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Canada & Latin America


NEWS FLASH! There are some parties where Canadians are not welcome. There are some places where it’s not a good idea to show up with a Canadian flag sewn on to your backpack. There are some people who don’t like us because of the things we do and the company we keep.

Barely mentioned in the corporate media, in mid-December, leaders from 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations met for a two-day ‘mega summit’ to discuss regional economic and political integration. Unlike meetings of the Organization of American States, Cuba was invited to this summit. But, notes Venezuelanalysis.com, "the United States and Canada were notably not invited to the summit convened by Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, which to [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez signified ‘the start of a new era… the United States doesn’t rule here anymore.’"

So, why wasn’t Canada invited? Canadians presume we are popular everywhere. According to surveys, a higher percentage of us think Canada has a good reputation around the world than citizens of any other country. It’s our southern cousins, the Americans, the neighborhood bully, who many in the world don’t like.

But, the truth is Ottawa’s relationship to the rest of the Americas is more like Washington’s than Managua’s, Montevideo’s or even Brasilia’s. Canada’s relationship to the hemisphere is defined by support for Washington’s bullying, not as a country bullied by Washington.

Too often neglected from progressive discussion, Canadian corporations have long been major players across Latin America and the Caribbean. Much to the chagrin of Caribbean nationalists, for instance, Canadian corporations dominated banking in the English Caribbean for a hundred years, as well as in Cuba from 1902 to 1940s, in the Dominican Republic from the 1920s to the 1960s and in Haiti during the 1960s and 1970s.

During the first half of the 20th century, Toronto-based Brazilian Traction (or Brascan) dominated the Brazilian economy. At its high point in the 1940s, the company employed nearly 50,000 Brazilians. Possibly the biggest firm in Latin America by the end of the 1950s, Brascan was commonly known as the "the Canadian octopus" since its tentacles reached into so many areas of Brazil’s economy. The company was also notorious for undermining Brazilian business initiatives, spying on its workers and leftist politicians and assisting the 1964 coup against President Joao Goulart.

About the same time that Brascan made a deal with Brazil’s military government to buy its remaining assets at a elevated price and allow the company to drain hundreds of millions of dollars more from the country, Sudbury Ontario-based International Nickel Company (Inco) became the largest investor in Central America. Inco worked closely with a brutal dictatorship that killed thousands of indigenous people pacifying the region surrounding its Exmibal mine in the northeast of Guatemala. Both the Nunca Mas (Never Again) report by the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala and the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala, found Inco complicit in human rights violations against mine opponents. Inco was directly linked to the gunning down of two law professors from the National University of San Carlos and a congressman who formed a commission to study the terms of Guatemala’s agreement with Inco.

Today, another Canadian company, which brutally evicted hundreds of ‘squatters’ in early 2007, operates Inco’s former concession in Guatemala. This is one of many ecologically and socially damaging projects in the hemisphere owned by Canadian mining companies, which dominate the industry from Mexico to Argentina.

Canadian corporations are among the leading investors throughout the USA’s backyard with $107.1 billion invested as of 2006. In so far as Canadian capitalism is integrated with U.S. capitalism, and is dependent upon its military, political and diplomatic shield, Ottawa will act in concert with Washington to thwart the region’s desire to back away from neoliberalism and U.S. dependence.

Threatened by its moves to break from capitalism and Washington-led diplomacy, Canada has supported the U.S. campaign to replace the government of Venezuela. While most Latin American leaders condemned the April 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, Canadian diplomats were silent. Once again in October 2006 Canada sided with the U.S. in a diplomatic row with Venezuela over the Western Hemisphere’s vacated Security Council seat and when Chavez won a resounding reelection two months later Ottawa was the only OAS nation to join Washington in opposing a message of congratulations. All 32 other members supported a resolution to congratulate Chavez for winning an election monitored by the OAS. Seven months later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured South America "to show [the region] that Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela," in the words of a high-level foreign affairs official. During the trip, Harper and his entourage made a number of comments critical of the Venezuelan government.

Canadian diplomacy towards Chavez’s Venezuela has been designed to halt moves away from U.S. dependence and capitalism. Historically that has been Ottawa’s primary motivation for dispersing aid to Latin America (and elsewhere). Canadian aid to South America began in 1964 after Eduardo Frei defeated openly Marxist candidate Salvador Allende in Chile’s presidential elections. Worried about growing support for socialism, Ottawa gave $8.6 million to Chile. When Allende won the next election in 1970 Canadian assistance disappeared (along with Export Development Canada credits) and Ottawa actively supported the CIA-backed coup against Allende as well as the Pinochet dictatorship that followed.

In the 1970s, growing leftist guerrilla movements in Central America, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and FMLN in El Salvador, prompted Ottawa to increase assistance to a region run by an unsavory assortment of dictators. The book Northern Shadows explains: "In response to the turmoil Ottawa began to rapidly increase economic aid to the region. The figures show that Canadian aid to the Isthmus [Central America] between 1974 and 1979 grew until more than half of Canada’s total Latin American aid was devoted to the Isthmus, making it the number one priority despite having only 6% of the total Latin American population."

The Harper government’s increase in aid to Latin America is best understood within this historical trajectory. It is an attempt to stunt the region’s recent rejection of neoliberalism and U.S. dependence. In a particularly egregious example, Ottawa provided tens of thousands of dollars to Venezuelan NGO Sumate, whose leader was a high-profile supporter of the April 2002 coup and other moves to get rid of Chavez. Only a very limited amount of Canadian aid in the Americas supports the governments and civil society organizations leading the charge against neoliberalism and U.S. domination. Rather, the majority of Canadian aid money flows to those whose views are most closely aligned to Ottawa’s.

And what does Ottawa want in Latin America? Above all else, a Latin America open to foreign business, particularly to Canadian corporations. And what’s the simplest way to keep the region open to foreign investment? Canada works hand-in-hand with the bully to maintain U.S. dominance over the region.

No wonder we were not invited to the party.


This article originally appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine. Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and other books. If you would like to help organize a talk as part of a book tour in May/June Please e-mail: yvesengler [at] hotmail [.] com

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