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A Lesson in Canadian Imperial Hypocrisy

Acceptable Versus Unacceptable Repression

by TODD GORDON

June has been a difficult month for progressive activists around the world. Mass protests in Iran and indigenous blockades in Peru were met with heavy repression, while a left-of-centre President in Honduras was ousted in a military coup. What these tragic events do offer us, however, is a very clear perspective on Canadian foreign policy. 

Consider the Canadian response to the events in Iran. Canada issued three press releases on the events in Iran, all by Foreign Affairs Minister, Lawrence Cannon. The first was on June 15 after the repression against the protests challenging electoral fraud began. It called for an investigation into the allegations of fraud by the Iranian government and condemned the government’s move to ban protests.

On June 21, after perhaps the worst day of violent repression of protesters in Iran up to that point by government security forces and the government-aligned militia, in which more than a dozen people were killed, Canada issued a sharp condemnation of the Iranian government. In the press release, Cannon stated that Canada “condemns the decision of the Iranian authorities to use violence and force against their own people …  The Iranian people deserve to have their voices heard, without fear of intimidation and violence. Canada condemns the use of force to stifle dissent, and we continue to call on Iran to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice, and to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the fraud allegations.”

A third statement was released on June 25 calling for the release of political prisoners and personally criticizing the Iranian official put in charge of the investigation of the detained reformist leaders.

But what did the Canadian government say following the first rumblings of a potential military coup against the moderately left wing Honduran president, Jose Manuel Zelaya, on June 25? Nothing. As of the evening of June 29, it had issued one rather tepid press release late on June 28, more than 12 hours after the coup became known outside Honduras.

And what did the Canadian government say when over 50 indigenous activists in Peru were gunned down on June 5th by military and police forces for protesting their government’s free trade policies? Nothing. The massacre of indigenous protesters in Peru, many of whose bodies were then dumped by police in a river, didn’t rate any mention at all.

So why does Iran rate a sharp rebuke, but a military coup in Honduras and brutal repression in Peru inspire cautious condemnation and silence respectively?

Canadian Economic Interests versus Human Rights

For starters, the Iranian government is a part of the “Axis of Evil” in the war on “terror”, of which Canada is an eager member. Thus Iran is a fair target for criticism when it moves to crush dissent, as it should be. (Though we should be mindful that the interests of Canada, like those of the U.S. or U.K., aren’t necessarily a democratic Iran but a compliant one; one need only look at the history of foreign intervention in Iran in the 20th century to be skeptical about the intentions of imperial powers).

But the situation is different when it comes to Honduras and Peru.

In Honduras, Canadian corporations – largely, though not exclusively, in mining – are major economic players. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, from 1996-2006 Canada was in fact the second largest foreign investor in the Central American country. Mining companies like Goldcorp, Yamana and Breakwater Resources benefit from a mining law passed in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that strongly favours foreign corporations over the rights of local communities. The mining law and Canadian investments, particularly Goldcorp’s San Martin open pit mine, have been the target of large demonstrations and blockades over the last few years by indigenous peoples and small farmers whose lands and livelihoods are threatened by the expansion of – well documented – ecologically-disastrous Canadian mining.

In active support of Canadian capital (and foreign capital more generally) in Honduras, the Canadian government has supported, through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), structural adjustment (now described as Poverty Reduction Strategies). Structural adjustment is aimed at the neoliberalization of the Honduran government and its public policies. Among other things, CIDA committed $1.5 million from 2004 to 2010 towards a program at the Universidad Nacional de Honduras to assist in the development and implementation of the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy process. The Canadian government has also been pursuing a free trade agreement with Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

It should come as no surprise, then, that social movements opposed to mining investment and reactionary mining laws are a threat to well-established Canadian interests in Honduras. President Zelaya was also not on the best of terms with the mining industry. In his inaugural address in January 2006 he declared a moratorium on the granting of new mining concessions. While by no means stopping existing exploration or halting operational mines, this move was nevertheless seen as a threat to the security and stability of mining in the country, and industry officials responded with lobbying and advertising campaigns to push their interests.

Zelaya’s tenure also saw the adoption of a minimum wage increase, measures to nationalize energy generation plants and the telephone system, and Honduras’s entrance into the Venezuelan-initiated Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a political and economic formation that seeks to counter imperialist influence in the region. 

Against this backdrop Zelaya, supported by trade unions and social movements, called a vote for June 28 to determine if a majority of Hondurans wanted to have a referendum during the upcoming elections in November on convening a constitutional assembly. If called, the constitutional assembly would seek to replace the current constitution, adopted in 1982 by a brutal American-backed military regime, with one more inclusive and democratic. Such a constitution could very well further jeopardize mining interests in the country.

But the vote – to decide whether or not to have a referendum – was strongly opposed by the anti-Zelaya-dominated Congress and Supreme Court and by the military, all of whom claimed it’s illegal. Their efforts to block the vote in the days leading up to it brought thousands of Hondurans onto the streets, as the first concerns about a potential coup were raised. But early in the morning of June 28 the military made its move, violently detaining Zelaya at his house and then deporting him to Costa Rica. Anti-Zelaya President of the Congress (and fellow member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party), Roberto Michelletti, read a letter of resignation later in the day allegedly signed by the ousted President, but Zelaya denies signing the letter. The military occupied the country, establishing checkpoints at the entrance of towns, while the national telephone system, cell phone service and the energy grid has been shut down in a number of areas.

The threat to the interests of the Canadian government and corporations has subsided, at least for the time being.

And so the Canadian government is much cagier around the situation in Honduras than it is with respect to Iran. The Organization of American States (OAS) did pass a resolution on Friday June, 26, after the first rumblings of a coup were heard, which called for the maintenance of democracy and the rule of law. Yet, at the same time, in the special session of the OAS Permanent Council on the situation in Honduras held that same day the Canadian representative remained silent. Foreign Affairs and International Trade issued no press release on the 26th or the 27th condemning the clear threat to Honduran democracy.

A press release was finally issued by Peter Kent, Minister of State for the Americas, very late in the evening of June 28. While Kent condemns the coup d’état, he “calls on all parties to show restraint and to seek a peaceful resolution” to the crisis, as if all parties, including Zelaya and his supporters, are responsible for the military-orchestrated coup or are equally unrestrained in their actions. This position is echoed in the Canadian representative’s statement to the OAS Permanent Council following the coup on the 28th. Canada has thus far failed, furthermore, to call for the reinstatement of the Honduran President, placing it politically behind the United States, which has called for Zelaya’s return, in its response to the coup.

Non-Response to the Massacre in Peru

In Peru, meanwhile, Canadian companies have over $2.3 billion in investments, ranking fourth among foreign investors in general but first in mining, according to Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In an effort to strengthen the rights of Canadian capital in the Andean nation and lock in its access to Peruvian resources, Canada signed a free trade agreement with Peru late in 2008.

CIDA has also been busy at work in Peru, spending over $24 million between 2002 and 2009 on public sector reform (aimed at “improving efficiency”), developing new institutional and regulatory frameworks in the hydrocarbons sector (promoting “international private sector investment”), and reform in the mineral sector. Export Development Canada – a government credit agency designed to finance Canadian foreign investment – recently posted a permanent representative for the Andean Region in Lima. EDC President, Eric Seigel, proclaimed that “EDC intends to become a permanent member of the Andean financial community, supporting growth for both Andean and Canadian companies operating in the region.”

And so Canada said nothing when Peruvian President, Alan García, sent in a 600 strong police and military force – including armoured personnel carriers and helicopter gun-ships – to crush a blockade of a major highway by 5,000 indigenous activists. The military and police assault led to the deaths of fifty protesters and the disappearance of many – possibly hundreds – more, according to indigenous organizations. Nine police officers were also killed during the assault when indigenous people fought back in self defense against the massive government show of brutal force.  

While Canada remained silent about the repression in Peru, it couldn’t contain itself when, a mere two weeks later, Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade, proudly announced that legislation to implement the Canada-Peru FTA was passed by parliament. But it was precisely the neoliberal and Free Trade policies of García that sparked the blockades in the first place. García, who has a long history of violence and political corruption that led to his exile in the 1990s, has moved to open up large swathes of indigenous land in the Amazon to foreign resource companies, sweetening the deal for Canadian and other foreign companies with low tax and royalty rates and cheap government-subsidized electricity rates.

The result, predictably, has been a steady growth of Canadian and other foreign resource firms in the Peruvian Amazon, and increasing confrontations between them and indigenous communities. Canada’s FTA with Peru, along with the American FTA, will only intensify the conflicts surrounding resource development and indigenous land.

If it’s Good for Canadian Business …     

It’s no accident that the Canadian government quickly and sharply condemns some instances of repression, such as that in Iran, while it ignores or tepidly responds to others. If it’s good for Canadian business, then it’s okay. This is imperialist Canada in the developing world: exploit people and their resources to make a buck, and if some repression is required along the way, well so be it. This isn’t just an American act; it’s a Canadian one too, and it’s becoming all too familiar.

It’s also worth noting here that Canadian involvement in Honduras and Peru (and many more countries besides) extends beyond investment interests and financing neoliberal reform. Canada has also trained Honduran and Peruvian military personnel through the Military Training Assistance Programme (MTAP). The MTAP provides language, officer and “peace support” operations training to roughly 1,300 military personnel from sixty-three different developing countries a year. According to its Directorate, the MTAP serves to “promote Canadian foreign and defence policy interests.” It “uses the mechanism of military training assistance to develop and enhance bilateral and defence relationships with countries of strategic interest to Canada.”

It happens to be the case that many of the participating countries are ones with which Canada has, or is hoping to develop, strong economic ties and which have troubling human rights records, including Peru and Honduras.

The reality of Canadian involvement in the third world is an ugly one, and deserves greater attention from the Canadian Left. The Honduran and Peruvian situations are not the exception to the rule of Canadian foreign policy. They represent the normal practice of the Canadian government defending Canadian business interests against the human rights of workers, poor communities, and indigenous peoples

TODD GORDON is the author of Cops, Crime and Capitalism: The Law-and-Order Agenda in Canada. He’s currently writing a book on Canadian imperialism. He teaches political science at York University in Toronto, and can be reached at tsgordon@yorku.ca.