Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s recent mission to Latin America cannot mask Canada’s unprecedented diplomatic isolation in the hemisphere. Despite shifting ‘aid’ to the region and claiming to have made Latin America a priority, Ottawa is increasingly offside with a region breaking free from centuries of Western imperialism.
On July 9 the Organization of American States (OAS) held a meeting to discuss four European countries’ refusal to let Bolivia’s presidential plane enter their airspace. Six days earlier Evo Morales was returning from a meeting in Moscow where he said Bolivia could be open to giving political asylum to former CIA contractor, Edward J. Snowden, who is wanted by Washington on espionage charges.
The US apparently suspected that Snowden, who was then stuck in the Moscow Airport, was on Morales’ plane. As such, the Obama administration pressed France, Portugal, Spain and Italy to block Morales’ plane in a bid to capture the whistleblower or to deliver a warning to other governments thinking about granting Snowden asylum.
Dubbed a “hostile act” by Bolivia, the OAS condemned the European countries’ “actions that violate the basic rules and principles of international law such as the inviolability of Heads of State.” All 34 OAS members backed the resolution except the US and Canada, which both added an appendix to the resolution saying they didn’t support it.
Harper’s Conservatives have repeatedly sided with Washington’s unpopular policies in the region. They’ve ramped up Canada’s contribution to fighting the ‘war on drugs’ at the same time as Latin America has backed away from this repressive model. Recently, Uruguay legalized marijuana and more and more officials in the region are publicly questioning a policy framework that has left tens of thousands dead and done little to stop the flow of illicit product. In May the OAS released a study advocating a re-think of the war on drugs, including a proposal to abandon the fight entirely.
A briefing note prepared for Diane Ablonczy, then-minister of state for the Americas, outlines Ottawa’s response to these shifting attitudes. “One of the objectives in our engagement in the Americas is to combat transnational crime and our programming investments demonstrate our commitment to this issue,” read the note obtained by Postmedia for a meeting Ablonczy had with Latin American ambassadors in November. “Canada looks forward to robust engagement in this process and sharing our domestic experience in addressing illicit drugs.”
Interestingly, the note was prepared by the Defence Department, which reflects the Canadian military’s growing role in the ‘war on drugs’. In recent months the military has deployed surveillance aircraft, naval vessels and submarines to the Caribbean and East Pacific as part of US drug interdiction missions. According to National Defence, the total cost of operations in the region has increased from $25.3 million in 2008-09 to $282.2 million this year.
Additionally, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has contributed millions of dollars to train police and promote other anti-drug initiatives.
Over the past quarter-century Washington has used the ‘war on drugs’ as a pretext to intervene in the region. For their part Latin America’s traditional elite have generally supported the militarization of society that accompanies the ‘war on drugs’ in order to undercut progressive social change.
Another means by which Washington and the elite have blocked reform efforts in the region is by removing governments that challenge their interests.
On June 22 of last year the left-leaning president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, was ousted in what some called an “institutional coup”. Upset with Lugo for disrupting 61-years of one party rule, Paraguay’s traditional ruling elite claimed he was responsible for a murky incident that left 17 peasants and police dead and the senate voted to impeach the president. The vast majority of countries in the hemisphere refused to recognize the new government. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) suspended Paraguay’s membership after Lugo’s ouster, as did the MERCOSUR trading bloc. But Canada was one of only a handful of countries in the world that immediately recognized the new government.
A week after the coup Harper’s Conservatives participated in an OAS mission that many member countries opposed. Largely designed to undermine those countries calling for Paraguay’s suspension from the OAS, delegates from the US, Canada, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico traveled to Paraguay to investigate Lugo’s removal from office. The delegation concluded that the OAS should not suspend Paraguay, which displeased many South American countries.
In 2009 the Harper government tacitly supported an even more controversial coup when the Honduran military removed elected president Manuel Zelaya. In response, the OAS expelled Honduras and many countries broke off diplomatic ties. But Ottawa refused to even suspend its training program with the Honduran military and Canada was the only major donor to Honduras — the largest recipient of Canadian assistance in Central America — that failed to sever any aid to the military government. The World Bank, European Union and even the US suspended some of their planned assistance to Honduras after the coup.
Two years ago Canada’s diplomatic isolation was formalized. Founded in December 2011, the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) includes every country in the hemisphere except Canada and the US. Some hope this new body will eventually replace the Washington-based OAS and unlike that body Cuba is a member of CELAC. In explaining the need for CELAC Evo Morales said, “A union of Latin American countries is the weapon against imperialism. It is necessary to create a regional body that excludes the United States and Canada.”
By tying itself to Washington’s unpopular policies, Ottawa has found itself more isolated than ever in the region.