Photo Jonathan Blair

Monday, April 13, 2015

Harper in Panama: wrapping up

Overall, Steven Harper's Summit performance was eminently sensible. On Cuba, when talking about the need for a new approach that would engage Havana and avoid isolating Cuba, he mostly had the US in mind. Still, it could mean that Canada may not oppose the full reintegration of Cuba into inter-American institutions, in particular full OAS membership. That would be quite a change or hearth and it would imply that Ottawa would basically decide to ignore the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which makes it very clear that respect for human rights, periodic, free and fair elections as well as freedom of the press are necessary conditions for participation in regional institutions.

Now, in the face of a clear regional consensus on "engagement," or more precisely on an unconditional re-integration of Cuba in the system, a consensus that the US now appears willing to join, it would have made no sense for Canada to take a rigid stance. Keeping a hard line, aside from having little or no impact on Cuba, would also entail a degree of diplomatic risk, as Toronto prepares to host the region for the Pan-American Games, this coming August. Given the tone of Venezuela's Maduro, Ecuador's Correa and even Raul Castro at the Summit, the possibility of a boycott could very well have been raised.

On Cuba, moreover, Harper made it very clear that while Canada would be keen to build on what is already a significant relationship, especially around trade and tourism, strong concerns remained regarding human rights violations and the absence of a "democratic space" in the country. In other words, the PM will continue to call a cat a cat, unlike his fellow heads-of-state, who have decided to give Cuba, and obviously also Venezuela, a free pass on those issues.

It is tempting to see primarily economic motivations behind Harper's move, but that would be a mistake. Cuba is a small ($68bn), dysfunctional, poorly governed and vulnerable economy (because of its dependence on imported oil and gas, now provided at a discount by shaky Venezuela). On one side, this obviously implies that growth prospects are excellent: as my Carleton colleague Dane Rowlands put it, you don't get Chinese stratospheric growth rates without a disastrous Great Leap Forward and decades of economic repression and mismanagement. A case in point would be the island's agricultural sector, whose stunning under-development explains why Cuba, with plenty of arable land, is nonetheless a huge net food importer. On the other hand, it is far from clear that the current leadership is ready to make the kind of concessions, on secure property rights for the private sector in particular, that were central to China's remarkable bout of growth. In other words, while there is money to be made here and there, Cuba's importance for Canada will remain marginal. Now, and to insist, with a share of about 1/10th of 1% of Canada's trade, the potential for progress is huge.

Finally, as to Harper's announcements for the region as a whole, the government basically dug up everything it could, from its files including various programs worth about $40m that have been under way for a year, and another one that will be launched in 2016. Some of the initiatives are very interesting, e.g. on security, policing and justice for Central America and the Caribbean, but total commitments at about $200m over three, four or five years (depending on the program), while not negligible, are certainly no sign of a particularly strong new engagement when you consider that Canada's ODA envelope is worth more than $4.5bn...