Human-rights concerns cloud Harper's Honduras trade talks

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is spending the better part of two days in Costa Rica talking up trade. | AP

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to Honduras on Friday will be the first state visit by a foreign leader since the country was allowed back into the Organization of American States following a coup that ousted the country's leftist president.

Canada was one of the first countries to throw its support behind Porfirio Lobo Sosa, a wealthy rancher elected president of the tiny Central American country in November 2009, months after former leader Manuel Zelaya was disposed.

Since then, Canada has stepped up trade talks with Honduras, one in a bloc of four Central American countries that Canada has been conducting free-trade negotiations with for a decade.

Honduras is the most likely candidate of the co-called Central American Four — which also consists of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua — to strike a free-trade pact with Canada.

Two-way trade between Canada and Honduras was $192 million in 2010.

Delegations have held talks in Ottawa and the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa twice since December. An agreement could be announced Friday during Harper's stopover in San Pedro Sula, a city considered the country's industrial centre.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, Canadian troops are reportedly training with the Honduran military.

A story by Toda Noticia says the National Congress of Honduras recently approved the entry of 150 Canadian soldiers into the country to take part in a joint training exercise this past Sunday.

The human-rights group Rights Action also mentioned the deployment on its website.

Canada's Department of National Defence has not announced any training missions in Honduras. The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to questions about the report.

However, the Defence Department says 10 Canadian Forces officers recently participated in a peacekeeping operation exercise in Brazil, along with soldiers from the United States and 13 other countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Canada has drawn criticism for courting Honduras, one of the poorest and most violent countries in the region. According to the World Bank, more than 4.5 million people in a country of fewer than eight million — or roughly 60 per cent of the population — live at the poverty line.

Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The United Nations Development Program reported 4,473 murders in Honduras in 2008. That's 12 murders a day.

The group Human Rights Watch claims at least eight journalists and 10 members from a political group that opposed the 2009 coup called the National Popular Resistance Front have been killed since Lobo took office.

The president has created a truth commission to study the events surrounding the coup and its aftermath.

Canadian mining companies have also been blamed for health problems among Honduras' indigenous communities. The Canadian government says total assets employed by Canadian mining firms amounted to $146 million by 2009.

Honduras is the final stop on Harper's four-country tour of South and Central America.

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