Since Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006, Canada has been increasingly shifting its focus away from Africa and toward Latin America.
It turns out that he was inspired by former Australian prime minister John Howard's approach to foreign policy.
This month, the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks released a bunch of U.S. diplomatic cables relating to this part of the world.
A "confidential" cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa to the U.S. State Department on April 15, 2009 explains Howard's influence on Harper's approach.
"Upon taking office for the first time in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a sharper focus for Canada's foreign policy priorities, notably highlighting relations with the U.S., Afghanistan, emerging markets in Asia, and the Western Hemisphere," the cable states. "He came to this decision, in part, after extended discussions with Australian then-Prime Minister John Howard, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's (DFAIT) Director General for Latin America and the Caribbean James Lambert. Harper had long been favorably impressed by Australia's ability to exert outsized influence with the U.S. in particular—and other powers as well—by emphasizing its relations in its own neighborhood, observed Lambert, who added that PM Harper hoped to gain similar benefits for Canada by increased attention to Latin America and the Caribbean. When forming his second government after the October 2008 election, PM Harper also created the new position of Minister of State for the Americas, naming former journalist and new Conservative MP Peter Kent. While Kent has traveled frequently throughout the hemisphere, he does not have actual staff or exercise ministerial oversight of Brazil and Cuba policy in particular, as he had originally been promised, according to DFAIT contacts.
In a 2003 speech to Parliament, Harper copied parts of a Howard speech supporting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Harper's repetition of Howard's words created a brief controversy in the 2008 federal-election campaign.
The recently released WikiLeaks cable also describes efforts by a former foreign-affairs minister, Stockwell Day, to promote freer trade with Latin American countries. Deals were reached with Peru and Colombia. Here's what the cable says:
"The government has submitted the implementing legislation for both FTAs to Parliament, but concerns over alleged abuses and killings of labor activists in Colombia have made the Colombia FTA in particular somewhat of a difficult sell in some quarters of Parliament, according to DFAIT's Major. "It was a painful but deliberate choice for the Prime Minister," she said, adding that Harper was committed to supporting President Uribe despite potential domestic political costs. Harper and Uribe had struck up a good friendship, she said, and the Prime Minister wished to support someone he viewed as courageous and trying to change his country for the better. Canada was also continuing negotiations with the Central American Four partners. The parties met again for talks in late February and will have a second round in April 27 to 30 in Managua. Both sides having been trying to agree to terms since 2001. The talks had stalled for several years beginning in 2004, but resumed in 2006.
The cable also states that Canada has concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Mexico. Here's part of what was written:
"Canada has become increasingly concerned about the security situation in Mexico, according to several Canadian interlocutors. DFAIT contacts have noted that National Security Advisor Marie-Lucie Morin was pushing the government to aid Mexican President Calderon in a more public way (refs c-e). An inter-agency Canadian team met with counterparts in Qc-e). An inter-agency Canadian team met with counterparts in Mexico City on March 12 and 13 to see how Canada might better support President Calderon's efforts to reform the police, corrections, and judicial sectors. The visit also reflected the reinvigorated bilateral security policy consultations that began again in December 2007."
Meanwhile, the memo cites a Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official saying that Canada appreciated U.S. efforts to "de-escalate public disagreements with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, believing that the skillful handling of Chavez over the past several years had muted hemispheric criticism of U.S. policy in other areas, especially with regard to Cuba".
"Internationally, Chavez's tentative 'alliance' with Iran was increasingly 'worrying' to Canada, according to Lambert, since it has the potential to divert global attention from human rights and civil liberties," the cable states. "Nonetheless, with Venezuela as its third largest export market, Canada had no choice but to stay engaged with Caracas, despite increasing concerns for the investment climate in Venezuela."
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