Prime Minister Stephen Harper spelled out a new foreign policy vision focused on the Americas, saying that Canada could be a free-market model that rejects the leftist policies of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but is also a clear alternative to George W. Bush's United States. "Too often, some in the hemisphere are led to believe that their only choices are - if I can be so bold to say - to return to the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare, or to become 'just like the United States,'" Mr. Harper said at a business lunch attended by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. "This is, of course, utter nonsense. Canada's very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one," he added. "Canada is an open, free and democratic society with the strongest economy in the G8 today, while also being a proud and independent country with our own way of life." Mr. Harper noted Canada has political structures different from the United States, as well as cultural values and social models "that have been shaped by unique forces - and we've made our own policy choices to meet our own needs." The Prime Minister never cited Mr. Chavez by name, but his thrust was clear. He contrasted the success of Chile's open economy and democratic government to "cases of regressive economic policy, dangerous political conflict, and persistent poverty, and social inequality and insecurity." Asked earlier at a news conference whether he considered Mr. Chavez a threat to the continent, Mr. Harper responded that he was in Chile to promote the Canadian model of an open democracy with social cohesion, noting that Chile's model "is very close to our own." "We're not here to discuss the model of Venezuela or the United States. We're here to promote our model." The speech, made on the second stop of a four-nation Latin American and Caribbean tour, is designed to map out his view of a Canada more focused on what he termed "our own neighbourhood" and less oriented toward Europe, a focus Mr. Harper said had been "shaped by centuries of membership in French and British imperial networks." "Canada is committed to playing a bigger role in the Americas and to doing so for the long term," he said. But in emphasizing Canada as an alternative model to the sharp divide between Washington and an increasingly left-leaning Latin America, Mr. Harper is also signalling that he does not want his Americas policy to be seen as one dictated by Washington or President Bush. Speaking in Spanish as well as English and French, Mr. Harper said his government had three major objectives in promoting its new engagement in the Americas. First came promotion of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; then building strong economies through trade and investment; and finally, dealing with security challenges, natural disaster and pandemics. Chile was an obvious place to pursue this common vision, Mr. Harper said, praising the country's economic growth and democratic development since the end of the Pinochet regime. "Both our nations recognize that market-based systems, guided by the right public-policy decisions, create the best economic model for growth and prosperity. We know that foreign direct investment, free enterprise, and private property, create wealth," he said. Those policies, combined with fair taxation, means that "people have a chance to live out their dreams, whether that means owning their own home, sending their children to college or simply being able to retire without anxiety." President Bachelet returned the compliment, saying that Canada and Chile were "like-minded" nations, noting that Canada was the first developed-world nation to sign a free-trade pact with Chile. The country has since gone on to sign dozens of similar deals with other countries. Although President Bachelet is a Socialist, her government remains a firm backer of free trade and open markets. Mr. Harper and Ms. Bachelet agreed to expand the free-trade pact through a partnership framework that will enhance co-operation in areas including energy, health, agriculture, and science and technology. The two countries also agreed on details of a financial-services chapter in the deal that allows better access to the markets in the two countries. Canada's growing role on the continent was also noted earlier in the day, when Mr. Harper officially opened a new bank branch for Scotiabank Sud Americano, a subsidiary of Bank of Nova Scotia, which is active throughout the hemisphere. "We were in Kingston, Jamaica, before we were in Toronto," said Richard Waugh, the parent's chief executive. "We have 55,000 employees at Bank of Nova Scotia, one-third of whom speak Spanish as a first language." He said that Canadian business has an advantage in a continent where Americans are omnipresent. "We're not a military or a political power … We're more equal." There was far less praise for Canada from environmentalists, however, who harshly criticized Mr. Harper for his planned visit today (Wed.) to the Chilean headquarters of Barrick Gold. The Canadian mining company is developing a controversial gold mine on the border of Chile and Argentina. Environmentalists say the Pascua Lama project threatens three Andean glaciers, will pollute waterways and ignores the rights of local indigenous peoples. Mr. Cuenca said that Mr. Harper's visit was a sign that the Canadian government backed the project despite its damaging consequences. "The prime minister can visit Barrick in Toronto. He doesn't have to visit it in Santiago," said Lucio Cuenca, national co-ordinator of a Chilean environmental group. As for Mr. Harper, he told the news conference that Barrick follows Canadian standards of corporate social responsibility and it was up to Chilean authorities to decide on the project.