BY CHRONICLE STAFF
Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper gave Colombia strong support during a brief visit to the South American country yesterday, the first such visit by a Canadian leader in 50 years.
"I don't think you say to a country, Well, you still have problems, therefore we'll back off and we won't have anything to do with your economy," he said as he stood on a podium alongside Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe and his government have made tremendous progress against the vicious cycle of conflict, violence and under-development that has plagued Colombia for decades, Harper said. They have persuaded tens of thousands of paramilitaries to lay down their arms and join their countrymen in building a safer and more prosperous country, he added.
The comments were an indirect rebuke to U.S. lawmakers who have postponed ratification of the U.S.-Colombia FTA until Colombia shows more progress in reducing violence against union leaders. While the U.S. Congress is not expected to vote on the FTA with Colombia any time soon, Canada announced the start of FTA talks. "The President and I are pleased with the start of free trade negotiations," Harper said, adding that the two countries would also negotiate a double-taxation agreement. "We anticipate mutually beneficial agreements that will strengthen the partnership between our countries."
An FTA between Canada and Colombia is expected to boost already strong two-way trade. Canada's trade with Colombia reached 1.1 billion Canadian dollars (approximately US$1.1 billion) last year, an increase of 11.3 percent from 2005. Colombia is Canada's sixth-largest trading partner in Latin America, according to a Latin Business Chronicle analysis of data from Statistics Canada.
Harper's visit comes as Canadian and other foreign investors are expressing strong satisfaction with the business climate and recent economic growth. "Colombia is a mature and strong democracy and one of the most stable economies in Latin America," Javier Abuabara, president of Colombia operations for Canadian telecom equipment provider Nortel, told Latin Business Chronicle recently. "The country has got a healthy management of its foreign debt and the government is [focused on] foreign investments. The … benefits to foreign investors is growing."
Last year, Colombia’s economy grew by 6.8 percent, its best result in 28 years. Foreign direct investment went from $2.1 billion in 2002 – the year Uribe took office – to $6.3 billion last year.
"We believe greater economic integration through trade and investment will help alleviate poverty and create new wealth and employment opportunities for Colombians and Canadians," Harper said. "Our countries have enjoyed very strong growth in bilateral trade and investment. Canadian expertise compliments Colombian economic strength in areas such as mining, engineering, and oil and gas."
Harper's visit to Colombia marked the start of a six-day journey to Latin America that also includes Chile, Haiti and Barbados. In Chile, Harper today marked the tenth anniversaty of the Canada-Chile FTA (See Latin America: Canada's Renewed Commitment). Last year, trade between Chile and Canada reached 2.3 billion Canadian dollars, a 12.3 percent increase from 2005. Chile is Canada's fourth-largest trade partner in Latin America.
During his visit to Chile, Harper also visited a local branch of Scotiabank, the Canadian bank that has built a pan-regional network in Latin America the past few years (See Scotiabank Bullish on Latin America). “I think it's just great that Canada's showing some leadership in Latin America,” Scotiabank CEO Richard Waugh told reporters before Harper's arrival at the bank, according to Canadian news agency CanWest. Canada is “part of the Americas,” Waugh said, adding there are “huge opportunities” on this continent for Canadian businesses. “I congratulate the government on grabbing that opportunity,” he said.
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