Shortly after I completed my probation as a new entry foreign service officer, the head of personnel in the Department of External Affairs invited me to his office. “Well Graham,” he boomed. “We have a very important assignment for you. We are going to send you to…” and he looked down at the paper in front of him. “We are going to send you to Soodad Truejello.” Looking up, he said, “Where the hell is that?”

I knew where it was – formerly Santo Domingo until the dictator Trujillo renamed it Ciudad Trujillo. My visions of Rome and London vapourized and my heart sank. The hemisphere below the Straits of Florida was barely visible to Ottawa. It did not help when, soon after, the head of the brand new Latin American Division recommended that I take a pistol. It helped even less when I was greeted at Generalissimo Trujillo airport by my predecessor – carrying a pistol tucked under his guayabera.

That was 1960. Government awareness of the region has evolved enormously since then. But it has always been catch up – and it still is. Trade, investment, insurance, mining, banking have been some distance ahead of government.

Canada was first issued an invitation to join the Organization of American States’ first incarnation, the Pan-American Union, by President Taft’s Secretary of State – admittedly, to annoy the British. It was not until 1990, and after many years of dithering, that the Canadian government finally decided to recognize more explicitly the political existence of the hemisphere and join the OAS.

There was much scepticism about that decision – rooted largely in the prevalence of myth and ignorance about potential for Canadian benefit in the region – but Canada took its new hemispheric responsibilities seriously. Almost immediately, Canada became a key player in determined and successful efforts to confer upon the OAS effective sanctions machinery that would deter coup d’etats. It is not altogether an accident of history that since the expulsion of Haitian president Aristide in 1991, there have been no successful military coups in the hemisphere.

In other areas, notably CICAD (the OAS commission on drugs), Canada has played an active and valued role. Who would have believed that Canada’s investment in Latin America and the Caribbean is almost three times greater than our investment in Asia?

And that is the problem. Very few are aware of the Canadian role. Consequently there is not enough support. The splendid surge of interest in the hemisphere that accompanied Canada’s hosting of the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City was an exception – in the last decade governments in Canada have not conferred upon Latin America and the Caribbean the priority that geography and self-interest would suggest.

The International Policy Statement put Mexico high on the list, yet accorded little attention to Latin America and ignored the Caribbean.

All of which begs the question: Why are we not paying more attention when it is so plainly in our interest to do so? The problem cannot be laid at the feet of the senior officials dealing with the region or with the dedicated professionals who are our ambassadors and high commissioners. Across the region they are handicapped by meagre support. Unlike the rest of the world, a Canadian ambassador in Latin America has the chance to be among the most influential heads of mission in their respective capitals.

Without a minimally resourced Foreign and Trade Ministry, we lose our competitive edge in all three of the traditional pillars: trade, peace and culture. We face better funded competitors with more locally engaged officers. Overseas, Canada is expected ‘to punch above its weight’. That happens – but less and less because it is difficult when our global foreign policy lacks coherence and when the boxer’s stomach is on short rations.

Inevitably, the problem lies with competition from other geographical areas. It has a lot to do with a longstanding intoxication of governments with our status as a member of the G8. Canada is not a great power with great power resources, but so far, we have been unable to shed our G8 pretensions. We have attempted for too long to maintain a global profile with a distinctly non-global budget.

The robust advocacy of the last several years to reverse the declining effectiveness of Canada’s armed forces is showing results – good results. But you cannot run a cohesive foreign policy on tank treads alone. If our self-interests overseas (including Latin America and the Caribbean) are to be served, the country will require adequately resourced diplomatic, development and immigration tools. To repeat – most of our serious competitors are better equipped in this respect than we are.

There have been some changes recently but it is too soon to know much about the foreign policy directions of a new government.

Derek Burney, in a recent speech, paraphrased Arthur Kroeger’s concern about over-zealous efforts to ensure greater accountability that “may become a license for pointless rule machinery or procedures that will ultimately thwart efficiency in government.” From some of the early vibrations from Foreign Affairs and others around town, the risk averse, accountability-to-a-fault syndrome may be getting worse.

At the top of my list of things that should be done is a change of priorities by government – a more realistic perception of Canada’s place in the world. We must recognize that our own hemisphere, unlike many parts of the world, offers the potential to make a significant difference.

Investment and trade are powerful components. There are figures and compelling arguments about opportunities. The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) – the broad multilateral route – is effectively frozen, but bilateral routes, such as the very successful agreement with Chile, are open to us.

Previous governments proposed three such agreements: the Central American Four (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras), the Dominican Republic and CARICOM. However, negotiations on all three have been stalled for several years. In the case of CARICOM, commitments to proceed were made twice by Prime Minister Chretien and once by Prime Minister Martin. Not surprisingly, there is puzzlement and some irritation at the inaction. Parallel movement on all three fronts is not possible because the machinery can only cope with one at a time. However, prompt movement on one and the scheduling of others, including Canada/Mercosur, would be a welcome signal.

Weighing the risk
Making the case for the region is as much about the assessment of risks as it is about the assessment of benefits. The wobbly line of the northern hemisphere that runs through the Caribbean and comes out on the West coast of Mexico has become a real Canadian border – our most porous and dangerous border. In peak season there are at least 56 direct flights to Canada from the Caribbean every day. There are scores of ports with people leaving directly for Canada. Most of our non-domestic marijuana comes from the Caribbean basin. More than 80% of the cocaine consumed in Canada is transhipped though the Caribbean. Traffic in weapons and illegal persons takes the same routes. Caribbean and most Latin American countries do not have the resources, the technology or the skilled personnel to confront this problem by themselves. In some cases they are vulnerable to compromise by organized crime.

The Canadian government is aware of these hazards. The RCMP, National Defence, Foreign Affairs, CIDA, Transport Canada and Canadian Borders Service Agency all have programs in the region – often in collaboration with countries such as the UK, the US and the Netherlands.

There are successes. But on balance the battle against organized crime and corruption, and its sophisticated technology, is not going well. For our part, we have neither the resources nor the policy framework to be proactive. As this border becomes more dangerous, a reactive posture is not enough.

Approximately one in thirteen Canadians travel to this region annually. Travel to other parts of the globe does not compare. The incidence of communicable diseases is rising in the Caribbean area and, despite their best efforts, local authorities lack the resources and up-to-date technology to monitor and take adequate preventive measures. Health Canada is rightly concerned, and along with the Pan American Health Organization, is taking action. Like governments in the region, they are concerned about vulnerability to pandemics. But again, it is increasingly recognized that not enough is being done.

The OAS has a key role in preserving fragile democracies, and attempting to curb drug production and transhipment. It has an enviable record in these areas, but it is in trouble. The inter-American system is showing cracks and its directing body, the Summit of the Americas, is in a slump.

Despite the usual excess of rhetoric and too many ‘unactionable’ action plans, Summits of the Americas are important. When they work, they help to knit the hemisphere together in common purpose. Some aspects of last November’s Summit in Mar del Plata served this end – for example, the attention given to indigenous peoples and to sustainable and democratic decentralization. However, the cons outweigh the pros. It was the least successful of a line of summits that dates back to 1994.

What went wrong? One answer is that the distemper at the last summit was the result of abrasions and a lack of commitment to constructive objectives. Summit disarray was a reflection of hemispheric disarray.

Another reason was the absence of credible, forward-looking leadership. The traditional hemispheric leaders have been otherwise engaged or distracted. American leverage has never been so diminished. The one serious attempt to exercise Pan-American leadership comes from Hugo Chavez – an increasingly effective, if not exactly consensus building, international operator and exploiter of resurgent anti-Americanism. The omens preceding this summit were not promising. Feeling marginalized or irrelevant to the polarizing conflicts in the wider region, six Caribbean prime ministers, almost one half of the Commonwealth Caribbean, decided not to attend.

We should be equally concerned about the state of the summit’s central delivery system – the Organization of American States. It is not possible to overstate the importance of securing the finances upon which the OAS and the wider inter-American system depend.

With non-discretionary expenditures assuming a growing proportion of the budget and with a quarter of the membership in arrears, the OAS is moving toward partial paralysis. At the centre of this quagmire is the refusal of too many states to come to grips with quota reform. The OAS needs a UN formula. It is legally bound to pay its employees at UN rates, but has so far failed to obtain agreement that annual payment quotas would be automatically adjusted by a formula involving cost-of-living increments. It is this formula that allows the UN to survive – without this formula the OAS slides toward insolvency.

The noise and anguish about money suggest that the OAS budget must be in the billions. Far from it – at about $76 million, it costs more to run a small Canadian university.

A solution is important because the OAS has a significant role, one that is important to Canada. At their best, the OAS and the Summit of the Americas nudge the region toward better governance, greater accountability and more attention to the scourges of drugs and human rights abuse. It has been and should remain the hemispheric damage control agency. To do this it needs reliable funding and solid commitment from its members and stronger leadership, including from Canada.

There are extraordinary opportunities as well as formidable challenges. The opportunities include doing a number of things that the US, in its present diminished state in the region, can no longer easily do. But more important, there are particular Canadian values and interests that should be the primary motor of a reinvigorated policy in Latin America and the Caribbean – as distinct from those where the American cart is in front of the Canadian horse.

Finally and importantly, the timing is right.

John Graham is chair of FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas. He served as the first head of the Unit for Promotion of Democracy in the OAS. This article is adapted from a presentation to a CIIA/FOCAL conference in April.