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Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Feb. 13, 2013 in Ottawa. Canada took a step toward lifting visa requirements for Mexicans by moving to fast-track them through the refugee system by removing their access to appeals.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada is seeking to strengthen its trade ties to a broad group of Latin American countries with an immigration concession to Mexico and high-level attention to nations such as Peru, Panama, Cuba and Venezuela.

The federal government took a step toward lifting visa requirements for Mexicans by moving to fast-track them through the refugee system by removing their access to appeals. The visa requirements, imposed in 2009, have disturbed relations between the two countries and dampened tourism.

John Baird bore the news to a lunch with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, as the Foreign Affairs Minister began a 10-day Latin America tour that will include the first visit to Cuba by a Canadian foreign minister in more than 15 years, and an equally rare stop in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

The tour marks a revival of the Latin America initiative that Prime Minister Stephen Harper touted as a priority in 2007 but remained largely thin on substance until the Harper government took a more recent interest in rising economic powers like Brazil, as part of its trade-centred foreign policy.

Mr. Baird's trip to Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Panama, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic will see business high on the agenda but also marks new top-level engagement in the region's political affairs.

That will include, his aides said, pressing human rights issues in Cuba and Venezuela – two countries whose leadership could soon be in transition as Communist Cuba's 81-year-old leader, Raul Castro, and Venezuela's ailing Mr. Chavez could soon be replaced.

The move on Mexican visa requirements has opened a new controversy at home over whether a refugee-system decision driven by Canada's economic and political interests will lessen protections for Mexicans facing danger – mostly from drug gangs in places where authorities can't protect them.

While the announcement on fast-tracking refugees will go a long way to kick-starting relations with Mr. Peña Nieto's new administration, it will also raise a thorny debate on the balance between Canada's economic interests and protections it offers to asylum-seekers.

In Mexico City, after he lunched with the President and met Foreign Secretary José Antonio Meade, Mr. Baird issued a statement that emphasized business ties with a NAFTA partner, and said he "highlighted [Ottawa's] recent efforts to facilitate legitimate trade and travel."

Canada imposed visitors' visas on Mexicans and Czechs in 2009 after a swelling in the number of those countries' citizens who arrived in the country and claimed refugee status – an effort to discourage them from coming here. Refugee claims by Mexicans dropped by 84 per cent after the visa was imposed, the government says.

But both Mexico and the Czech Republic reacted vociferously to the inconvenience. It slowed a burgeoning tourist trade with Mexicans visiting Canada and irritated Mexican business travellers. The Czechs have warned they will not approve a Canada-EU trade deal now being negotiated unless the visitors' visas are lifted.

On a visit to Mexico in 2009, Mr. Harper even told the Mexicans the visa restrictions were not their fault, but Canada's. "This is a problem in Canadian refugee law which encourages bogus claims," he said.

Now Canada has taken a first step toward lifting the visas by adding Mexico to a new list of supposedly safe "designated" countries whose citizens will be sped through the refugee system. That means that Mexican asylum-seekers must make their claims earlier, within 30 days, and won't get a formal appeal if they are rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board, or IRB.

That fast-track system of designated countries speeds up the processing of claims from countries where few people are persecuted – to discourage what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls bogus claimants who are seeking to take advantage of a system that allows them to stay in Canada for years even if their claims are rejected.

Ottawa has not said if or when it will lift the visa requirements for Mexicans, but a spokesman for Mr. Kenney, Alexis Pavlich, said the government will monitor the effect of the new measure to see whether it has an impact on refugee claims.

But critics of the designated-country system say it should not be applied to Mexico. Peter Showler, a University of Ottawa refugee-system expert and former head of the IRB, said the fact that about 19 per cent of Mexican refugee claims were accepted in 2012 shows there are a substantial number of valid Mexican asylum-seekers. He argues more of those will be sent home under the fast-track system. "This is a decision made for political and economic reasons," he said.

Most Mexican refugees say they were targeted by criminals, and can't get state protection in the large swaths of the country effectively controlled by narco-gangs, Mr. Showler said. "There will be people who are sent back who will be at serious risk for their lives," he said.