07/25/2013 04:25 EDT | Updated 09/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Baird says he will assume focus on Americas as portfolio goes in cabinet shuffle

OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he'll take the lead in Canada's relations with Latin America after the recent cabinet shuffle eliminated the portfolio for the region that usually went to a junior minister.

Baird rebuffed critics and experts who say the move signals the end of the Harper government's strategy in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

"One of the realities is having a minister and a minister of state with one minister of state having geographical priority ... it didn't allow me to spend as much time as I would like on these files," Baird said Thursday at a podium shared with his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena.

"I want to underline: it continues to be a big priority."

Baird said he's planning a major trip to the region.

"We'll be speaking loudly with our actions that the Americas not only will remain a priority but we'll be stepping up our priority."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper created the so-called Americas portfolio and gave it to Peter Kent in 2006 to increase engagement with countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Diane Ablonczy, the most recent holder of the portfolio, also had responsibility for consular affairs. Last week, Saskatchewan MP Lynne Yelich became minister of state for foreign affairs and consular issues, and the Americas designation was quietly dropped.

"They basically got what they wanted, which was free trade with big economies. The ones that are missing are not interested," said Jean Daudelin, a Latin American affairs expert at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The big fish included Brazil and Argentina, he said.

"They were more hopeful on Brazil for a while, and realized that it was just not viable."

Carlo Dade, an Americas expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the portfolio simply ran its course.

"The minister of state position was never taken that seriously, in or outside of Canada and especially in capitals — including Washington, D.C. — because the position did not have resources, financial or political."

NDP development critic Helene Laverdiere said it was a sign the Harper government was backtracking.

"The Americas was supposed to be Stephen Harper's signature foreign policy initiative," she said. "They even withdrew from Africa saying the Americas is our neighbourhood."

But Baird defended the inroads Canada has made in the region over the last seven years, including trade deals with Peru and Colombia as well as other continuing talks.

Baird and Meade also extolled the strength of bilateral relations and said the groundwork had begun for a possible series of visits next year to each others' countries by Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The two countries will celebrate two milestones in 2014, the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement and 70 years of bilateral relations.

Baird and Meade had nothing new to announce on the major irritant between the two countries — the travel visa that Canada has imposed on Mexican travellers.

Baird said Canada's inefficient immigration system was to blame and that when it was fixed the visa would be lifted. He wouldn't say when.