The 5TH Summit of the Americas: Time for a Grand Gesture?

Embassy - April 8, 2009
Op-ed by Gerry Barr, President and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation

Next weekend's Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago takes place in a context of rapid economic and political change in the southern half of the hemisphere. That change has been accompanied by another significant shift in the United States. The election of President Obama has raised expectations of a sea change in American policy from that of the Bush era.

There are those who wonder whether Obama's first hemispheric summit might be marked by a "grand gesture" to symbolize that change. That gesture might be to end the traditional U.S. veto of Cuban membership in the Organization of American States (OAS), long overdue. Or, it might involve a rapprochement with those populist regimes, anathematized by the Bush administration, but that command the support of a majority of their citizens.

While it is natural that much of the attention will be on the new U.S. President and the preponderant influence of the country he leads, the Summit also presents an opportunity for Canada to make its mark. What might the Americas expect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper by way of a "grand gesture"?

Before we attempt to answer that question, let's review our recent policies in the Americas against the background of the changes underway in the hemisphere to see how they fit. Canada recently raised the profile of the Americas among its foreign policy priorities. To date, it has supported that commitment with a Prime Ministerial visit in 2007 and renewed enthusiasm for NAFTA-style trade agreements, like those recently signed with Peru and Colombia. In doing so, it has chosen to ignore the growing opposition to such agreements, which are rightly seen in the South as primarily a vehicle for protecting the interests of investors at the expense of the democratic rights of citizens.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, citizens have mobilized for justice and a new approach to hemispheric cooperation and integration - an approach that will address the gross inequities that continue to be the unfortunate reality of the Americas. That mobilization has led to the rise of progressive governments in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and despite its shortcomings, Venezuela. These governments, representing more than 50% of the region's peoples, are determined to address a triple crisis - of finance, of food, and of climate - in a way that does not further exacerbate inequality or undermine human rights.

Given this context, the approaches of Canada and the United States to the hemisphere stand at a crossroads. We can either join the diverse efforts of women's organizations, trade unions, campesinos, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants in their efforts to exercise their social, economic and political rights, or we can opt to impede what is essentially a struggle for human rights, democracy and broad-based development.

Victor Baez, the Paraguayan General Secretary of the Trade Union Federation of the Americas, was in Ottawa recently to remind us that we should not limit our anti-poverty efforts to targeting economic poverty. The Americas, he said, experience widespread political and social poverty as demonstrated by the lack of institutions and avenues through which citizens can participate in economic, social and political decision-making. Trade agreements negotiated without such popular participation, and that grant special rights to investors over those of citizens, only hinder such democratic development and perpetuate a colonial model. Is that how Canadians wish to be seen?

Kumi Naidoo, Co-Chair of the Global call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), says of Obama that, "We danced in the streets from Kenya to Indonesia when he was elected. Because when he said "Yes We Can" we did not understand this to mean only for the American people or only for the most powerful." He was no doubt speaking for the majority in the Americas as well.

The expectations of Obama are understandably high. They are also reflective of what the Americas ask of Canada - support for an agenda that includes putting human rights first, including labour rights and gender equality, decent work, social justice and social security for all, fair trade, foreign investment that respects national and sub-regional policies for development, and a commitment to protect the environment.

In this rapidly changing context, then, perhaps the single most important "grand gesture" Prime Minister Harper could make at the upcoming Summit, to signal that Canada too wants to break with its past, is to assert that we will henceforth require all trade and investment agreements in the hemisphere to pass a human rights impact assessment before proceeding. This would send a message to all those fighting to establish democratic development across the Americas that Canada is unequivocally on board.