04/15/2012 04:05 EDT | Updated 06/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Summit of the Americas: Cuba Issue Splits Canada, U.S. From Unified Latin America

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CARTAGENA, Colombia - Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to the Summit of the Americas with the goal of bolstering ties with the booming region, but left Sunday on a discordant note because of his government's stance on Cuba's participation.

Canada and the United States stood alone in balking at an agreement to allow Cuba to attend future summits. That disagreement, and a lack of consensus on backing Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands, scuppered a final declaration from the 31 participating nations.

Even the summit host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, declared it to be "unacceptable" that Cuba not attend the next meeting three years from now. Other major players such as Argentina and Brazil have echoed the sentiment.

Harper emphasized that Canada has reached out to Cuba, and does not agree with the American embargo of the country. But he said Canada is sticking with the summit principles that state that members must be democracies — an idea that originated under Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien during the Quebec City summit of 2001.

"While we don't support the position of isolating Cuba, we do believe that the summit of the Americas should be restricted to democratic countries, and that Cuba should be encouraged to come as a democratic country in the future...and it's our contention that the Canadian policy is the way to get that kind of result rather than the policy pursued by our American friends," Harper told reporters.

Harper added that he viewed the issue as one of principle.

"I think we've taken a principled position, and when we take principled positions we're prepared to argue that and discuss them but obviously we don't have our positions dictated either by one country or frankly by any group of countries," he said.

What happens next is unclear. Santos said there would be a discussion on Cuba's participation at the summit three years from now, scheduled for Panama.

This year's summit was characterized by a new sense of unity and solidarity amongst Latin American countries, many of whom are seeing rapid economic growth and more geo-political clout. Santos pointedly spoke at his closing news conference about the desire for all countries to be treated as equals — a nod to the weight the United States has thrown around the region in the past.

Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba, said the issue is not always what it seems.

"It's a bit of a hemispheric dance here...it's really less about Cuba per se for the Latin Americans, and it's more about using Cuba as a messaging board especially by the robust regional powers like Brazil and Mexico," said Entwistle, who still travels regularly to Cuba.

"It's using the Cuba coding or the Cuba item as a means of sending a message, particularly to the United States, that their views have to be taken seriously and that they're major regional players."

There's also the matter of a certain regional inconsistencies, notes Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's School of International Development and Global Studies.

The expert notes that there would have been an uproar if, for example, Honduras had been allowed to attend a summit immediately following its 2009 coup d'etat. He also points out that it was Santos himself who travelled to Havana to gently tell president Raul Castro not to come.

"This is about preserving the gains in democracy in the hemisphere," said Dade.

Harper underlined that while the Cuba issue might have caused summit divisions, it does not have a bearing on Canada's one-on-one relations.

"In my experience this has not been a...significant issue with any other nation in the hemisphere, certainly not with those with whom we have productive trade and investment relations," Harper said.

Hemispheric leaders did agree, however, to spark a formal discussion the wider issue of the war on drugs and how to deal with the crippling violence in Mexico and Central America.

For the first time, Harper said that something is not working with the current approach and that a discussion is warranted.

Harper's main goal at the summit has been to promote Canada as a destination for trade and investment, and to support Canadian businesses as they seek new opportunities in the region.

The Conservative government is trying to revitalize its five-year-old Americas Strategy, a policy of focused engagement in the region.

But Harper's presence at this year's summit was modest. He had only a handful of bilateral meetings, and did not meet with the leaders of some of the biggest countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

A planned summit between Canadian and Brazilian CEOs fell through, with the Brazilians failing to organize their end of the bargain, according to sources.

Still, some of the Canadian executives who participated in a larger CEO Summit of the Americas said they are seeing plenty of opportunities in the region. The Port of Halifax, for example, is seeing new money to be made with the widening of the Panama Canal and potential new container ship traffic up the Atlantic Coast.

"I think the Canadian brand right now is very, very strong," said Port president Karen Oldfield.

"We do a lot of things extremely well. I think the expression is 'Make hay while the sun shines,' and the sun is shining and we need to do what we can do grow and promote trade."

John Manley, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said Canada's presence in the region is sometimes understated. He noted Canada's heavy involvement in mining projects, but also less visible activities such as real estate ventures that don't always appear in trade statistics.

"When we just focus on the trade and goods, we don't see how important having Canadians abroad can be," Manley said.

Meanwhile, any discussion of Canada's engagement with Latin American society, development projects and of efforts to bolster human rights was largely absent from Harper's agenda. Although there were summit forums on indigenous peoples, youth and labour, there was no acknowledgment of them by Canadian officials. Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, did not speak to the media about her participation at the meetings.

Raul Burbano of Toronto-based Common Frontiers said that while Harper was extolling the virtues of Canadian mining companies and the prosperity they can bring, many Latin American civil society groups had a completely different message.

"They don't want transnational corporations and large-scale mining that can lead to displacement, militarization, contamination...they want to decide whether there's transnational companies in their communities," said Burbano.

Harper was scheduled to leave Colombia Sunday for Santiago, Chile, where he was to begin a bilateral visit.

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