PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – Canada stands to benefit from the warming relations between the United States and its regional rivals, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Saturday, commenting on the Obama effect at the Summit of the Americas.
The American president has taken bold steps at the meeting of 34 hemispheric leaders, striking a humble, conciliatory tone that has so far been successful. Unlike the 2005 summit, there have been no aggressive anti-American outbursts and nobody has left early.
Obama has been seen several times smiling and shaking the hand of bombastic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a man who once suggested former president George W. Bush was the devil.
Chavez ally Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, remarked to reporters at how “surprised” he was by Obama’s overtures.
Harper said the thaw is all good for Canada.
“We’re re-establishing historically close relations we’ve had with the Caribbean – we haven’t had that so much with Latin America, and it is more difficult when there is a chill between the United States and Latin America because obviously geographically we find ourselves separated,” Harper told reporters.
“So the fact that there’s some thawing in that relationship should help in the promotion of our own relations.”
By far the main focus of attention at the summit has been the continuing absence of Cuba at the inter-American table, and what Obama intends to do about it. Most of the nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) are pushing for Cuba’s inclusion, and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on the communist nation.
Obama has responded by lifting travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and on the amount of money they can send home. He has also pledged a new beginning in relations.
Havana has responded positively, saying it would be willing to put questions of human rights on the table.
Harper, meanwhile, made it clear that he does not view the embargo as successful.
“If the goal is to move Cuba forward, and particularly part of that goal would be to move Cuba forward economically, my sense is that trying to find ways to engage economically will enhance that objective,” Harper told reporters.
“If one wants to break down state socialist economic national models with walls, I don’t think a trade embargo is the way to do that. We would obviously urge a different course of action.”
Obama was asked as he strode alongside Harper on Saturday if he was taking any tips from Canada on Cuba.
“I take tips from Canada on a lot of things,” Obama quipped.
Harper and Obama stole away for a 10-minute chat in a hotel service hallway between meetings Saturday.
The two discussed the economic crisis and their respective stimulus plans. The prime minister has been one of the sole voices advocating free trade and open markets in public at the summit. He focused on the subjects at an opening plenary session Saturday on the theme of human prosperity.
One of his main moves was to announce a nearly $5 billion injection of cash to the Inter-American Bank (IDB), a key lending institution in the region.
He also met with leaders of 15 Caribbean countries Saturday morning, trying to spur negotiations on a free-trade pact.
But many in the hemisphere have raised doubts about the benefits of trade globalization when the disparity between rich and poor remains large, and growing in many areas.
Caribbean leaders have been dragging their feet on a trade deal because they would like to see an agreement that guarantees money for development, even though Canada is already the region’s largest donor.
Harper said there were very few countries that “questioned the fundamental wisdom of trade agreements.”
“In terms of the general view of capitalism and globalization, Canada puts a lie to the idea that you somehow if you’re developed, globalized, capitalist country that the only way to go is into the kind of financial bubble that we’ve seen in the United States.”
The summit has been proceeding relatively smoothly despite some serious weaknesses in organization.
A fight broke out between photographers and the security guards who were blocking entrance to the opening session Saturday. Tensions also boiled over when delegates trying to reach their leaders came up against overzealous security.
Even some of Harper’s staff got into arguments with local security who restricted their movements.
Harper held bilateral meetings with mostly like-minded leaders this weekend, including Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.