Changes of direction in Canadian foreign policy are not usually signalled by leaks to the press, especially not under the iron discipline of the Harper government. But that appears to be what has happened to policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. In March, the Canadian Press broke a story about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan to undertake a major trip to Latin America and the Caribbean in a bid, according to anonymous sources, “to raise Canada’s profile and strengthen ties with a host of new leaders in the region.”

The credibility of leaks is usually graded by the government’s reaction to the breaking news. In this case, there were no denials. In fact, there were “informal” indications that the government was not displeased about the reports. And in July, Harper set off for Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti.

Inside government, especially in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the wheels have been grinding steadily in this direction and it appears that Cabinet agrees that the Americas should be elevated to Canada’s No. 3 foreign policy priority after the United States and Afghanistan.

The foreign policy landscape is thick with other competitors. What has given the Americas the edge? Trade and investment have a lot to do with it. Historically there is a lag between what merchants and investors have been achieving and government follow-up. In the Americas the gap is startling. Canada’s investment in Latin America and the Caribbean is almost three times that of our investment in Asia, according to DFAIT statistics. Mexico is our fourth largest trading partner.

Security is another key reason. With the increasing movement of people and cargo (legal and illegal) from Caribbean and Latin American airports and seaports directly to Canada, the Caribbean has become in real terms not only a Canadian border but Canada’s most porous border. The issues are drugs, counterterrorism and the many faces of organized crime. Health security is yet one more area of neglect and concern. The rising incidence of communicable diseases, coupled with inadequate monitoring and disease prevention controls in the region, underscores the urgent need for attention and improved collaboration.

Foreign policy has long ceased to be primarily about polishing an image that makes Canada look good in international fora. It is about serving the nation’s vital interests – defending and strengthening the quality of life for all Canadians. In that context, the Latin American and Caribbean region is the leading contender after the US. Government recognition of this priority has been sporadic. Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister and Joe Clark as Foreign Minister decided that we should join the hemisphere politically as well as geographically and so it was that 17 years ago Canada became a member of the Organization of American States (OAS). In the early years after joining, Canada and a handful of other states were the architects of surprisingly successful policies designed to defend democracy in a region where both the rules and the culture had long sheltered authoritarian governments.

This tradition was maintained initially by the new Liberal government of Jean Chretien. With Lloyd Axworthy in the chair, Canada hosted the General Assembly of the OAS in Windsor and became actively engaged in drawing Peru back from tyranny. Canada’s profile in the region reached its zenith the following year when Canada hosted the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, brokering negotiations that led a year later to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Since then, Canada’s interest has faltered. Governments did not confer upon Latin America and the Caribbean the priority that geography and self-interest would suggest. Policy follow-up had also become a victim in the last decade of intoxication with our status as a member of the G8.

Great power pretensions without great power resources (or even the willingness to devote middle power resources) have led to excessively diffuse foreign policy and acutely under-resourced diplomatic, trade, development and immigration tools.

The government’s apparent intention to focus on the Americas is a welcome change. The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) has long argued that any plans for reinvigorating this relationship will require visits by the Prime Minister as the cornerstone. No other policy option offers the same level of immediacy and impact. However, the benefits of the Prime Minister’s visit, like the benefits of Windsor or Quebec City, will quickly atrophy if they are not buttressed by follow-up visits by ministers and senior officials and by sustained and adequately nourished support for public, trade and cultural diplomacy – a general failure that has for at least a decade debilitated Canadian diplomacy and Canadian efforts to serve the national interest around the world.

There are other possibilities. Rightly or wrongly, most of Latin America and the Caribbean will be judging Canada by how tightly connected we are with Washington’s policies. The US image has never been lower in that region, despite the President’s recent tour of Latin America. Cuba will be a special litmus test. The region has admired the distinctiveness and independence of Canadian policy toward Cuba since the days of the Diefenbaker government in the ‘60s. Canadian advocacy of allowing Cubans inside Cuba to find their own way in a post-Castro transition free from external threats, coupled with our present policy of constructive engagement, would set a positive tone for dialogue on other issues. This can be done without gratuitous US bashing.

In the future, it would be essential to include a separate visit in the Commonwealth Caribbean where the regional heads of government could meet with Mr. Harper. There has been no full Canada-Caricom heads of government meeting since 2001. A conversation with Jose Miguel Insulza, the surprisingly enterprising and determined OAS Secretary General, in advance of the trip would send the right signals about the priority that Canada attaches to the Inter-American system. Adding one of the “populist” states for a short visit might send other potentially positive signals.

This visit presents a significant opportunity. Canada has the potential to make a difference in our own hemisphere that we clearly do not have in most other parts of the world.

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 Organization of American States. This article was originally printed in FOCAL POINT.