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Close Canadian-Panamanian relations. Photo by Phil Edmonston
Canada's Prime Minister Harper coming to sign a free trade pact
by Eric Jackson
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to visit Panama on August 11 and sign a Panama-Canada free trade agreement while he's here. Harper has been pursuing a series of bilateral agreements with Latin American countries, and while in Canada these sorts of trade pacts pose similar issues and arouse similar passions as such agreements do in the United States, due to differences in the US and Canadian systems he will probably get it ratified without much trouble.
Earlier, Harper won passage of a Canada-Colombia free trade pact, but the implementing legislation is being stalled on Parliament Hill due to widespread public objections to the corruption, death squad ties and ambition for eternal re-election that characterize the Álvaro Uribe administration.
Tactically, snarling the implementation process would not bring down a Canadian government, whereas rejecting a treaty submitted by a prime minister would force the government to resign and probably call new elections. There are four major parties in the Canadian Parliament --- Harper's Conservatives, the centrist Liberals, the separatist Bloc Quebecois and the leftist New Democratic Party. The Conservatives don't hold a majority and have no official coalition partner, but the other parties for their various reasons don't think it's wise to force early elections.
However, Panamanian corruption, the use of this country as a refuge and banking center by Canadian white collar criminals and unenforced labor rights and environmental standards are the sorts of things that members of the NDP caucus will likely bring up in a treaty ratification debate. The problem is that the Liberals don't feel confident that they could beat the Conservatives at the moment, and the Bloc is mostly composed of free traders who like to argue that due to globalization Quebec's separation from Canada would have little adverse economic impact on Quebec, or for that matter Canada. Thus, even if the Canadian public might look askance at the treaty, the political forces would not be there to block it.
In any case, Canada and Panama produce few things in common and that's not expected to change. Yes, they make sugar from beets and we make it from cane, but it's a tiny factor when one considers that bilateral trade between Panama and Canada last year added up to only $149 million. Of that, $127.9 was Canadian exports to Panama. Although we are getting ever more Canadian tourists and have a growing community of Canadian expatriates, Panama has mostly a service economy and only limited prospects to increase its exports to Canada.
Harper is coming here from a NAFTA summit in Mexico, in which the hot button issue is a variation on a bilateral issue we have here. Earlier this year Canada imposed a visa requirement on visitors from Mexico. Canada won't say it but the move has a lot to do with the Mexican government's inability to control the power of its violent drug cartels and Canada's desire to avoid importing any of that problem. But it means fewer Mexican immigrants in Canada (and thus fewer remittances to relatives back home) and more difficulties for legitimate Mexican businesses that would export to Canada. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has protested the requirement, but it doesn't appear that Harper is about to back down.
Panamanians also have to get visas to go to Canada, but with an added hurdle: the Canadian diplomatic mission here won't process any such request. To get a Canadian visa, a Panamanian must apply through Canada's consulate in Guatemala. It has been cited as a cause of annoyance for the Panamanian spouses of Canadian citizens and others who would expand this country's business and cultural ties with Canada.
Stephen Harper and Ricardo Martinelli at the signing ceremony. Photo by the Presidencia
Harper and Martinelli sign free trade note
It wasn't actually the Panama-Canada Free Trade Agreement, just a note acknowledging that the two countries had concluded negotiations and agreed on such a deal. The two presidents are going to let teams of lawyers fly-speck the draft before a definitive treaty is ready for the sides to ratify.
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