Hoping to bury the India debacle, Trudeau heads to Peru to talk trade, migration

Trudeau is going to Peru for the Summit of the Americas, then to Paris for a meeting with Emmanuel Macron, then to London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It's Trudeau's first overseas excursion since India.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to Lima represents his first opportunity to reverse some of the damage to his image done by his India trip in February. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today begins his first overseas excursion since a widely-panned trip to India in February, he might take comfort from knowing that at least one chaos-generating politician will be staying home.

U.S. President Donald Trump's last-minute decision to skip the Summit of Americas in Lima, Peru has thrown the event's entire agenda into doubt.

Dealing with Trump — either by capturing his flighty attention, or by avoiding it — was part of the summit plan for every other national delegation. Canada's was no exception.

Loose talk by Trump administration officials in recent days had led to some speculation that the summit might see the signing of an agreement-in-principle on NAFTA — although Canadian officials were cautious about backing those claims. Without Trump present, that seems unlikely.

An announcement about the future of NAFTA in Lima is even less likely now that President Donald Trump is skipping the event. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The NAFTA parties remain so far apart that, at best, they probably could sign only a vaguely-worded and non-binding statement of principles. And given Trump's penchant for contradicting and repudiating his most senior officials, Canada and Mexico would see limited value in having such a document signed by Vice-President Mike Pence.

So although NAFTA talks have seen some progress recently, there's little prospect of any significant breakthrough in Lima.

This is a pan-American summit, and even though Canada often takes a back seat on hemispheric issues (it only joined the Organization of American States in 1990), the Canadian delegates can expect to spend a lot of their time in Peru discussing the slow-motion catastrophe that is Venezuela.

Slide to dictatorship

In 2017, all but the most stubborn regime apologists finally had to concede that Venezuela is no longer a democratic country in any ordinary sense of the word.

Its president, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, has not been invited to Lima.

Thousands of Venezuelans try to enter Colombia through the border crossing of Cucuta on the Simon Bolivar international bridge in February. (Juan Pablo Cohen/EPA-EFE)

The effects of the self-inflicted economic collapse of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (as it was renamed by the late President Hugo Chavez) are starting to be felt by its neighbours. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to other Latin nations, especially Colombia and Brazil. Colombia has had to close its borders at times to stem the flow.

Canada has been one of the more vocal critics of the Maduro regime; Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is returning to the city where, last August, Canada signed the Lima Declaration calling for "the restoration of democracy" in Caracas. It formed the Lima Group of nations seeking a solution to the Venezuela crisis, together with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru (Guyana and St. Lucia have since joined as well).

The U.S., though active in sanctioning the Maduro regime, has remained outside the Lima Group as an observer.

"Canada's taken a principled position. It's working diplomatically with other countries in the region. This is an approach that Latin American countries prefer," said Harold Trinkunas of Stanford University, a member of the Brookings Institution's Venezuela Working Group.

"To the extent that Canada takes a harder-line position, it may be able to bring along the Latin American countries in a way the Trump administration can't, because it's already created such a deep animosity towards the administration in the region."

Venezuela's socialist government has watched the Latin American tide turn against it in recent years as left-wing governments in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay have been replaced by centrists and conservatives.

Today, Latin America's socialist bloc has shrunk to just Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba. And Venezuela, which used to underwrite the others as the bloc's financial powerhouse, has become its worst economic basketcase; 40 per cent of its gross national product has evaporated under the Maduro government and oil production is half of what it was 20 years ago, thanks to corruption, mismanagement and chronic under-investment.

"The next set of sanctions the U.S. is considering are sanctions against Venezuelan oil," said Trinkunas. "Obviously that could be quite significant, especially if the U.S. applies secondary sanctions to other countries that import Venezuelan oil, as it did with its sanctions against Iran."

Canada already has sanctioned 40 individuals who hold senior roles in the Venezuelan United Socialist Party, including President Maduro, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and armed forces chief Vladimir Padrino Lopez.

(Global Affairs recently hired former ambassador to Venezuela Allan Culham as a special adviser on a 120-day contract. He traveled to Lima on Wednesday.)

The debate in Lima likely will pit those who believe that sanctions need to go further against those who believe they're more likely to hurt Venezuela's long-suffering citizens.

The shadow of Odebrecht

Corruption is another topic expected to loom large in Lima.

Peru itself is the latest country to be rocked by the bribery scandal involving Brazilian civil engineering giant Odebrecht. Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned three weeks ago over his role in the scandal. His vice-president, Martin Vizcarra, received the news in Ottawa, where he was serving as Peru's ambassador.

Peru's President Martin Vizcarra waves after he was sworn in to office, taking over from his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned over corruption allegations, in Lima, Peru last month. (Martin Mejia/Associated Press)

Vizcarra flew home from Canada and assumed the sash of office on March 23.

A related corruption scandal has claimed Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, who reported on Sunday to a prison he himself had constructed to begin serving a 12-year sentence for accepting a bribe.

Across the continent, other leaders and former leaders are also fighting to stay out of prison.

The delegates from Canada — where political scandals tend to be milquetoast compared to the bold-faced graft of Latin America — may feel relieved that this debate will largely pass them by.

Paris and London

From Lima, Trudeau will return to Ottawa Sunday to meet with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan over the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The two premiers are in a deadlock over the project.

Trudeau is then scheduled to travel to Paris, where he will hold bilateral talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

He'll also meet with other French political figures and will be the first foreign leader to address France's National Assembly.

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a bilateral meeting on the opening day of the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany last July. (Reuters)

Laurence Cannon served as foreign minister under Stephen Harper, and then became ambassador to France. Trudeau kept him in the role after winning the 2015 election; he remained ambassador until last November.

Cannon said the trip will allow Trudeau to appear with a young, dynamic, like-minded leader, and start to put behind him the negative publicity generated by recent trips to India and China. Trudeau was humiliated in India after it emerged that a convicted attempted murderer with ties to Sikh nationalists had been invited to Canadian delegation events there, while many criticized his trip to China last year for failing to advance trade talks.

"I think the folks in PMO probably said, 'Here's a good opportunity to re-centre the prime minister as an international leader.' First France, which is one of our partners, and then England and the Brits … It's a winning proposition for the prime minister, I think. It should be a good trip."

The French leg of the trip is expected to focus partly on climate policy. The British leg, timed to coincide with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, will include more ceremonial events, such as a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Hanging over the whole trip is the looming threat of military action in Syria, whose leaders President Trump has, via Twitter, threatened with a missile strike.

President Macron has been an eager booster of the idea that western countries should use force against the Assad regime, and probably could be expected to join any U.S. attack.

If the cruise missiles start flying while Trudeau is travelling, all other business is likely to be pushed aside.

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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