SANTIAGO, Chile — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping to use one of Canada’s deepest friendships in Latin America to help secure entry into a very attractive Pacific free-trade zone.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one of the key items on the agenda Monday as Harper met Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, the silver-haired leader that many Canadians might remember from his presence during the dramatic mining rescue of 2010.
Harper was warmly received in the Chilean capital with a military honour guard at the presidential palace, La Moneda. He also presented a wreath at a nearby monument to one of Chile’s founding fathers, as soldiers raised the Chilean and Canadian flags.
Canada has had strong ties with Chile and with Chileans for decades, extending back to the late 1970s when many citizens sought refuge in Canada from the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet.
“Canada is one of the world’s biggest economic powers, and Chile is one of the world’s fastest growing countries,” Pinera said in an effusive speech at the presidential palace.
“We have a common world vision. Stephen likes to talk about likeminded countries, and it’s true, we’re two countries that have comon values, principles, and vision, and that helps with co-operation on all fronts.”
Fifteen years ago, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien signed the first free-trade deal in the region with the Chilean government. The Conservatives are now moving to enhance the deal, making it match recent agreements abroad that include more items, including procurement and financial services.
“Over just 15 years, trade between Canada and Chile had increased by 350 per cent, and Canada has been the largest source of foreign direct investment in Chile over the past decade,” Harper noted.
But even more attractive to Canada than more bilateral trade is the prospect of tapping into the proposed TPP, a zone that would include countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Chile is among the members of the core group of nine nations. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have been opposing Canada’s entry into the negotiations because of the government’s supply-management system protecting dairy, egg and poultry farmers. The Conservative government has said it is willing to discuss the issue, but not before it is at the table with the other nations.
Chile and Peru, meanwhile, are supportive of Canada’s efforts to join the club.
Harper used Chile five years ago to announce his Americas Strategy, a policy of focused engagement in the hemisphere. His government is now seeking to revitalize the strategy, which has been criticized even within the Foreign Affairs Department for lacking direction and resources.
Robert Funk, a political science professor at the University of Chile and observer of relations between the two countries, says Canada’s engagement with Chile has been underwhelming in recent years.
He notes that Chilean society has long had a mistrust of the United States, something that Canada could be using to its advantage by playing the “good gringo.”