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Canada’s unwitting role in Colombia

Globe and Mail, Toronto

Canada’s unwitting role in Colombia

By Pablo Heidrich

Special to Globe and Mail Update

12 May 2008

Parliament is currently debating whether to approve the still-undisclosed text of a future free-trade agreement with Colombia. Canada’s expected gains are increased access for agricultural and mining goods, plus better legal protection for Canadian companies investing in Colombia. Colombian gains are rather small, however - concentrated on flowers and textiles, since 80 per cent of what is sold to Canada already enters free of duty.

The important discussion in Parliament about human rights and trade is obscuring an obvious question: Why would Colombia settle for so little while giving up so much?

One might ask whether that question should even bother us. After all, Canadian companies, farmers and workers will benefit from such an FTA, at least until U.S. competitors are given similar or better conditions in a U.S.-Colombia deal. But beyond the economic benefits, these negotiations should raise some questions in Canada on the true connections between trade, democracy and human rights in Latin America.

Could it be that there is another deeper and more troubling strategy at play, unrecognized by MPs and the general public? Is Canada being used as a pawn in a game being played for much higher stakes?

In reviewing Colombian offers to import Canadian wheat, barley, potash and other commodities plus mining equipment and telecommunications technology without duty, note that Canada and the United States are the two main contenders in those goods in Colombian markets. Then recall the recent U.S. Congress opposition to a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. If Colombia is seen favouring Canada over the United States, it is likely to trigger a response by U.S. producers and manufacturers, many of whom will face the disadvantage of 15- to 25-per-cent tariffs. In other words, Colombia is offering Canada an FTA because it really wants the U.S. Congress to reconsider its opposition to such a deal.

Does Canada really need to sign an FTA whose biggest promise is to reduce tariffs on commodities that have record prices internationally, accruing huge profits for its producers? Colombia is most likely to eliminate those tariffs on imported foodstuffs from all countries, anyway, in order to reduce local inflation.

Colombia buys barely 0.1 per cent of Canada’s exports, and hosts an even smaller percentage of our total investment abroad. If Canada is seriously interested in closer ties with Latin America, shouldn’t it focus on our biggest regional trading and investment partners, Brazil and Argentina, rather than on Colombia’s much smaller economy?

Besides, does this deal actually advance Canada’s objective of improving political and security ties with Latin America? The current government of Colombia is one of the most politically isolated in that region, and for very good reasons. Its regional neighbours are most concerned about Colombia’s abysmal human-rights record, the proven links between its politicians and paramilitary groups, and its security policies, especially since Colombia’s recent cross-border raid against guerrillas in northern Ecuador, a much smaller neighbour.

Since this deal is not an effective way of advancing Canadian economic interests and political objectives in Latin America, why are we considering it at all? One clue is in the Bogota government’s game plan, as evident from public discussion on this subject in the Colombian media and congress. The publicly stated strategy is that generous preferences offered to Canada will trigger huge pressure on the U.S. Congress to review its previous decision.

Given Canada’s reputation in the United States as a country that cares for human rights and environmental issues, most U.S. Democrats will be hard pressed to continue opposing the Colombian FTA. Most importantly, and key to the FTA discussion in Canada, is that such a trade treaty between Colombia and the United States is needed in order to justify and reconfirm the several billion dollars worth of military aid Washington has sent to Bogota.

Therein lies the true connection between human rights and a free-trade agreement with Colombia. The government, and the opposition parties, need to take a wider and more insightful look at Canada’s role. U.S.-Colombian military and economic relations should be key in the debate. We owe ourselves and our Latin American neighbours a more influential role than facilitating U.S. military and economic hegemony in that region.

Pablo Heidrich is a senior researcher on trade and development issues at The North-South Institute in Ottawa