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Christ the Redeemer statue looms over Foreign Minister John Baird in Rio de Janeiro.PILAR OLIVARES/Reuters

Foreign Minister John Baird concluded a 13-day, seven-country trip to Latin America on Friday in Rio de Janeiro, where he met his Brazilian counterpart and boosted key Canadian businesses including BlackBerry and Brookfield. He assessed the state of Canada's relations with the region – and beyond – in a conversation with The Globe and Mail's new Latin America correspondent, Stephanie Nolen.

After your time in the region over the past week, how are you feeling about engagement with post-election Venezuela and other "Chavismo" [hard-left] countries?

My job is not just simply to go around the world and visit our friends. I was supposed to go to Venezuela on my last trip but I was supposed to arrive just as Hugo Chavez was coming home from Cuba. I am hoping to have an opportunity to engage [with the new Venezuelan government]. Here, [from Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota], I got a lot of good counsel on dealing with the countries where we don't have as close a relationship – I don't agree with everything he says but he provides a lot of wise counsel.

What's Canada's response to Uruguay's decision last week to legalize marijuana?

We went to Uruguay, I chatted with the President [Jose Mujica], and, listen, we have an honest difference of opinion on this issue. He says he wants to pursue this policy and it can be a laboratory to see how it works. I suspect many people will be watching. I look at Canada at the amount of effort we've done for public-health reasons to discourage smoking, even banning it in private property in addition to public property, so it is strange that there's this movement in place to promote – but I'll leave that for others. But I think the whole world will watch what happens in Uruguay.

You were recently in Cuba. What's your sense of how genuine their economic reform is?

They're genuinely changing. The pace is very slow. I think the government – and frankly understandably – doesn't want to see some of the challenges that have arisen in the Russian Federation with oligarchs and the like.

Here in Brazil, a critical issue is visas: Analysts of Brazil's relationship with Canada say nothing would improve our ties more than dropping visa requirements for Brazilians, who are going to Canada as tourists and investors in huge numbers. Will that happen any time soon?

One of the things I've done on this trip is to be able to explain the huge costs that the refugee-determination process costs – tens of thousands of dollars per person – so to explain that it's in many cases less about them and more about our system and the associated things like health care and social services. We've brought two consequential bills and we're implementing them and I think the future looks brighter on that than it did five years ago.

We could drop [the visa] tomorrow but then we would have to come up with literally hundreds of millions of dollars for the refugee-determination system.

Has your government concluded its free-trade agenda for Latin America?

The challenge with Mercosur [the Mercado Comun del Sur, or South American common market] is that one or two of the countries take a rather unique perspective on the government's role in the economy, which makes it more problematic to have a trade deal with a bloc as opposed to individual countries. I'll just leave it at that.

Moving beyond Latin America: After your recent statements about the upcoming Olympics and the new Russian legislation on homosexuality, how do you respond to the criticism from some conservative organizations that you are somehow advancing a personal agenda that is not in the interest of your constituency?

The one or two countries that are looking at imposing the death penalty for sexual minorities, I don't know a single member of my party that supports that – not a single person. The criminalization of homosexuality – I don't know a single person in any of the major political parties that supports criminalization of homosexuality. I don't know anyone that supports violence. These are things that are important, whether it's for sexual minorities, whether it's for religious minorities, whether it's for women.

One of the two big goals I have – that the Prime Minister gave me – is to protect Canadian interests and promote Canadian values. These are all important things and we push them – I think I do that less as a person and more as Canada's chief diplomat. … Remember that there are 74 countries around the world where being a sexual minority is a sexual offence. So let's put this in context: This is a very challenging world and it doesn't start or end in Moscow.

What is your government's position on the recent election in Zimbabwe?People can judge the fairness or the unfairness of the conduct of the election – certainly the democratic space in the years leading up to it doesn't really create an environment where there's a level playing field or anything approximating that. Obviously our first concern is we don't want to see violence, to see social order break down. At the same time, we have significant concerns with the President [Robert Mugabe] and his conduct, the conduct of his government, over many years.

On Egypt, with the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and the takeover by the army – is this a coup? Will Canada engage with the new military rulers?

At the time, I called it a coup. We should be clear – it's not like Egypt had a liberal democracy before the change in government. Our government was criticized for not being more enthusiastic about the departure of President [Hosni] Mubarak. Obviously we want to see the establishment of a civil society – like we said about Libya, you're not going to go from Gadhafi to Thomas Jefferson over night and I think that's going to be the case in the biggest Arab country as well. We obviously want to see them return to the democratic track and we'll do all we can to support that.

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