Colombia's ambassador to Canada warned that visa delays threaten gains achieved through a free-trade agreement Canada sealed with the South American country, and have made the U.S. a more attractive destination for Colombian business people.
"We are very frustrated with immigration issues," Nicolas Lloreda said in an interview Monday. Often, when when Colombian business people want to come to Canada to buy and sell products,"they can't get a visa, or it takes them months and months to get a visa," he said.
Sometimes business people have to submit their passports then wait for months to get them back, he added.
"Your country is trying to fix the refugee and asylum system to make it more difficult for people who came here for the wrong reasons to stay," he said, "but this is having a very significant effect on …trade."
At the same time, he said, the Colombian business community is eyeing the huge U.S. market, where the visa issues are less acute. "Business people who come here to sell or to buy tell me: 'If I can go the U.S. … and get a visa easily, and it is a 300 million [person] market, why do you want me to come to Canada when they may keep my passport for months'."
Other countries have also complained about Canada's complex and slow-moving visa system.
Mexico's ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez, recently complained about visa requirements imposed on its visitors from his country to Canada in 2009, saying that the applications require too much detailed information.
Visa delays aside, the two-year old free-trade agreement between Colombia and Canada has been a success, Mr. Lloreda said. Colombia has sold more agricultural products, clothing and manufactured goods to Canada, in addition to the long-time staples of coal and coffee. Canada has stepped up its sales of grains, chemicals and paper products to Colombia.
Since the free-trade deal came into force, Canadian exports to Colombia have increased by about 29 per cent, while Colombian exports to Canada have risen by 19.5 per cent. Two-way trade in 2012 was about $1.5-billion.
Canadian companies have also been active investors in Colombia, primarily in oil and gas, mining and financial services. Going forward, Colombia hopes to attract more Canadian investment in those sectors, but also in infrastructure development as the country pumps more money into highways, railways, ports and airports.
One reason for the gains, Mr. Lloreda said, is that the free-trade deal coincided with an improvement in security in Colombia, where rebel guerrilla groups have been active for decades. Peace talks with the largest rebel group are now under way.
Still, the safety record isn't perfect. In January, rebels kidnapped Canadian mining executive Gernot Wober, a vice-president at junior mining company Braeval Mining Corp. He was released in late August amid negotiations between Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and government officials.
These kinds of incidents are "horribly embarrassing for our country," Mr. Lloreda said. But the security situation has improved dramatically, he insisted, and the incidents of violence have declined sharply, noting that the government is now compensating people who have been displaced from their land. While Colombia was once "a synonym for drug violence," the ambassador said, "we are leaving the nightmare of many years behind."