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Support for democracy is a central pillar of the Harper government’s policy of re-engagement with the Americas. To this end, the government created a ministerial post responsible for foreign affairs in the Americas in 2008, which Peter Kent held until he was replaced by Diane Ablonczy in a Cabinet shuffle in January.
Minister Kent played an active and constructive role at the Organization of American States, the Western Hemisphere’s main multilateral body. After the June 2009 coup in Honduras, for example, Canada joined the rest of the region in expelling Honduras from the OAS, and Kent later played a role in seeking a resolution to the diplomatic crisis.
The Harper government has also taken less visible steps, such as creating a “hub of democracy” in the region. The Andean Unit for Democratic Governance places civil servants responsible for developing democracy assistance policies in the region, thereby ensuring those policies reflect the complexities and subtleties of reality on the ground, and ensuring a sustained presence in the region.
Funding has been provided to intergovernmental organizations like International IDEA. And the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Glyn Berry Program for Peace and Security puts citizens at the centre of democracy assistance programs.
On the downside, however, Canadian policy has tended to be more in tune with the thinking in Washington than the rest of the region. Canada accepted the victory of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo in Honduras’s December 2009 election, for example. Many other nations of the Americas argued that the elections were not legitimate, and Honduras remains excluded from the OAS to this day. This has not stopped Canada from initiating free trade negotiations with the Lobo government.
When Canada has pursued policies distinct from the United States—like making aid to Bolivia a priority, and avoiding antagonizing the government of Evo Morales—policymakers in the region have not always registered such nuances. Canada and the United States were both excluded from the Latin American and Caribbean Unity Summit in 2010, and neither country was offered membership in the newly formed UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles to deeper engagement with the Americas have been domestic. A minority government situation is probably responsible for the lethargy in the government’s democracy agenda. But the Harper government has not moved forward on its policy response to a major statement by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development with respect to democracy assistance. It has not created the Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency that was announced in a throne speech in 2008.
The policy of engagement with Latin American democracies needs an injection of resources, imagination and political will. Canada can regain influence by funding sustained on-the-ground engagement, and by giving a longer leash to Canadian diplomats.
It could promote dialogue with civil society in the region, and fund Canadian non-governmental organizations (like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation) that build bridges with the region.
Finally, Canada could link practitioners and researchers, and use social media to promote dialogue and deliberation in cyberspace.
Canada could also promote democratization at the global as well as local levels. The OAS is a club of states that don’t like to criticize each other. It could be transformed into a more inclusive, deliberative body. The OAS would be more relevant, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the main diplomatic instrument for promoting and defending democracy in the Americas, could be more effective, if legislators and civil society were given a voice to empower the secretary-general to undertake missions in the region to promote democratic innovation and prevent backsliding.
And Canadian foreign policy itself should be democratized. A well-designed, broadly consultative foreign policy review is overdue. There are all sorts of innovations in civil society participation that could serve as models for democratic consultation. Brazil holds participatory policy conferences on a range of public policy issues. They are convened by the executive and generate proposals that can be submitted as bills to the legislature. We could learn from Brazil.
A bold democracy assistance agenda would not be just about making “them” more democratic like “us.” It would be about making the world a more democratic place, Canada included.
Maxwell A. Cameron co-ordinates the Andean Democracy Research Network in the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. With Catherine Hecht, he is the author of Canada’s Engagement with Democracies in the Americas in the October 2008 edition of Canadian Foreign Policy.