Whither Canada-Argentine relations?

By Peter McKenna (guest opinion)

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian) comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on May 28, 2014

This totem pole, which was paid for by the City of Buenos Aires, came from British Columbia and was placed in the capital’s Canada Plaza in July 2012. It was carved from a single red cedar tree by artist Stan Hunt of the Kwakiwtl tribe of northern Vancouver Island.

©Photo courtesy Jessica Chiasson

After recently returning from Buenos Aires, I started to wonder why relations between Argentina and Canada are not where they should be. As two middling powers, agricultural producers and energy players, they share a great deal in common. Yet bilateral relations are essentially stuck in neutral.

It’s all very puzzling and wholly unnecessary, especially since Argentines have a very favourable view of Canadians (with the exception of some Canadian mining companies).  Unlike the Americans, we are not seen as bully-boys, meddlesome or unscrupulous takers.

Notwithstanding the lack of two-way trade (just $2.1 billion in 2013), Argentines are also generally knowledgeable about Canada, know that it is a terrific country to live in, and often travel back and forth between the two countries.

This basic goodwill has translated into some important policy initiatives between Canada and Argentina. For instance, they have engaged regularly on issues of nuclear non-proliferation, democratization and combatting terrorism within the G20, the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS), expanded peacekeeping-related training exercises, and worked cooperatively in bringing stability to impoverished Haiti.

Still, diplomatic relations between the two countries plod along like they are on auto-pilot, which they have been since Stephen Harper took power in 2006. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The simple fact is that the bilateral relationship could be so much better — and to the benefit of both countries.

It’s painfully obvious that the personal relations at the top are strained at best and icily cold at worst. Besides a cordial meeting at the November 2010 G20 Summit in South Korea (and a brief photo-op at the June 2010 G20 gathering in Toronto), there has been precious little face-time between Stephen Harper and Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Many of the impediments in the way of enhanced political and economic relations are a function of sharp ideological differences between the two leaders. Harper is a right-wing conservative who genuflects to the free market and a small government, while Fernandez is a fire-brand leftist who believes in state intervention in the economy (witness her government’s 2012 expropriation of the Spanish oil company Repsol’s controlling interest in Argentina’s state energy enterprise YPF).

It hasn’t helped that the Fernandez government maintains very close relations with Venezuela (and shares an unease about U.S. involvement in the region) — a country which the Harper government considers a “rogue state.” While Canada and Venezuela are barely on speaking terms, Buenos Aires has expanded linkages with Caracas in areas like economic development, energy partnerships and technological cooperation.

Similarly, Argentina’s growing economic (some say military) relationship with Iran — a country at the top of Canada’s list for targetted punitive sanctions and one in which Ottawa has no diplomatic relations — has only further ruffled the feathers of those in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). To embark on a concerted plan to rejuvenate the Argentine-Canada relationship would be a tough pill indeed for the Harperites to swallow while knowing that the Fernandez government is actively courting one of its leading foes.  

But the biggest obstacle to establishing a constructive bilateral relationship is Canada’s opposition to Argentina’s sovereign claim to the Malvinas/Falklands Islands. For whatever reasons, whether out of allegiance to Britain’s PM David Cameron (a Harper confidant) or respect for the wishes of those who inhabit the islands, the Harper government has been adamant that it won’t budge on this issue.

This all came to a head when Harper moved purposefully (followed later by U.S. President Barack Obama) to block a resolution at the 2012 Cartagena, Colombia Summit of the Americas to recognize Argentina’s claim to the Malvinas — which had been supported by the majority of Latin American leaders. President Fernandez apparently stormed out of the meeting in a huff and bluntly declared: “This is pointless. Why did I even come here?” This unfortunate episode undoubtedly poisoned the Canada-Argentine well.

These may all reach the level of “irritants” between the two countries, but they should not hobble the entire bilateral relationship. And since Canada has made Latin America and the Caribbean a core focus of its foreign policy universe, it makes eminently good sense for Ottawa to cultivate a strong relationship with Argentina.

It is worth emphasizing that Argentina is a country with a growing middle class in a market of 40 million people, has the second largest economy in South America, and is a key political actor in the wider Americas. Besides, Argentina could be very useful in opening the door for Canada to conclude a long-sought after commercial pact with the Mercosur trade bloc in South America.

With so much to gain from a closer Canada-Argentina relationship, it’s time for the Harper government to remove the ideological blinders. Given that presidential elections are slated for October 2015 (and a possible federal election in Canada at the same time), and with President Fernandez barred from running again, it will create a window of opportunity for both countries.

But there is one thing that officialdom in Ottawa needs to remember: it takes two to tango.


Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the editor of Canada Looks South: In Search of an Americas Policy.