Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

CARIBBEAN: Canada Looks Far South

Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Jul 23 2007 (IPS) - As he winged his way back to Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was no doubt satisfied that his six-day trip to the Americas, especially the Caribbean, was worth it.

He has acknowledged that Canada has neglected this part of the region for some time, but appeared to be now following the lead of countries like the United States and Britain, which over the years have sought closer trade and economic ties with a Caribbean region struggling to survive in a changing global environment.

Before Harper jetted out to the Caribbean as part of the Jul. 15-20 four-nation trip that also took him to Colombia and Chile, his office acknowledged that the tour was aimed at establishing “new partnerships in the Americas” and strengthening Canada’s involvement in areas like “security, democratic governance and economic prosperity.”

Rajnarine Singh, Guyana’s High Commissioner to Canada and Dean of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) diplomatic corps in Ottawa, regards Canada’s renewed interest as “a positive gesture”, noting it had “failed to focus” on the Caribbean for the past decade.

Caribbean and Canadian leaders have not met since 2001. Last year, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs commissioned the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) to study Canada’s involvement in the Caribbean.

The report found that Canada’s once robust focus has “drifted to the margins of foreign policy,” allowing other countries like China and Venezuela to gain influence in the Caribbean.

It recommended the reinstatement of the Canada-Caricom summit, as well as meetings of foreign affairs ministers from both regions.

FOCAL, which is also regarded as an influential Canadian think tank, said Harper’s visit indicated that Ottawa has promoted the Caribbean to the third spot on its foreign policy agenda behind the United States and Afghanistan.

“Mr. Harper had other options – Asia, Europe and the acute needs of Africa,” said FOCAL’s chairman John Graham. “So why the Americas?” he asked. “Trade and investment provide part of the answer.”

Graham noted that Canada’s investment in Latin America and the Caribbean – in areas like mining, tourism, petrochemical, banking and financial services – is almost three times that of its investment in Asia.

Canada spends almost 377 billion dollars on imports of commercial goods and services every year, making it a significant market. In 2005, it accounted for three percent of global spending on imports.

But according to the United Nations COMTRADE database, Canada accounted for only four percent of the total export earnings of Caricom-based firms in 2005.

“This performance suggests that for some new exporters in the region, penetrating the Canadian market is apparently a low priority. It also highlights, at the same time, the difficulty which some mature Caricom exporters have experienced getting their products onto Canadian shelves,” noted the June 2007 newsletter of the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery.

Former Caricom chief trade negotiator, Sir Shridath Ramphal, said he regarded Harper’s visit as a clear sign that Ottawa is ready to re-engage a region that has long complained of neglect.

“It can go much deeper. The Caribbean is talking a great deal about functional cooperation… Canada can help us cooperate among ourselves in functional areas like transportation,” Sir Shridath said.

Caricom chairman Owen Arthur, who also hosted the Caricom-Canada summit in Barbados on Jul. 18-19, said that any new arrangement would have to move beyond the limitations of the Caribbean-Canada Trade Agreement (CARIBCAN), a pact established in 1986, but which excludes services, investment rules “and other issues that constitute a modern trade agreement”.

He said that CARIBCAN had become time bound because it required a World Trade Organisation (WTO) waiver every five years to be reviewed, compared to other agreements that have benefits locked in permanently.

Arthur suggested that the time had come for new types of relationships not only with Canada, but the United States and Europe – the traditional economic partners of the Caribbean – and other potential partners.

“We need in the Caribbean to have new economic and trade relationships that are not only limited to liberalising trade in goods, but that also address fundamental issues in respect of liberalisation of trade in services, investment and all the disciplines that now are before the WTO or could arise in the relationship between states,” he said.

Harper’s response came in the announcement of a 10-year plan for a new economic partnership that would also include assistance to regional states as they make the transition towards the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME). He said the new plan would broaden the CARIBCAN accord.

“We accept criticism that there has been some negligence over the years, but we are moving forward full throttle on the development of a new economic partnership for this region,” he told reporters.

“I can assure you that Canada will support you as you move towards a more integrated regional economy. A free trade agreement would complement and help further develop the regional cooperation that you are already taking through the Caribbean Single Market and Economy initiative,” he said, revealing that he had invited Caricom leaders to meet in Canada in 2008.

Canada’s plan to offer development assistance to Caricom will also seek to strengthen Canada’s links with academics in the region through an increase in the number of scholarships provided to Caribbean students.

Harper also indicated that a Caribbean Institutional Leadership Development Programme would be launched to promote the principles of leadership, accountability and transparency.

The Caribbean’s chief trade negotiator Richard Bernal said he expects discussions on the new accord to begin before year’s end.

“We expect that in this agreement we will be trying to forge the type of arrangement that can promote economic development and structural diversification of Caricom economies,” he said. “We expect the traditional friendship and the special treatment which Canada has extended to us to continue to be the foundation of this new arrangement.”

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