Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping to use one of Canada's deepest friendships in Latin America to help secure entry into a very attractive Pacific free-trade zone.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of the key items on the agenda Monday as Mr. Harper met Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, the silver-haired leader that many Canadians might remember from his presence during the dramatic mining rescue of 2010.
The Prime Minister was warmly received in the Chilean capital with a military honour guard at the presidential palace, La Moneda. He also presented a wreath at a nearby monument to one of Chile's founding fathers, as soldiers raised the Chilean and Canadian flags.
Canada has had strong ties with Chile and with Chileans for decades, extending back to the late 1970s when many citizens sought refuge in Canada from the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet.
Fifteen years ago, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien signed the first free-trade deal in the region with the Chilean government. The Conservatives are now moving to enhance the deal, making it match recent agreements abroad that include more items, including procurement and financial services.
Canada is already the country with the largest investment in Chile's mining industry.
But even more attractive to Canada than more bilateral trade is the prospect of tapping into the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a zone that would include countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Chile is among the members of the core group of nine nations. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have been opposing Canada's entry into the negotiations because of the government's supply-management system protecting dairy, egg and poultry farmers. The Conservative government have said they are willing to discuss the issue, but not before they're at the table with the other nations.
Chile and Peru, meanwhile, are supportive of Canada's efforts to join the club.
Mr. Harper used Chile five years ago as the place to announce his Americas Strategy, a policy of focused engagement in the hemisphere. His government is now seeking to revitalize the strategy, which has been criticized even within the Department of Foreign Affairs for lacking direction and resources.
Robert Funk, a political science professor at the University of Chile and observer of relations between the two countries, says Canada's engagement with Chile has been underwhelming in recent years.
He notes that Chilean society has long had a mistrust of the United States, something that Canada could be using to its advantage by playing the “good gringo.”
Mr. Harper's impending arrival in Chile went unnoticed in the local media.
“There was a time in the early ‘90s when together with the trade promotion there was democracy promotion, when Latin American countries were living through democratic transition,” Prof. Funk said. “Now that that's happened in Chile and in other countries, there's a sense that Canada kind of ran out of ideas.”
Prof. Funk says Canada could be helping Chile with its relations with different sectors of the population as it tries to adopt a more diverse view of civil society.
The Conservative government announced Monday that Canada would be contributing $3.8-million over five years to a training centre for indigenous youth in the Chiloe islands off of Chile.
Not on the agenda for discussion was Chile's ongoing student uprising, which captured international media attention last year with its dynamic former leader, Camila Vallejo.
The movement has expanded to include professors and other civil-society groups who are calling for more government services. The students in particular want better public access to education. They announced Monday that they would be starting up their protests again at the end of April.
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