PM champions free trade at Americas summit

Harper insists he's not at odds with other leaders, but clash of ideologies still evident


Globe and Mail Update

April 18, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he's not at odds with most leaders at the Summit of the Americas, arguing that the vast majority of the 34 leaders here are free-traders, barring a small block of leftists who are still fighting the Cold War.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has proffered “equal partnership” with Latin America and the Caribbean, and promised to help alleviate poverty during an economic crisis, Mr. Harper has championed free trade and emphasized the need to avoid protectionism.

“There are some countries that want to keep fighting the Cold War and frankly wars that go a lot farther back than that,” Mr. Harper said at a brief press conference. He added: “I thought President Obama really demonstrated how in this business, less is often more.”

Despite friendly handshakes between Mr. Obama and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's leftist leader, there has been an evident clash of ideologies at the summit.

Bolivian President Evo Morales called for the world to reject the neo-liberal capitalism which he said caused the economic crisis. And on Friday, in a long, winding speech reminiscent of Fidel Castro's marathons, Mr. Morales's ally Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega railed about the dictatorship of global capitalism, keeping the assembly waiting an hour to hear Mr. Obama's more pithy oration.

The Prime Minsiter's free-trade refrain has made him appear a bit of a lone wolf at this summit – the very forum that four years ago angrily sunk a proposal for hemispheric free trade. He said he raised it in two plenary sessions Friday; officials from other delegations said no one else did.

But Mr. Harper argued he is in the majority, and that outside of a small block, all the leaders are free-traders, and share his views.

“There are a lot of differences between these countries of Latin America. There are countries with very conservative economic policies. And for the vast majority, they are countries that accept the principle of the globalization of the economy. Obviously there's a certain group that has a very different tendency, but the dialogue's there.”

Oddly, Mr. Harper, who two years ago told Latin Americans that Canada offers a third way between the unbridled capitalism of the U.S. and state socialism – a presumed reference to Mr. Chavez – has seen Mr. Obama claim that terrain. The U.S. President called such extreme alternatives false choices in his speech Friday.

Mr. Harper has focused far more on free trade this time, but it certainly does not fit the rhetoric of this summit, where the phrase raises a reminder of the failed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, killed four years ago in acrimonious battle at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

Many Latin American and Caribbean countries no longer want to talk about classical free-trade agreements, and instead want trade-and-development deals that see developed countries commit aid programs. Mr. Harper noted countries like Colombia and Peru have signed trade deals with Canada, and Panama is negotiating.

Mr. Harper's free-market approach, however, did not stop him from urging the U.S. to take a different tack with Cuba – in fact, it was the basis of his argument.

He went further than previously in urging a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, arguing the trade embargo should be ended.

“If one wants to break down a state-socialist economic nationalist model with walls, I don't think a trade embargo's the way to do that. So we would obviously urge a different course of action.”

“That said … we don't turn a blind eye to the fact that Cuba is a communist dictatorship and that we want to see progress on freedom, democracy and human rights as well as on economic matters.”




Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre


A rare example of Mr. Harper being ahead of the game, a very predictable game with an obvious result of normalization of Cuba-US relations. Mr. Obama does not need any direction from Mr. Harper. Canadians need to remember that Mr. Harper is primarily driven by a blind red necked Republican ideology that virtually mirrored and parroted the gospel of George Bush.

Most probably, Mr. Harper has on another of his rare lucid moments, has chosen to lead the world with what he knows are firm opinions of Canadians who are accustomed to cheap vacations in Cuba and drinking 7 years old Havana Club Rum not to mention the elderly male tourist business of relations with Cuban female entertainers.

You can see that Mr. Harper's statement's contradict the Bush dogma and would probably not have made if Bush or Republican's were in power. His decision was most probably reliably based on public opinion surveys and like any politician he wishes to appear to be backing winners and ideas that will succeed in the near future.

If we can interpret anything from Mr. Harper's words, its that Mr. Harper's intelligence sources are predicting a very significant improvement in US Cuba relations beyond what we can expect and that could well mean that Raul Castro and Fidel, are about to make some monumental surprising decisions that give Obama what he needs to make that decision.

That raises the question as to Why Fidel would suddenly have such a change in heart.

The answer to that is ego and pride, Fidel Castro like Harper, wants to appear to be backing winning ideas and as Fidel Castro's days are rapidly coming to an end, so is Castro's window of opportunity to see history record him as the winner of the Five Decade cold war with the United States.

The ball is now in Fidel Casto's court and the psychological pressure on him may well kill him before he makes his famous last decision.