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Yves Engler: Harper’s “condolence” message on death of Hugo Chavez shows Harper has pushed Canadian policy so far right it even jeopardizes business interest in Latin America

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The Venezuelan government has sent a card of protest to the Canadian government over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments upon the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Apparently, the prime minister sent his sympathies to the Venezuelan people but didn’t mention the family of President Chavez. But the objections are more to this point–here’s what Harper said:

“Canada looks forward to working with his successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure, and democratic. . . . At this … juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better … future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

More than 30 leaders from Latin America and outside Latin America actually went to Caracas to express their sympathy for the Venezuelan people and Hugo Chavez’s family. There were messages from presidents all over the world, but apparently Prime Minister Harper’s message stood out for its–what I guess some people have described as callousness or lack of diplomacy, suggesting that Venezuela will be better off without their president. And of course let’s not forget this is a president of Venezuela who was elected at least four times.

Now to discuss Prime Minister Harper’s remarks and joining us from Ottawa is Yves Engler. He’s a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.

Thanks for joining us again, Yves.


JAY: So, first of all, what do you make of Harper’s statement and the Venezuelan reaction?

ENGLER: Well, the Conservative government on foreign policy on a whole series of different issues has tried to track to the right, if you like, of the American government. And this is a further example of that and going out of their way to express opposition to the social transformations taking place in Latin America. This is certainly not the first comment, declaration by Harper on Chavez and the Venezuelan government in this direction. Previously he’s called the Venezuelan government rogue, a rogue country, and continually criticize the supposed lack of democracy in Venezuela.

And, fortunately, the Venezuelan government did criticize the Conservative government. And this is, again, not the first time the Venezuelan government has responded to the Canadian government’s positions on Venezuela by criticizing Ottawa. There was a prominent example about three years ago, where the OAS ambassador for the Venezuelan government ripped into Ottawa for siding with the opposition in Venezuela and criticizing the supposed lack of democracy in Venezuela.

But the Harper government, one question that I ask myself to this is that even from the standpoint of the Canadian elite, is it in their interests to be so extreme on these issues, to go out of your way to basically piss off another government? It seems to me even from the standpoint of the Canadian elite this is a little bit extreme. And that’s one of the reasons why Jean Chretien, the former prime minister, actually went to Chavez’s funeral and, you know, said basically fairly positive things about Chavez in the aftermath of–or after his death.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I think Chretien’s–actually has had some background lobbying for companies that are trying to do business with Venezuela. But that kind of speaks to your point. How on earth is it in the, quote-unquote, national interest–and you’re calling that the elite’s interest, when they define national interest by their interest. But, at any rate, yeah, you’d think there’s actually an opening, the way there has been an opening traditionally, which Harper has maintained with Cuba, for–you know, Canadian businesses have had big opportunities in Cuba that the Americans don’t have because of the blockade or sanctions against Cuba, and you’d think there’d be all kinds of interests for Canada to be able to take advantage of the anti-American feeling throughout the whole of Latin America, not just Venezuela, and at least shut up and see what they could–how to make money out of the situation. And he’s not even doing that. He’s so ideological about this.

ENGLER: That’s precisely it. It’s just they represent this very extreme right-wing ideological faction.

And one of the interesting things after Chavez’s death is that the Globe and Mail business section front page a day after had two different articles, one about Scotiabank’s–a prominent bank, Canadian bank’s interests in Venezuela, which were acquired in 1998 just before Chavez got to power, and talk about whether Scotiabank would increase their investments in Venezuela post Chavez’s death; and another one about the mining sector. So there’s no doubt the Canadian business class is very interested in how post Chavez will play out in terms of their investments and they have a desire to ramp up those investments.

But at the same time, I think that the Canadian business class had so much money invested in the mining sector and natural resources throughout Latin America that what Chavez represented, which was a sort of a nationalistic sort of policy, it very much threatens Canadian mining and oil interests across the hemisphere and may, I think, at a macro level have a real hard time dealing with what’s gone on in Venezuela and want to make sure that other countries in the hemisphere feel as much pressure as possible to not follow in those footsteps. And, obviously, there’s been, you know, steps in that direction in Bolivia, Ecuador, to some extent.

But I think the Canadian government has been quite active and in some ways successful in working with sectors of the–you know, in the case of Ecuador, working with Ecuadorian government to maintain the interests of Canadian mining companies. So while on one hand it’s–certainly cutting off Venezuela, cutting off Canadian investment in Venezuela, and being so aggressive towards Venezuela hurts Canadian investment in Venezuela, it has a certain use in terms of trying to dissuade other countries in the hemisphere from going down that path where there is, you know, over $100 billion in Canadian mining investment [crosstalk]

JAY: I mean, I would argue the other way. I mean, I think especially countries like Ecuador and Bolivia and some of these other places that have a real sympathy for Chavez, and even more broadly across Latin America, ’cause I think most of the leaders, as you could see from the funeral, have had some sympathy for Chavez, I think it’s going to hurt–they’re not going to be intimidated by Harper. It’s going to hurt them. At some point they’re going to have some decision to make. And, you know, maybe it won’t tilt the balance, but it could, you know, color their decision and remember that Harper–you know, mouthing off against Chavez that way. You know, as irrational and subjective [as] I think Harper’s comments are, you can get the same thing on the other side, that, you know, they might tilt a decision against Canada.

But let me ask you one other question about this. How much does this have to do with how close Harper is to the, you know, right-wing zionism and the hate they have for Chavez? Because he was very outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause.

ENGLER: Yeah. I would say it plays a role. But I think it’s more–if you look at someone like Peter Munk, the head of Barrick Gold, he has gone out of his way to call Chavez a dictator and actually wrote a letter to The Financial Times back in 2007 criticizing The Financial Times for its editorial on–which was actually a critical editorial of Chavez, and saying it was way too benign of an editorial. So someone like Peter Munk, the head of Barrick Gold, who is quite close with Conservative Party officials, is actually–Nigel Wright, the head of chief of staff for Harper, he is the godfather of Peter Munk’s son’s child–so, you know, really close business ties and personal between Nigel Wright and Peter Munk’s son. And so I think it would be–more reflect that. But what also–you know, it all fits within the same kind of position.

And Israel is another issue where the Conservatives have taken a position even more to the extreme, at least rhetorically, than the American government, where they give blanket acceptance for all of Israel’s ongoing annexation of territory, colonization of territory in the West Bank. And it fits–it certainly–the position on Chavez fits also, you know, with them criticizing–repeatedly criticized Chavez or Venezuelan government for supposedly being antisemitic. That criticism has been waged a whole series of times by the Harper government against Venezuela.

And that’s, you know, intimately tied with Chavez’s shutting down of the Israeli embassy in Caracas. And it was actually the Canadian embassy that took over Israel’s diplomatic relations in Venezuela after the Venezuelan government shut down the–or expelled the Israeli ambassador. So Canada actually became Israel in Venezuela. So there’s no doubt that that’s certainly in the background to Harper’s hardline criticism of Venezuela and his recent comments after Chavez’s death.

JAY: And as a Canadian, I have dual citizenship. But the Canadian part of me and I know all the Canadian viewers we have will want to remind everybody Harper did not get a majority of votes. It’s just the crazy Canadian voting system elected him with a majority government. And I think it’s pretty clear he doesn’t reflect a majority of Canadian public opinion on these foreign policy issues. But anyway, with that being said, he is the prime minister of Canada.

Thanks for joining us, Yves.

ENGLER: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Yves Engler is a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian - Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy, and previously he published The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and Canada in Haiti: Waging War on The Poor Majority