that all Caribbean nations were ready for full-fledged free trade, saying the process must be nuanced enough to respect the special circumstances of smaller, poorer islands.

Outside the U.S. and Mexico, the Caribbean nations are already Canada’s largest trade and investment partners in the region, with over $60 billion in foreign investments, mostly in financial services, mining, energy and tourism.

As well, Haiti, which the prime minister will visit Friday, is the largest recipient of foreign aid in the hemisphere, with commitments of $520 million between 2006 and 2011.

Arthur praised Canada’s generosity towards the region’s biggest have-not country, but said the international community will have to do more than throw money at Haiti to rescue the country of seven million from it’s long nightmare.

”It is not enough to throw a lot of financial resources at Haiti. The most important thing is to develop in Haiti the capability to absorb the financial pledges,” he said.

”At this stage our greatest support of Haiti is to help put in place the basic institutions of a civil society, a judiciary that works, a civil service that works, a customs, and all those things that are basic.”

Before leaving, Arthur took note of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget measure aimed at preventing Canadian corporations from avoiding taxes in havens such as Barbados. He said his country was not looking to “defraud Revenue Canada” and is prepared to take action to resolve any problems that may exist, but did not offer specifics.

Posted in: Canada, Cuba, Haiti