OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to unveil a reinvigoration of his government's muddled Americas strategy when he meets with hemispheric leaders next month.
The Canadian Press has learned that cabinet discussed a renewal of the foreign-policy directive last week. Harper is expected to discuss details of how Canada will re-engage with Latin America and the Caribbean during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15.
The previous Americas strategy, first signalled in 2007, had three pillars: security, prosperity and democratic governance. But the Foreign Affairs Department's own internal evaluation last year suggested the strategy was mostly talk and little action, citing a lack of resources and poor understanding of the policy.
Since then, Foreign Affairs has consulted widely on how to rewrite the strategy, holding internal forums last fall and taking in submissions.
Indications are that trade, or the prosperity pillar, will now play a much bigger role in the government's foreign policy for the area — part of a belief that expanded trade will in turn lift more people out of poverty. Of four stakeholder forums held last fall, three were focused on trade.
But whether the department will get the manpower and money it needs to strengthen the strategy is unclear.
Observers say there's not much to suggest Canada is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to Latin America. Last year, Canada's only real think-tank on the hemisphere, FOCAL, closed its doors for lack of funding. It had been set up by Brian Mulroney's Conservative government but had been starved for dollars in recent years.
FOCAL would often provide a conduit for contact between organizers of the Summit of the Americas, interested CEOs, academics and the Canadian government.
Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the influential Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says he's spoken less to Ottawa over the last year than in any previous year. He said there's been little promotion of the Summit of the Americas by Ottawa, and he's had little discussion with anyone in Canada.
Hakim says that follows a trend of less engagement by the United States as well.
"The Latin Americans are thinking more about how they can deal together, finding this self-identity, this solidarity. ... Here's where Canada had an opportunity, or has an opportunity to play a big role," said Hakim.
"It could be calling people together to talk about this, it could be trying to create some kind of real deeper thinking that might bring Latin America and the U.S. (and Canada) closer together, but somehow it seems it's not as engaged as it might be."
Canada's approach in the Summit of the Americas is already largely about trade. Harper will take part in a CEO's forum within the summit, where up to 23 Canadian executives will be meeting with other corporate chiefs from across the region.
In addition, there will be a specific CEO forum between Canada and Brazil, one of the world's new powerhouse economies.
By contrast, Canadian participation in a series of civil society forums, on issues such as aboriginal affairs and labour, is described by insiders as thin. Canada's ambassador to the Organization of American States met with NGOs on Tuesday and offered a last-minute appeal for them to get involved — on the last day of registration.
The Conservative government has ramped up its focus on trade in the hemisphere over the last year. Harper travelled to Brazil, Colombia and Honduras last summer, while Trade Minister Ed Fast and junior Foreign Affairs Minister Diane Ablonczy have been shuttling around the hemisphere. Ablonczy is currently on another swing through Latin America.
Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said he'll be looking for signs that Harper is truly invested in the Americas strategy and of genuine efforts at a time when the government is slashing budgets.
"There's tough decisions ahead. Are they going to put the weight behind an Americas strategy that they're putting behind say a Trans Pacific Partnership or freer trade with Japan?" said Roberston.
"Meanwhile, you've got ongoing relations with China, India and the Europeans. So, eventually you've got to make some choices and prioritize."
Fast just returned from a trip to Argentina, where he pushed the idea of a trade pact between Canada and the Mercosur customs union in South America.
"Deepening and broadening Canada's economic relationship with high-growth markets like Mercosur is a key part of the our pro-trade plan for jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity," Fast said Tuesday.
Brazil is an attractive potential trading partner for Canada, but wouldn't be able to sign a bilateral deal because of its agreement within Mercosur.
That leaves the possibility of other sectoral agreements with Brazil, such as pacts that would allow engineering services and other expertise into the South American country.
At the same time that Canada courts Brazil, it is also salivating at the chance of entering the Trans Pacific Partnership. The nine-country union that crosses the Pacific into Asia has what one official described as the "next generation" of trade agreements, where almost nothing — including procurement and investment — is left off the table.
Canada's existing trade deals with Chile and Peru, two members of the TPP, are seen as positives in its campaign to join. Harper will be visiting Chile after the Summit of the Americas.