Cameron: Should building ties in Latin America be a policy priority for Canada?

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11 March, 2013
By: Maxwell Cameron
Professor, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia

Building ties in Latin America already is, ostensibly, a policy priority. Canada has been talking about “re-engagement with Latin America” for some time. But we’re seen as out of step and irrelevant by most of the region: we’re not even included in diplomatic fora like UNASUR and CELAC. It may be time to hit the reset button regardless of what happens in Venezuela. The way that Canada handles the situation in Venezuela offers an opportunity, not for immediate rapprochement with Venezuela – I agree with Bill Graham that it is difficult to foresee much change in Canada-Venezuela relations in the near term – but for a fresh approach to Canada’s relations with the region as a whole, Venezuela included. Here’s how.

Right now, Venezuela is in crisis. Chavez was elected to a third term in October. Now he is dead. How will his successors manage the transition? The solution is elections. A presidential election must be called within a month. For the new government to have democratic legitimacy, the election must not only be free from fraud, it must give the opposition a genuine opportunity to put forward an alternative. Canada should work with all other democracies in the region—both through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy—to ensure that the new leadership understands that its legitimacy at home and abroad depends on credible elections.

I can already hear the objections, so let me address them. Canada has almost no political capital in Venezuela. True. The likelihood that the elections will held on a level playing field is next to nill. Also true. Canada has no business lecturing other countries about democracy when we have our own problems at home (electoral irregularities, erosion of the separation of powers). Sadly, true. But these objections miss the point. All democracies have imperfections, and there are many types of democratic regimes. That does not prevent democracies from working together to provide a supportive international context for democratization and to avert backsliding. Will Canada play such a role? If so, maybe it does need to hit the reset button.

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