The Canadian Perspective: Professor Stephen Randall on Canadian-Colombian Free Trade

By: /
September 27, 2011
Stephen J. Randall, FRSC, PhD (Toronto), is Professor of History at the University of Calgary. He is a Senior Fellow with the Canadian International Council for 2009-2010. As Senior Fellow with the Council he has published papers on Latin American Security, foreign aid, human rights and development as well as trade and foreign investment. He served as Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences (1994-2006) at the University of Calgary. He served as director of the Institute for United States Policy Research in the School of Public Policy (2006-2009). He held previous appointments at McGill University (1974-1989), where he served two terms as chair of the Department of History, and the University of Toronto (1971-1974). In Calgary he was the founding director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (West) and a founding member of the Canadian Council of the Americas. He is an elected member of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow with the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute. He was a member of the editorial board of the Latin American Research Review (2004-2009), and was co-editor of International Journal of the Canadian Institute for International Affairs. A specialist in United States foreign policy and Latin American international relations and politics, he holds the Grand Cross, Order of Merit from the Presidency of Colombia. Dr. Randall has served with the United Nations, Organization of American States and Carter Center in international election supervision in the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia. In 2007 he held the Fulbright Visiting Chair in North American Studies at American University, Washington D.C. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of a number of books, including: The Diplomacy of Modernization: The United States and Colombia, 1920-1940 (1977), (Spanish edition 1989); United States Foreign Oil Policy (1984); Hegemony and Interdependence: Colombia and the United States (1992; Spanish Edition 1992)); Ambivalent Allies: Canada and the United States( 1994, 1996, 2002, with John H. Thompson); Canada and Latin America (1992, with Mark O. Dickerson); Federalism and the New World Order (1994, with Roger Gibbins); An International History of the Caribbean Basin(1998, with Graeme S. Mount); North America Without Borders(1992, with Herman Konrad); NAFTA in Transition( 1995, with Herman Konrad). His most recent books are: United States foreign oil policy since World War I. (2005); the 4th edition of Ambivalent Allies (2008); the authorized biography of Alfonso López Michelsen, President of Colombia (1974-1978) by Villegas Editores in Bogotá (2007).

Canada has had a longer history in Colombia than might be suggested by the recent flurry of activity around the Canada-Colombia trade agreement. For much of the last 100 years, Canada has been a significant player in Colombian business. Before United States law allowed U.S. branch banking, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), along with European Banks, was one of the most important banks in the 1920s in helping to fund early oil exploration.

Beyond that, over the last two decades, a number of Canada-based energy and mining sector companies have been engaged in Colombia. The Canadian company Petrobank, for example, is a major player in Colombia through its Latin American imprint Petrominerales.

Over the past two decades the Colombian government has created one of the best investment climates in Latin America through clear regulatory policies – investment incentives to international firms. More recently, as Colombia has become a more secure and stable state, investment firms, both foreign and domestic, are less reticent to become involved in the country’s remote areas, where mining and oil and gas sectors are most active. Colombia is also secure in the sense that it has never cancelled an international contract; it has always met its debt obligations. Colombia’s state oil and gas company, Ecopetrol, has been extremely efficient and has set a good example to foreign investors with its constitutional mandate to engage in social and economic development.

President Juan Manuel Santos has encouraged this corporate ethos by putting more emphasis on socio-economic development than have his predecessors. After almost a decade in which the main focus of the Colombian government was on addressing the country’s serious security situation, President Santos has in his first year in office taken significant initiatives to ensure a balance in policy between security and the need for social and economic development. He has also moved quickly and effectively to repair the rift with Venezuela.  The latter initiative was critically important, given the level of bilateral trade between the two countries.

Still, Canadian investment in Colombian industry is controversial: the mining sector especially elicits strong reaction from indigenous communities, organized labour and environmentalists. While Canada’s Conservative government tends to argue that economic development will in fact improve the human rights environment in Colombia, NGOs have tended to argue that the free trade agreement in fact exacerbates human rights issues by reducing protection for trade unions, for example, potentially lowering standards of living.

Both countries share this concern and signed an agreement, along with the free trade agreement, stating that each country will publish annual reports on the impact of trade on the human rights of Canadians and Colombians. Given this agreement – and the fact that Colombia has made significant strides in addressing a 30 year civil conflict, has reached out to the United Nations and other international bodies and states to improve its human rights record – the conclusion of the free trade agreement is a movement in the right direction. 

Canada is well-placed to lead responsible investment in Colombia. Free of the imperialist baggage of the U.S., Canada has a long history of involvement with Colombian industry. If Canadian companies maintain their good records on human rights and corporate responsibility, and the Santos government continues to promote a progressive balance between the security agenda and the socio-economic agenda, both countries will surely benefit from this collaboration.