Protesters denounce Canada-Honduras free trade deal

Montreal Gazette, Canada

Protesters denounce Canada-Honduras free trade deal

By Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News

12 August 2011

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasted Friday that Canada’s new free trade deal with Honduras will help that crime-ridden country emerge from poverty and political chaos, adding that his opponents are just "selfish" trade protectionists.

But within minutes of Harper making that claim at a signing ceremony with his Honduran counterpart, protesters who were kept outside the gates of the event were offering a different story.

They complained the trade deal will further diminish the rights of local workers and add to the profits of Canadian businesses that already operate textile factories and mining operations in this country with "impunity."

Harper wrapped up his tour of Latin America by announcing the trade deal with Honduras, an impoverished nation where violence is common and the leftist president was deposed by a coup just two years ago.

Harper made the announcement after meeting with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

He said the trade deal is a "key part" of the Conservative government’s agenda to open new markets for Canadian businesses. He also added that it would be good for Hondurans, denying a suggestion that his government only wants to ensure Canadian companies can operate in countries with lax labor standards.

"Trade does, of course, raise people from poverty. People who favor protectionism are not, as I’ve said before, driven by concerns about poverty or human rights. They are driven by a desire to protect local interests. Protectionists are selfish and short-sighted in their perspectives."

Harper said enhanced international trade is one of the best ways to bring a populace out of poverty and reduce human rights violations.

"We strongly believe that prosperity, general and widespread, is essential to any nation’s full enjoyment of peace, freedom and democracy. And if prosperity is the key to these great objectives, so is trade the key to prosperity."

Harper paid tribute to the current Honduras president, who he said is working hard to reverse years of human rights violations that have marred the country.

"We are certainly going to be a partner with him in moving forward from the dark days of the past toward a better future."

However, critics have said the Harper government is moving too quickly to provide credibility to the current right-wing Honduran regime at a time when the country is still suffering human-rights abuses, poor treatment of underpaid workers and a high crime rate.

Karen Spring, a Canadian with the organization Rights Action, protested Friday along with local workers who complained they are under-paid and toil in unhealthy workplaces owned by foreign companies, including those from Canada.

"It’s horrible for the communities because there are many who are very sick from the chemicals used," she told reporters, as she peeked in through iron gates into the compound where Harper was.

Large companies in this country ignore laws and operate "with impunity," she said.

"So a signing of the free trade agreement, which will facilitate even more Canadian businesses in Honduras, this will only get worse. More poverty, more insecurity and more problems in human rights violations."

In 2010, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Honduras totalled $192 million.

Canadian exports totalled $40.8 million — mainly fertilizers, machinery and dye. Imports totalled $151.2 million — mainly fruits and textiles.

During his one-day trip here, Harper visited Gildan, a Montreal-based textile company that has an operation in Honduras and employs thousands of workers. Harper had nothing but praise for the company.

"It pays above minimum wage. It runs health, nutrition and transport programs for its employees and is a very good corporate citizen," he said.

"As a general rule, our Canadian companies have a very good record of social responsibility," said Harper.

He said the new trade agreement will benefit many Canadian workers and business sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing and the mining.

The agreement, which includes side agreements on labor standards and environmental protection, must now be ratified by Honduran politicians and by Canada’s Parliament.

In addition to putting the focus on a new trade deal, Harper came here with a clear objective: to help provide stability and international credibility to a country that has been plagued for years by political crisis and brutal criminal activity.

Harper’s visit is the first by a foreign leader since Honduras was readmitted earlier this year into the Organization of American States. It had been drummed out of the organization following the spectacle of its president, Manuel Zelaya, being ousted by the military in a 2009 coup.

He was forced to go to Costa Rica and his many efforts to return and regain his presidency ended in failure.

At the time, Canada condemned the coup. However, in late 2009, another presidential election was held and Zelaya’s political rival — the current president — won.

Since then, Canada has moved to recognize his democratic bona fides, lobbying to have the country readmitted to the OAS.

Canada has been persuaded that the Honduras government, which appointed a Truth and Reconciliation commission to learn the lessons of the controversial coup, is on the right track.

Harper also applauded the current government for establishing a ministry dedicated to "justice and human rights."

"I think we have to be very clear. We know there are significant problems of security and human rights in this country, but we have no information to suggest that those are in any way perpetrated by the government."

Lobo, the Honduran president, said his country has no "state policy" to violate human rights, although he acknowledged that criminal drug gangs are causing major security problems.

He said that in the 1970s and 1980s, Honduras experienced widespread massacres of protesters, but that his government is trying to turn the corner.

"We believe in the strengthening and deepening of democracy," said Lobo.

Still, there is little doubt that the security woes faced by Honduras won’t be resolved with any easy fix.

On its own website, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department warns Canadians considering travel to Honduras that the country is a dangerous place.

"The security situation has seriously deteriorated in Honduras," says the warning.

"Travellers should exercise a high degree of caution throughout the country, as Honduras has the highest homicide rate in Central America. Growing poverty and the increased presence of street gangs contribute to an already significant crime rate, and the apprehension and conviction rate of criminals remains low."