OTTAWA - The Mexican ambassador to Canada says his country is "really mad" at the Harper government for the continued imposition of a visa on its travellers here.
Ambassador Francisco Suarez told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview that Mexico is so upset that if the issue isn't resolved by next year, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto might have to postpone a planned visit to Canada.
That would cast a shadow over the festivities that Mexico and Canada are planning for 2014 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations.
"We're now saying it's a major irritant," said Suarez, who assumed his new post in Ottawa three months ago.
"We're now really mad. … Canada has the most stringent visa system for Mexicans of any country in the world."
While Mexico's relations with Canada are generally very good, the visa issue could become an obstacle to deepening economic co-operation in areas such as energy and natural resources, the envoy said.
Canada imposed a visa on Mexican travellers in 2009 to curb abuses by a growing number of bogus refugee claimants. Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself has said he would like to see it lifted but says Canada has to reform its own backlogged refugee system first.
The visiting Mexican foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, said little in Ottawa this summer standing next to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird when Baird was unable to give a timeline for lifting the visa.
Suarez said the time has come to carve out a "roadmap" that will keep the issue from dragging on for months and years.
If that's not in place by the time Harper is expected to travel to Mexico in the late months of this year or in January, the visit will not be productive, the envoy said.
"If Harper goes to Mexico, and there's no solution, either a clear solution or a clear path, a roadmap, with a solution that does not take two years — that's the point — he's going to get a very bad atmosphere."
Pena Nieto's planned trip to Ottawa in the second quarter of 2014 won't go ahead either if the issue isn't close to being resolved, said Suarez.
"President Pena Nieto cannot come here if the topic is not solved," he said. "It will have to be delayed."
Pena Nieto visited Harper in Ottawa last November just days before he was officially sworn in as president. The then-president elect appeared friendly and conciliatory about the work that still needed to be done to lift the visa.
Suarez said the two leaders, who have met at other international gatherings since then, have developed an "outstanding" rapport, while the tone between senior cabinet counterparts is also positive.
"The relationship is so good, the opportunities are so good. The agenda is so high level with things to celebrate and to expand that it's really a great pity that there's this thorn, an irritant."
Suarez said Mexico supports Canadian efforts to persuade the United States to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport Alberta oilsands bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
He said Keystone would be an integral part of a broader North American energy grid that would make the continent a bigger international player in oil and gas.
He said he expects that to be a topic of discussion at the next North American leaders summit, set for February, between Harper, Pena Nieto and U.S. President Barack Obama.
TransCanada, the Canadian firm behind the pipeline, would be a welcome investor in Mexico, which needs to expand its pipeline system, he added.
Mexico is also keen to see other Canadian firms such as Bombardier and Goldcorp possibly invest in future infrastructure and mining projects in Mexico.
But at the moment, Suarez said, Canadian popularity is plummeting in Mexico.
Suarez said Mexicans have an easier time getting visas to the United States, which has serious border and immigration issues with its southern neighbour, and face no such restrictions in European Union countries.
"The Canadians require 10 times more information than the Americans."
Stories of Mexican visa woes make headlines in his country, while other incidents have affected high-ranking officials, himself included, said Suarez.
The chairman of the board of a large Mexican museum cancelled plans last year to expand an art exhibit beyond Toronto to several Canadian cities because he had to reapply after being issued only a single-entry visa. He was angry because the museum's curator received a multiple-entry visa, said Suarez.
Another former politician gave up his time-share apartment in Whistler, B.C., because he didn't want to be subjected to the "indignities" of long visa forms that asked the date his parents died 20 years ago.
Suarez said he found the Canadian visa forms personally offensive when he filled them out for a visit to Canada in recent years, prior to his return to the foreign service, when he was the vice-president of a Mexican foreign relations think-tank.
"I had to put the date that my mother and father died, 15 and 20 years ago. What's the use of putting the date of your mother and father (who) died 15 and 20 years ago?"