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international relations

It's the foreign policy that dare not speak its name.

The Canadian government's desire to bolster fledgling free-market democracies in Latin America in an ideological competition with left-leaning, authoritarian nationalists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is rarely expressed with force, even though it is at the heart of an Ottawa initiative.

The Harper government this week made ratifying a free-trade agreement with Colombia the first bill of the new Parliament over vociferous opposition from unions and human-rights groups.

Trade Minister Peter Van Loan portrayed the bill as a means to create jobs.

The Conservatives have another reason for expending so much effort on a trade deal with a country that buys less than two-tenths of 1 per cent of Canada's exports.

Serving as Colombia's ally against its Venezuelan neighbour, which has restricted access to its markets, is a "secondary" goal, Mr. Van Loan said.

"I think the whole world is strengthened when we see democracy advance, when we see stability advance, when we get rid of armed conflict or see it diminished, when we see the drug trade diminished and organized crime that comes to our shores," he said.

The Conservatives favour as many free-trade deals as they can get, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper's desire to strengthen what he sees as the right side of the Latin American divide helps explain the drive on Colombia.

He sees Mr. Chavez and his allies in the "Bolivarian Alternative," such as Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega as populist, protectionist and anti-U.S. throwbacks. Canada has moved toward free-trade deals with Peru and Panama, which are on the other side of the ideological divide.

Mr. Chavez has periodically closed his borders to trade from Colombia and backed the country's leftist FARC rebels.

Rights groups and unions argue that Colombian president Alvaro Uribe has continued his country's woeful human-rights record. The Tories say he has turned the corner on the country's dark past. To Mr. Harper, Mr. Uribe is a free-market democratic leader, and a free-trade deal can keep Colombia on the right path.

"For countries like Peru and Colombia that are trying be helpful in the region, I think everybody's trying to keep them attached to the free-market side of the debate in Latin America, rather than sloshing them over into the Bolivarian side," said one Conservative.

The Conservatives believe free-trade agreements will not only help the economies of Peru, Panama, and Colombia, but encourage the discipline of free markets, rule of law, and democracy - making those countries more like Chile, with which Canada signed a 1997 trade deal.

"A couple of the wobbly democracies in between have said, how can we get some of these benefits that we see other countries get?" said Peter Kent, the junior minister for the Americas.

"We say, well, it's partly because of the mutual respect for democratic principles or shared security."

Typically, the Conservatives prefer to talk about the benefits for Canada of free trade with Colombia.

But in 2007, Mr. Harper lectured Americans in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations after Congress blocked a U.S. free-trade deal with Colombia. He warned that killing the deal was counterproductive.

"In my view, Colombia needs its democratic friends to lead forward and give them a chance at partnership and trade with North America," Mr. Harper said. "If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia, this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator."

Mr. Uribe called Mr. Harper to thank him for that speech. And he may yet have reason to thank him again.

Colombia's bigger goal is a deal with the United States, and it hopes a deal with Canada will be an endorsement, and a competitive reason for American businesses to demand it.

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