Colombia thanks Harper for trade deal lobbying

Embassy, December 19th, 2007

Colombia Thanks Harper for Trade Deal Lobbying

Luis Plata is grateful Stephen Harper is doing what he can to forward free trade between Colombia and the U.S., but opposition MPs in Ottawa are more suspicious of the leader’s motives.

By Lee Berthiaume

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s role in lobbying the United States Congress to ratify its free trade deal with Colombia has been warmly acknowledged by the Latin American nation’s government amidst mounting opposition to Canada’s efforts to ink an agreement of its own.

This has prompted accusations that the Bush administration and Harper government are using Canadian goodwill in the region to forward their mutual agenda, as opposed to Canada representing an alternative to the American and Bolivarian models.

When negotiators from Canada and the Andean nations of Peru and Colombia wrapped up the third round of talks in Bogota on Oct. 5, Luis Plata, Colombia’s minister of commerce, industry and tourism, made a statement that was posted on his ministry’s website.

"This is a very complex treaty," Mr. Plata said in spanish of the free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia. "It covers many different fields and disciplines, and it cannot be taken lightly."

Mr. Plata described bilateral relations as "excellent," noting that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mr. Harper spoke on the phone the previous day about the negotiations, amongst other things.

Mr. Plata went on to note that "Canada and Prime Minister Harper have supported Colombia in different fields, but especially with the FTA with the U.S."

Only months earlier, Mr. Harper was in Chile describing the Canadian economic and social model as an alternative to the capitalist system the U.S. has adopted, which lacks many social safety nets, and the socialist model present in Bolivarian countries.

However, in New York in September, the prime minister called on the U.S. Congress to ratify the Colombia-U.S. deal after it was held up over human and labour rights concerns, as well as corruption and the Uribe government’s connections to paramilitary groups.

U.S. President George W. Bush quoted Mr. Harper’s speech a few weeks later, and International Trade Minister David Emerson made a similar appeal earlier this month.

All three argued that such deals will reward and strengthen Colombia and its government, which they say has committed to democracy, human rights and free and open markets.

Third Way or U.S. Way?

There have been overt hints Canada and the U.S. are concerned that Colombia will adopt Bolivarian policies, such as nationalizing key resources and industries, if the current government is not supported.

Liberal Trade critic Navdeep Bains accused the Bush Administration of "trying to leverage Canada’s goodwill to ratify their own free trade agreement," and called into question the so-called third way the prime minister advocated in Latin America in the summer.

"The fact that Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper see eye-to-eye on certain trade matters, specifically trade with Colombia," he said, adding the third-way "seems to be very much the U.S. way."

Yet Mr. Bains said the Liberals are withholding judgment on a free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia, and will be looking towards Commons’ trade committee hearings that will examine human rights violation allegations this session.

"We need to make sure some of these allegations that have been alleged have been examined thoroughly," he said. "There’s some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, and if the government can show they have been addressed, than definitely we can go forward."

NDP Trade critic Peter Julian described the Harper government’s lobbying as "completely inappropriate" and said the government appears "hellbent" on signing an agreement without acknowledging or investigating the human rights violation allegations.

Last week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada sent letters to Messrs. Harper and Emerson expressing their concern over Canada’s push to rapidly finish an agreement and lobbying Congress to ratify the U.S. deal.

In its letter to Mr. Harper dated Dec. 10, Human Rights Watch said that by refusing to ratify the U.S.-Colombia deal, "Congress is giving Colombian officials a reason to take its human rights problems seriously," while Canada’s image is being tarnished by its support for the deal.

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