PANAMA CITY - Canada's lack of an ambassador to the international group that oversees this weekend's hemispheric summit in Panama is raising concerns about Ottawa's commitment to Latin America.
The government insists there's nothing unusual about the fact it hasn't replaced its most recent envoy to the Organization of American States, even though his four-year term ended in November.
But observers say it's an example of Canada's fading influence in the region and raises questions about its dedication to the group that organizes the Summit of the Americas — which Prime Minister Stephen Harper is attending this weekend.
Peter Hakim of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue said it's disappointing Canada didn't name an ambassador in the lead-up to this year's summit, though he notes the U.S. and Brazil do not have OAS envoys either.
"Canada has pretty much dropped off the radar screen — or at least my radar screen — for the past couple of years almost, and particularly in the past six months," Hakim wrote in an email.
"When Harper took office he stated Latin America and the Caribbean would be a high priority for Canada overseas. It hasn't worked that way."
Hakim added that while Canada still provides significant financial support to the OAS, it also pulled support from its only Latin American-oriented think-tank.
He said Canada's aid programs no longer address Latin America as a whole, but only to a small number of specific nations.
A government spokeswoman said Canada continues to be well-represented in the OAS through its deputy head of mission and that it intends to name a new ambassador in the coming months.
Ottawa views the OAS as the most important multilateral forum in the Americas, where leaders can discuss important issues of common interest, Caitlin Workman wrote in email.
Harper is attending the summit this weekend in Panama City to meet with his hemispheric counterparts.
He planned to use the summit, held once every three years, as an opportunity to promote the government's objectives for human rights, security and democratization in the region.
Carlo Dade, a Latin American expert for The Canada West Foundation, said having an OAS ambassador in the lead-up to one of these summits is important because of all the negotiations about its agenda and text.
"If you're not playing a lead role and don't want anything much out of the summit you can get by without an ambassador," Dade wrote in an email.
Dade, who was executive director of FOCAL, a think-tank that lost its government funding, also was concerned the government recently sold the residence it used to assign to its OAS ambassadors.
"The residence was a completely different vibe and venue than the OAS or someone's office or the embassy," he wrote.
"I don't see how you do (as) effective diplomacy without it."
Workman said the property was sold last July after it had been "identified for replacement" in the 2012 budget as a way to save money.
The government did make a commitment to several Latin American countries Friday.
Harper announced $98.1 million worth of economic-related projects in Cuba, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Guatemala. The investment will focus on areas including rural economic development, small-scale mining, sustainable food production and youth entrepreneurship.
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