If Ottawa is serious about pursuing an Americas strategy, then the government should support an independent think-tank on Latin America. A Canadian organization dedicated to public-policy research and dialogue is necessary in order to protect and promote Canada's economic and political interests in the region. This is the model used by the U.S., by European countries, and this is the model Canada uses in Asia through its support of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation, which received a $50-million government endowment in 2005.
And yet, since the Harper government came to office in 2006, it has given no core funding to the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) - Canada's only Latin American think tank. FOCAL is so cash-strapped that it has announced it will close by the fall, and relocate its continuing research projects to think-tanks in Washington.
This unwelcome development directly contradicts the government's own commitment to "improve and strengthen" its Americas strategy, following an internal review which found the initiative lacked focus and funding.
Latin America is a growing foreign policy priority. In a recent speech, Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of State for Latin America, outlined Canada's objectives: improve the region's prosperity, democracy and security; and advance free trade.
FOCAL, with its 21 years of experience in Latin America, is the government's best asset. Carlo Dade, FOCAL's executive director, testified in the House of Commons in favour of Canada's free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and also helped Canadian companies bid on Haiti's lucrative reconstruction contracts.
While American think-tanks do excellent work in the region, they simply cannot be relied upon to represent Canada, especially when it comes to trade. Canada also has a very different history with Latin America from the U.S., one unburdened by the violence of invasion and occupation. Canada's bilateral relationships also differ, sometimes markedly, as in the case of Cuba.
Canada's interests in the Americas are comparable in importance with those in Asia; two-way trade grew by 26 per cent last year to $51-billion, while Canada now has three times as much direct foreign investment in Latin America and the Caribbean as it does in Asia. Canada is a big enough country, and its interests are important enough, to fund its own think-tank on the Americas.