The Star, Toronto
Canada’s free trade talks with Honduras draw criticism
10 August 2011
By Olivia Ward
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues his Latin America tour amid global market chaos, he is making stops in countries he hopes will expand Canada’s trade and make it less dependent on the turbulent U.S. economy.
On Friday he lands in Honduras, bringing a free trade agreement closer to completion. But critics say it is an unlikely choice for partnership with Canada.
One of the poorest countries in the region, most of its rural population lives on less than $2 a day. It’s also one of the most violent, with reports of politically linked killings and drug gangs that ruthlessly control poor neighbourhoods.
Honduras has also struggled with international disrepute since a 2009 coup that ousted leftist president Manuel Zelaya. It was followed by a widely criticized election and the installation of a new government headed by President Porfirio Lobo of the right-leaning National Party.
But after the election, Canada and the U.S. backed the Lobo government, and Canada has spent months negotiating a free trade deal that observers say is close to completion.
Canada backed a truth commission that was part of a political reconciliation deal, and along with the U.S., pushed for Honduras’s readmission to the Organization of American States, which had expelled it after the coup. Harper’s visit will be the first by a foreign leader since Honduras was welcomed back to the democratic fold.
But critics say a Canadian trade deal with Honduras would be premature, and that its human rights record is still appalling.
“There’s a whole column of indicators that show Honduras is further behind than even a decade ago at maintaining and supporting democratic institutions,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.
“What it really says is that on key issues Canada and the U.S. haven’t provided the kind of inspired leadership that would show their commitments to democracy go beyond their rhetoric.”
Honduras’s economic performance has begun to improve, although it has one of the world’s highest crime rates, and dozens of opponents of government including journalists, labour and agricultural leaders have been killed. The government denies it has any connection with the murders.
Critics say human rights are unlikely to be the main issue during Harper’s visit.
“It’s about consolidating allies and economic interests,” says political science professor Todd Gordon, of York University, an expert on Honduras.
Gordon said Ottawa has used its support for the Lobo government to seek access for its mining and business executives, and bring about legislative changes that would benefit them. “The political connections have been strengthened and that’s now bearing fruit, consolidated by Harper’s visit.”
And he added, “The economic benefits are investment and profits to be made from cheap labour and resources.” Canada has also signed free trade deals with Colombia and Peru.
In Bogota on Wednesday, Harper said critics of free trade with Colombia who talk about human rights are really more concerned about protectionism.
“We can’t block the progress of a country like this for protectionist reasons, and (they’re) trying to use human rights as a front for doing that,” Harper said at the presidential palace, after being asked about critics who cite human rights concerns in dealing with the country.
The NDP opposed the Tories signing a free-trade agreement with Colombia in 2008, but the deal passed and it takes effect Monday.
Canadian projects mining and manufacturing projects have been operating in Honduras over the past few years, amid controversy over their effects on indigenous communities and the environment. Indigenous rights groups allege their land and water have been polluted, while independent reports speak of deforestation, land erosion and water shortages.
With files from The Canadian Press