John M. Kirk is professor emeritus of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, and the author and/or co-editor of 20 books on Latin America.
At the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which begins on June 6, Canada has a golden opportunity to reset its floundering policy on Latin America.
For years, Canadian policy has lost the plot in the region. Consider first our leadership of the Lima Group. Canada led the charge in 2019 to support U.S. goals in Venezuela, with the clear intent of regime change in the country by imposing Juan Guaido as president. Three years later, the strategy has failed: Nicolas Maduro remains in charge, international support for Mr. Guaido has virtually disappeared, and the Biden administration now allows U.S. oil companies to operate in Venezuela.
In Cuba, we also followed the lead of the United States when it declared that diplomats were the victims of the still unexplained “Havana Syndrome” or “sonic attacks,” leading to the virtual shuttering of our embassies in Havana. Five years later, Canada still does not have a full staff complement. Not only has Ottawa alienated the Canadian diplomats affected, but it has also negatively affected bilateral relations.
But this is not a new phenomenon. The previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper was clearly driven by ideology when it supported the government of Porfirio Lobo in Honduras, who took power after a coup in June, 2009. Canada was the last country in the hemisphere to call for the reinstatement of the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, and even maintained its Military Training Assistance Program there following Mr. Zelaya’s overthrow.
Canadian support for corrupt Honduran presidents continued under the Trudeau government, despite clear evidence of ballot-stuffing and corruption in 2013 and 2017 elections. The recent arrest and extradition of former president Juan Orlando Hernandez on narcotics and arms charges in the U.S. exposed Canada as once again misguided in its support.
The Trudeau government’s response to events in Bolivia in 2019, supporting the right-wing government led by Jeanine Anez, illustrated yet another major faux-pas by policy-makers in Ottawa. Despite clear constitutional irregularities, Ms. Anez took power following the resignation of president Evo Morales; she then passed a law that removed criminal liability for police and military confronting protestors, after many were killed by security forces. She was subsequently imprisoned, accused of corruption, sedition and terrorism.
In the following election, left-wing economist Luis Arce – formerly the finance minister in Mr. Morales’s cabinet – was elected president. Once again, Canada was shown to have backed the wrong political horse.
Sadly, this has meant that Ottawa has not applied the promotion of human rights and the defence of the rule of law equally or consistently. Our political interests have led our government to downplay abuses in Sebastian Pinera’s Chile, Ivan Duque’s Colombia, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, while condemning similar incidents in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Selective indignation should have no place in an ethical foreign policy.
A common theme in some of these diplomatic errors is the clear tendency to support U.S. policy in the region. But Latin American countries have increasingly shown a profound concern about Washington’s policies. Indeed, the Biden administration has already been criticized for putting together a Summit of the Americas that features largely U.S. friends; several key countries have declined the invitation to attend, or else are sending minor representation, including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Honduras, Bolivia, Guatemala and several Caribbean nations. We would be doing ourselves few favours by following Washington’s lead on policy around a region that increasingly rejects it.
There has also been a surge in support in the region for nationalist, left-of-centre governments. The election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Alberto Fernandez in Argentina, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Luis Arce in Bolivia, Xiomara Castro in Honduras and Gabriel Boric in Chile illustrate this well. In Colombia, just this past weekend, former guerrilla Gustavo Petro received 40 per cent of the votes in the presidential election and is now the favourite to win in June’s run-off race; the extensive lead of the leftist former president Lula in Brazil’s election this October also indicates a clear trend. Sadly, Ottawa’s foreign policy history seems to suggest that it only finds elections legitimate when right-wing parties win.
Canada has often thought that it has a “special relationship” with Latin America, but that may well be wishful thinking. We need to know and understand the region far better, to develop diplomatic specialists with experience, to decrease the unwieldy bureaucratic process in policy formulation, and to review our international priorities. The Summit of the Americas presents an ideal opportunity to do this necessary recalibration.
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