Not any more

Mexico-Canada relations are frosty, but it’s not quite adios amigo

In Canada on November 13, 2010 at 08:38

The irritation has subsided, but annoyance still exists in Mexico over the Harper government’s decision to slap visas on all Mexicans travelling to Canada.

The visa requirement, imposed after a three-year surge in refugee claimants, reflected (once again) the failure of Canada’s refugee-determination laws. Most of the claims were being rejected, but it took far too long and, meantime, more claims flowed in. Fortunately, the government is changing those laws to make a speedier determination of status possible; but even with that, visas for Mexicans are likely to remain.

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Tourism from Mexico, of course, plummeted. Mexican air carriers stopped flying to Canada. And the Mexican government imposed visas on Canadian government officials, past and present. The Canadian embassy in Mexico had to beef up its staff, and a somewhat easier visa procedure was found for frequent Mexican visitors. On average, it still takes five days to get a visa.

Still, from Mexico’s perspective, the visas were a slap in the face from a NAFTA partner and a supposedly friendly country. (“Gringo light,” one wag called Canada.) It didn’t help much for Canadians to explain that the fault lay within themselves.

Mexico, another wag says, has its hand in the North American pocket but its cultural soul in the rest of Latin America. For Mexico, as for Canada, the U.S. market is the prize. Bilateral Canadian-Mexican trade is growing, but it’s a fraction of each country’s trade with the U.S.

Mexican-U.S. trade gets ensnarled sometimes in the tangled history between the two countries, mutual misconceptions and recriminations, immigration, drugs and, of course, the enormous Mexican population in America. By contrast, Canadian-Mexican relations – before the visas – had remained remarkably free of conflict, if still rather distant. Trade has indeed grown since NAFTA, but it would grow faster if the Mexicans would allow foreign investment beside Pemex in the oil and gas business.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to his credit, slipped down to Mexico for President Felipe Calderon’s inauguration while the Liberals were assembling in Montreal to elect Stéphane Dion as leader. Since then, ministerial visits and sustained interest have been rare. But, as the failure to secure a Security Council seat showed, this government hasn’t made many friends for Canada anywhere in the world.

Mr. Calderon and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, frequently visited Canada, visits that haven’t been reciprocated. Canadian governments, when they think beyond the U.S., tend to focus on China, India and, increasingly, Brazil. Mexico remains a sideshow.

The International Monetary Fund, however, says Mexico’s economic growth will eclipse that of the U.S. and Canada (and Europe) from now until 2015. At that time, per capita income in Mexico will be about 50 per cent higher than China’s. Shipping something from Mexico to the east coast of North America will be cheaper than anything from China. And as the years go by, China’s population will age, whereas Mexico’s will remain youthful. Mexico City’s air, grossly polluted several decades ago, is much cleaner today than Beijing’s or Shanghai’s.

But there’s no escaping the sad fact that Mexico has a security problem that China doesn’t. The vicious drug war is part of Mexican life, frightening some residents and scaring off some visitors. Corruption also remains a problem, but then it’s also one in China, as anyone who has done business there knows.

NAFTA was supposed to free up international borders in North America, to help the continent compete better with China, other Asian countries and Europe. Sadly, although trade has obviously grown, the U.S. preoccupation with national security has thickened its borders. U.S. fears produced a fence across part of the country’s southern border to stop illegal immigration, even though illegal immigration all but dried up in the recession. And then Canada imposed visas on Mexicans.

The amicable spirit of the “three amigos,” as Jean Chrétien once called the North American countries, hasn’t always prevailed.


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