Archive for the ‘Canadian foreign policy in Americas’ Category

Canada backs profits, not human rights, in Honduras

On Friday Aug. 12, Stephen Harper became the first foreign leader to visit Honduras and meet with President Porfirio Pepe Lobo since the country was readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS) June 1. This shouldn’t be a point of pride for Canada, however; it reflects a very dangerous and problematic feature of the Conservative government’s foreign policy in Latin America.

Honduras was kicked out of the OAS after the June 28, 2009, military coup that removed from power the democratically elected but moderately left-of-centre president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup was followed immediately by an intense campaign of repression against anti-coup activists waged by the military, police and death squads, echoing the dark days of the Central American dirty wars in the 1980s.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)  (ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP)

Harper’s visit, during which he announced the completion of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, is the culmination of the Canadian government’s strenuous efforts to deepen political and economic ties with the post-coup Lobo government following its election on Nov. 28, 2009. The Harper government has been building its relationship with Lobo in spite of international criticism of the ongoing human rights abuses in the impoverished country.

Harper, former minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent and former and current Canadian ambassadors to Honduras have all sung the praises of the Lobo government. They portray it sanguinely as one of national reconciliation and a return to democratic normalcy. But this is nowhere near the truth of what is happening in Honduras. Indeed, as a leading Honduran human rights organization, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, COFADEH) has argued, the human rights situation was actually worse during the first year of the Lobo government than it was immediately following the coup during the dictatorship of Roberto Micheletti.

During Lobo’s first year in power (January 2010-January 2011) there were at least 34 targeted assassinations of activists within the Resistance Front (COFADEH also notes over 300 suspicious deaths of people associated with the resistance), 34 killings of peasant activists involved in land struggles, 10 politically motivated murders of journalists (leading Reporters Without Borders to declare Honduras to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists in 2010), and 31 slayings of members of the LGBT community, many of whom were associated with the resistance.

Not surprisingly, anti-coup activists scoff at the idea that the Lobo regime represents the return of democracy. They suggest instead that it represents the consolidation of the coup — with key coup actors, such as military leader Gen. Romeo Vásquez, rewarded with important economic and political positions — under the shallow veneer of democracy. There have been no charges made in any cases of political assassination.

But the veneer is good enough for the Harper government — cover for Canada’s pursuit of its political and economic interests. Despite the repression surrounding Lobo’s election, the refusal of internationally recognized electoral observers to participate in the election, and the failure of the Honduran Congress to ratify the San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord (a condition for Canadian support for the election, the accord, backed by Canada, would have allowed for the exiled Zelaya to return to the presidency but with his powers dramatically reduced), Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the new government.

Soon after Lobo took power, Kent started lobbying for Honduras’s return to the OAS, while Canadian officials pushed for and received meetings for Canadian investors with Lobo and some of his key cabinet ministers. Behind the scenes, Canadian officials and a mining executive discussed how to promote a new foreign investor-friendly mining law.

Apart from one press release raising concerns about the killings of journalists and Harper’s very terse acknowledgement of human rights problems during his trip (in which he absolved the Lobo government of any responsibility), Canada has said and done little about targeted repression of political activists. Two days before Kent’s February 2010 visit to Honduras, for example, a union activist and resistance member, Julio Fúnez Benítez, was assassinated. Nevertheless, Kent was fulsome in his praise for Lobo, declaring that he “is beginning the process of national reconciliation.”

And toward that end, Lobo established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unlike other such commissions, however, like that in post-apartheid South Africa or post-civil war Guatemala, Honduras’s commission took place as repression was occurring. Sensing a charade for the benefit of the international community, members of the Resistance Front refused to participate. Unfazed, Canada financed the commission and provided a member, former diplomat Michael Kergin, who happened to be employed by one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms, Bennett Jones, which just happens to specialize in, among other things, investment law and mining. Predictably, while acknowledging a coup d’état had occurred, the commission blamed Zelaya for breaking the law by disregarding a Supreme Court ruling to cancel a straw poll referendum that asked Hondurans if they wanted to hold another referendum during the November 2009 election. The second referendum would have enabled Hondurans to decide whether or not to replace a constitution written during the days of military dictatorship. Rewriting the constitution remains a very popular idea with many Hondurans.

As intended, Canada’s engagement with post-coup Honduras is reaping benefits for Canadian investors. Lobo has been adopting an aggressive free market plan: rivers have been concessioned for dam-building projects; the state electricity and telecommunications companies will likely be put up for auction; a new mining law is coming; large tracts of Garífuna (Afro-Indigenous) land on the north coast are being illegally sold for tourist development; and the constitution has been amended to allow for the creation of corporate-run city states (the so-called model cities).

Canada is one of the largest foreign investor nations in the country, with over $600 million in investment, according to Ambassador Cameron Mackay. Canadian companies play leading roles in mining, maquilas and tourism, and are central actors in the recent announcement of plans for a tourism-focused model city, the first such city announced.

When I was in Honduras in June, I spoke with activists organizing against Canadian companies in all these industries. They spoke of being displaced from their land, environmental destruction and exploitative working conditions. Some alleged they had received death threats for their opposition to Canadian company practices. Canada, I was told, is acting like a colonial power: supporting a repressive government to facilitate the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and cheap labour. It is unlikely that Harper’s visit and the new trade agreement will change this perception.

The Harper government has already successfully consolidated its political and economic ties with Colombia — a country which annually accounts for approximately two-thirds of trade unionists assassinated worldwide and witnesses severe human rights violations in mining zones. Honduras is the latest target of an increasingly aggressive Canadian foreign policy for the Americas, guided by a very simple but frightening philosophy that places corporate profits and geostrategic interests well above human rights.

Todd Gordon teaches political science at York University and is the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2010). He visited Honduras in June.

Canada’s Mining Monopoly in Honduras and the Refugee Mining Caravan
by Billie Pierre
Sunday Nov 25th, 2018 12:51 PM
This Refugee Migrant Caravan that began in Honduras in mid-October and has grown to over 7000 people. They’re currently in Mexico, with some having reached the border. Canada has significant investment, and owns a staggering 90% of the mines in Hondura, but lacks any involvement in providing any support for this humanitarian crisis.

Today, we’ll be hearing from activists linked to Canada and Central America, who will provide us with a closer perspective on the impacts Canada has on Honduras.

José Luis Granados Ceja, an independent writer and photojournalist based in Mexico City who will give us updates on the Caravan. We’ll hear from Stacey Gomez a migrants justice organizer. We’ll also hear from Jackie Mcvickar, who has accompanied human rights social movements and land protectors in Central America for over 10 years. She will also be giving a report about the trial that is being heard right now, for the murder of Indigenous leader Berta Caceres.

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Pretty Faces, Grisly Interests: Canada’s foreign policy in Latin America

Has Trudeau changed anything about Canada’s foreign policy in Latin America?

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Though Mexico was a punching bag throughout Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become president, his election wasn’t top of mind for many here in Mexico. Following the election, I’d meet friends and we’d talk about the latest news, the weather, and even our pets, before broaching the subject. It surprised me that an election that could impact so many seemed of little importance. A couple of weeks after Trump became president-elect, I participated in a forum at the public university in Puebla, Mexico’s fourth largest city. In a packed classroom, I and other panelists talked about the potential impacts of a Trump presidency.

It was then I realized that many Mexicans are not so surprised by the results of the U.S. elections. The current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, shares some key qualities with Trump – namely a lack of scruples and a disregard for literature (a few years ago, Peña Nieto was asked to name his three favourite books and could only come up with “parts of” the Bible). During my presentation, I asked the audience, mostly graduate students, whether they knew about sanctuary cities or about “Dreamers,” people granted legal protections under Barack Obama after arriving to the U.S. undocumented at a young age. Both are under threat by the Trump administration. Few raised their hands.

In the weeks and months that have followed, we’ve gotten an idea of Trump’s style. Many have focused on his lack of decorum and his trigger-happy Twitter finger. But in terms of the lived reality in Mexico and much of Latin America, Trump represents continuity more than he does rupture with the policies of Obama. The war on drugs, a rise in immigration detention, and a highly militarized border are just a few of the ways this continuity is manifesting.

Since Trump’s election, Canada has come up from time to time, especially with respect to a potential renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has put downward pressure on wages in all three countries and has had particularly devastating consequences in Mexico. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, between 1991 and 2007, nearly five million family farmers have had to leave their lands, while poverty levels have climbed steadily. Trump’s flip-flopping on withdrawing from NAFTA has increased instability in Mexico and has weakened the peso, but pundits and economists alike have cast doubt on the possibility of a full-scale U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

What is clear is that in terms of optics, the tables have turned: no longer do we have Stephen Harper to contrast with Barack Obama, who cultivated a “yes we can” populism.

Justin Trudeau lifted the visa requirement for Mexican visitors in an apparent reversal of Stephen Harper’s effort to keep Mexicans from claiming refugee status or asylum in Canada. But by March 9 of this year, the Canada Border Services Agency had detained 444 Mexicans, more than were detained in all of 2016. Canada has also refused to remove Mexico from the “safe” country of origin list, legitimizing the country as one that respects human rights, when in fact it is implicated in significant violations. A 2016 report by the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law revealed damning evidence of discrimination and violence against LGBTQI people and people living with HIV in Mexico. The report’s first recommendation was: “If the Canadian government retains a Designated Country of Origin list, it should immediately remove Mexico from the list.” The recommendation has thus far gone unheeded.

What is clear is that in terms of optics, the tables have turned: no longer do we have Harper, a fundamentalist right-wing prime minister to contrast with Obama, who cultivated a “yes we can” populism. Instead, Trudeau’s mild progressivism and insistence on Canadian diversity and friendliness contrasts with Trump’s overt anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant stance. Trudeau’s sleek diplomacy and boyish charm have injected new life into the powerful myth that Canada is a good and benevolent nation. This myth rests on the foundational denial of ongoing Canadian colonialism and racism at home, and on the euphemisms of peacekeeping and the responsibility to protect, which mask imperialist intervention abroad. Recently, Trudeau took the floor of the UN General Assembly to proclaim that the challenges are great, “but we’re Canadian. And we’re here to help.”

As nice as the rhetoric sounds, the facts on the ground make clear that as official celebrations of Confederation’s 150th birthday get underway, Trudeau represents continuity just as much as his counterpart in the U.S.

When Mexico’s Peña Nieto visited Ottawa in June of last year, he and Trudeau jogged together in front of the press, and later stood before the cameras and promised deeper co-operation. Media buzz about the men’s “chemistry” overshadowed the nuts and bolts of their encounter. The two leaders issued a joint statement on economic growth, noting that the privatization of Mexico’s state oil company means new opportunities in the energy sector. Canada is working to influence emerging energy sector regulation in Mexico, and promised to “share best experiences on consultation and engagement to enhance participation of Indigenous communities in the energy sector.” The irony of the statement is not lost on anyone following conflicts between oil and gas companies and Indigenous peoples in Canada, from Elsipogtog in New Brunswick to unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia.

Policing and military activities were also central to the bilateral meetings: Trudeau signalled Canada’s ongoing support for the so-called drug war in Mexico, which by a recent estimate has led to the disappearance of 300,000 people and caused the homicide rate to double over the past 10 years. Trudeau and Peña Nieto promised increased collaboration between the RCMP and the Mexican Federal Police, which, along with the army, has been the primary agency driving the militarization of the country under the pretext of the war on drugs. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted that, in 2015 alone, the Federal Police massacred 16 civilians in Apatzingán, in the state of Michoacán, and participated in a suspicious confrontation in the same state in which 42 civilians and one officer were killed.

As I documented in my book Drug War Capitalism, the militarization of Mexico serves a purpose that has little to do with narcotics: the protection of Canadian mining projects. Federal police and soldiers have been used to break strikes and protect mining company officials. Canadian mining projects have been sites of violence on multiple occasions, and private security forces and hit men have killed a number of high-profile opponents in areas as diverse as northern Chihuahua near the U.S. border, and southern Chiapas near the border with Guatemala. Evidence has also emerged that Canadian resource extraction companies have co-operated with organized criminal groups. A 2012 report prepared by global accounting firm Deloitte estimated that 75 per cent of foreign mining investment in Mexico came from Canada. In the chilling words of Jennifer Moore from MiningWatch Canada, “Mexico is a graveyard and Canada is quarrying for headstones.”

Canada’s investment in extractive industries and generous supports for companies that provoke conflict have become mainstays of Ottawa’s foreign policy throughout Latin America. The corporatization of Canada’s foreign service is easy to discern. For example, Ottawa’s highest representative to Mexico, Pierre Alarie, has spent his career shuffling between diplomacy and Canada’s transnational business sector, having previously worked with Bombardier, SNC Lavalin, Hydro-Québec, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and Bank of Nova Scotia.

“Canadian governments, over the last couple of decades, both Conservative and Liberal, have put Canadian profits over Latin American people,” asserts Jeffery R. Webber, senior lecturer in the school of politics and international relations at Queen Mary University of London, and co-author, with Todd Gordon, of Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America. “This is systematic and structural behaviour on the part of the Canadian state, not a question of a few bad apples in this or that Canadian ministry.”

A younger, more handsome, face at the head of Parliament does nothing to transform this reality. As in Mexico, mining has been at the centre of conflicts involving Canadian companies and local communities throughout the hemisphere. In Guatemala, for example, mining conflicts continue to rage in various regions of the country, often involving Canadian corporations. As high-profile lawsuits regarding the deadly conduct of mine security workers wind their way through the courts in Toronto and Guatemala City, local activists continue to risk their lives in defence of the land.

I asked Guatemalan analyst Luis Solano to describe the essence of relations between Canada and Guatemala today. “Starting from the directory of the Canadian-Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce, one sees that the relations are established fundamentally by Canadian oil and mining investments in Guatemala. Connected to these investments are another group, including companies dedicated to transportation, law firms, banks, and companies that carry out environmental impact studies,” Solano told Briarpatch. “And the Canadian Embassy plays a central role in these relationships and alliances, by promoting and strengthening these connections.”

The kinds of networks and overt support for the extractive industries Solano mentions are present not only in Mexico and Central America, but throughout South America and the Caribbean. Free trade agreements have been signed between Canada, Peru, and Colombia, and have led to increased Canadian investment in the extractive industries of both countries. Calgary-based energy firms, including Gran Tierra Energy, Petrobank (since acquired by Touchstone Exploration), and Parex Resources, dominate Colombia’s oil sector, and oil exploration and production has been militarized at the expense of local communities. In the southern state of Putumayo, where Gran Tierra Energy is active, at least one tenth of the residents have been forcibly displaced from their lands.

It is clear that Canada’s reach goes beyond mining, and includes political support for right-wing regimes and chilled relationships with progressive governments. “Concretely, that has meant Canadian diplomatic support for the repressive post-coup regime in Honduras, ideological backing of the often murderous regime in Colombia, interference in the domestic affairs of countries governed by left-wing parties, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, and the systematic undermining of popular environmental, Indigenous, and peasant resistance to the harmful presence of Canadian companies,” wrote Webber in an email to Briarpatch. Already, Trudeau’s government has joined the U.S. in criticizing Venezuela’s government, while propping up questionable anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

Canada’s reach goes beyond mining, and includes political support for right-wing regimes and chilled relationships with progressive governments.

But it is mining that remains the single most contentious aspect of Canada’s corporate presence in Latin America. “Canada moved from being a relatively minor player in the region 25 years ago, to being a pivotal economic force today,” according to Webber. “Canadian investments, particularly in mining, have been associated with widespread and systematic abuses of human rights and ecological disaster.”

Peru is a key recipient of Canadian investment, and has long been a site of Indigenous and peasant community resistance to extractive projects. Many of those struggles have been successful, and activists there offer valuable insight for Canadians working to push beyond the Trudeau government’s empty performance of multiculturalism and greenwashing. “In Cajamarca, there are various mining projects that they are trying to get off the ground, and Canada is always held up as the example of how mining can be done well,” said Milton Sánchez, a community activist with the Interinstitutional Platform of Celendín, in the province of Cajamarca.

“We have realized that in Canada these mining projects really do cause damage to communities,” he said. The big lessons, which activists like Sánchez have learned through participating in resistance movements within their communities, have to do with the global nature of their fight. Exposing Canada’s true role may be particularly important as the Canadian government has been attempting to portray itself as a more progressive, positive force than its southern neighbour. “From here in the south, we now know that the model of growth based on

extractivism is a threat that doesn’t distinguish between a rich country or a poor country, or whether they come from governments who are on the left or on the right,” Sánchez told Briarpatch. “These projects put the survival of all of our communities at risk.”

Dawn Paley is a a journalist and researcher based in Puebla, México. Her first book is titled Drug War Capitalism (AK Press, 2014).