As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
A Representative from California became the third Republican in the House of Representatives to pledge support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation proposed by House Democrats. Rep. David Valdadao of California’s twenty-first congressional district joins Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in publicly supporting H.R. 15 this week, the House version of the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June.
Similar to the Senate version, H.R. 15 includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but includes a distinct border security measure approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in May. "By supporting H.R. 15 I am strengthening my message: addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait," said Rep. Valadao, who represents a largely Latino district and was targeted in an online ad campaign last week highlighting that public opinion in his district overwhelming favors comprehensive reform. The bill currently has 190 cosponsors, short of the 218 needed to get a majority in the House. So far, Speaker of the House John Boehner has declined to allow a vote on the Senate bill or H.R. 15, unless a majority of his Republicans colleagues support it.
Rep. Valadao’s announcement comes on the heels of a “fly-in” on Capitol Hill on Tuesday by 600 advocates, including conservatives, evangelicals, and business leaders who lobbied their representatives in support of immigration reform. While the chances of comprehensive reform passing the House this year still appear slim, the fallout from the government shutdown may make it more politically difficult for House Republicans to opt for inaction on the issue.
Next up on the world’s stage of Theater of the Absurd: Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro has as his mentors—in things big and small—Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba. Always the masters of deception, the Castro brothers were caught red-handed this summer trying to ship weapons to North Korea. Now it is Maduro whom might have been caught red-handed, or should we say “red-faced,” trying to sneak Cuban intelligence agents into the United States.
Maduro had planned a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He never made it. Traveling on Cubana Airlines with a Venezuelan delegation that included his wife, son and daughter-in-law, a hair dresser and a bevy of Cuban security experts carrying Venezuelan passports, his plane landed in Canada for refueling, on a return flight from China. ABC, Madrid’s daily broke the story reporting that the United States denied visas to the Cubans, part of Maduro’s entourage. But according to U.S. government sources, what happened was that Maduro ordered his aircraft “to turn away when the US wouldn’t give them assurances that they would not be denied entry.” The State Department spokesman said that “No visas have been denied for the Venezuelan delegation to this year’s UN General Assembly.”
Maduro left in a fury vowing retaliation and “drastic actions.” Caracas’ El Universal quoted Maduro saying that “he dropped his trip to New York in order to safeguard his physical integrity.” El Universal also reported that the Venezuelan president “fingered former US officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich for allegedly planning ‘a provocation’”. The possibility of Noriega and Reich, two Republican political appointees, directing any initiative of any kind by the Obama administration is zilch.
There was also some speculation that the Venezuelans feared the Cuban 767 would be seized, as Cuban vessels have been detained in various foreign countries in the past due to Havana’s failures to fulfill financial obligations.
In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made headlines in harboring and eventually granting asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, resisting U.S. overtures for a peace initiative in halting the Syrian civil war and passing anti-gay rights legislation in the buildup for next year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
A few days ago, President Barack Obama cancelled an upcoming summit with Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, after condemning the Russia government for its pre-Olympic anti-gay stand, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just indicated its willingness to look favorably on gay Russian asylum seekers who claim to be the victims of persecution.
The deterioration of the Russia-U.S. relationship has led some observers to question whether we are entering a new era of Cold War politics. Some politicians, such has U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, have also hinted about a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Clearly, the relationship has not been as frosty since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a new Cold War is not and should not be on the horizon. In the last decade, the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a number of key issues, including backing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, and imposing important sanctions on Iran.
Those who never voted for Barack Obama when he ran for President in 2008 or when he sought reelection in 2012 will conclude that Obama’s current second-term blues are just a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” They never liked him and may actually rejoice in his misfortunes. All of the Republicans’ post-2012 election defeat soul-searching has since given way to more of the polarization and the dysfunctionality associated with the political gridlock of recent years.
Important elements of Obama’s second term agenda—gun control, climate change and immigration reform—appear to be in trouble. Meanwhile, events in Syria—mired in its two-year sectarian civil war—have led a reluctant U.S. president to arm the different factions associated with the rebel forces against dictator Bashar al-Assad. Instability is spreading throughout the Middle East, leading some observers to question the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Add to this context, the ongoing conflict over the Benghazi talking points, skepticism of the Internal Revenue Service decision to target Tea Party groups, and the controversy surrounding National Security Agency and its surveillance programs, and a growing perception emerges that Obama might have lost control of his agenda at a crucial period in a second term. We are often reminded of scarred second-term administrations since 1960—Johnson (Vietnam), Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Lewinsky scandal/impeachment), Bush (Hurricane Katrina/ financial meltdown).
The past two months have seen the Obama Administration go from alleged scandals, to defeat on key proposals—such as gun control—to controversy about privacy and security. Considering that the mid-term elections are but 18 months away and the 2016 presidential stakes will begin shortly after, time does not seem to favor the president.
Yet, despite this somber picture, many of Obama’s problems have to do with the normal course of events in any political mandate. Governing is not a picnic in the park and it is full of surprises and obstacles. Obama certainly understands from his first term that the Republicans will not make his life easier in a second term. But crisis management is very much a part of his job.
Turbulentas han sido las relaciones entre Estados Unidos y Venezuela desde que Hugo Chávez dio rienda a su proceso revolucionario en 1999. En medio de altas y bajas, John Maisto, embajador norteamericano en Caracas entre 1997 y 2000, pareció entender con rapidez el fenómeno bolivariano y apuntó que “hay que fijarse en lo que Chávez hace, no en lo que dice”.
Desde entonces, Caracas y Washington han vivido cualquier cantidad de desencuentros políticos, especialmente entre 2001 y 2009, durante la gestión de George W. Bush. En esos años, Chávez no titubeó al desatar su oratoria y, con la acepción negativa del verbo, innovó en estilos diplomáticos al usar epítetos como “diablo” y “burro” para referirse a su homólogo norteamericano.
Algunos podrían pensar que una de las mayores frustraciones del ex presidente Hugo Chávez era que “el imperio”, como solía enunciar, era el principal socio comercial del país que proclamaba su segunda emancipación. Un cliente que recibe la mitad de los 3 millones de barriles de petróleo que Venezuela produce diariamente. También un proveedor que despacha la mayoría de los bienes que la nación caribeña consume. En síntesis, un aliado con quien la balanza comercial ha crecido durante cuatro años consecutivos.
Pero sin ánimos de entrar en el terreno especulativo, lo cierto es que uno de los grandes apegos de “la revolución bonita” era la oratoria de su líder, y gran parte de la, tan mentada, segunda independencia nacional no era otra cosa que una intachable clase improvisada de retórica. En la práctica, la Venezuela de nuevas instituciones y lemas patrióticos era tan pro americana como aquella que en los años 70 hacía gala de la bonanza petrolera comprando ropa y bienes en Miami.
Culturalmente, la afinidad entre ambos países es tan grande que, justamente, la motivación que llevó a Hugo Chávez a la Academia Militar no fue otra que el béisbol, el deporte bandera de los americanos. El sueño del, entonces, recluta era ser descubierto por un seleccionador e iniciar su carrera de ascenso hacia las grandes ligas. Años más tarde, la política le permitiría una mínima satisfacción personal: en 1999, durante su única visita oficial a Estados Unidos, fue invitado a abrir un juego en el estadio de los Mets de Nueva York.
Su admiración por el líder cubano, Fidel Castro, y sus coqueteos con China en busca de apoyo político a cambio de petróleo, no modificaron ni un ápice la relación comercial entre Caracas y Washington. Políticamente, el saldo de la retórica sí es constatable: ocho años desde la última reunión de cancilleres, cinco años sin embajadores, y apenas un encuentro oficial de mandatarios.
El apretón de manos que Obama y Chávez protagonizaron ante el frenesí de las cámaras, en 2009, durante la cumbre de las Américas de Trinidad y Tobago, fue un suerte de presagio, descartado dos años después cuando Venezuela rechazó las credenciales del embajador designado, Larry Palmer.
La semana pasada, nuevamente un apretón de manos figuró en la prensa nacional: el secretario de Estado, John Kerry, y el canciller venezolano, Elías Jaua, sonrieron ante los flashes, y con banderas de fondo, dieron garantía de que ambas magistraturas quieren un acercamiento.
Según Jaua, ésta fue una de las últimas instrucciones de Chávez. Esto a pesar de que el 5 de marzo, horas antes de anunciar la muerte del mandatario, su sucesor, Nicolás Maduro, expulsó dos agregados militares de Estados Unidos bajo acusaciones de supuestos intentos de “desestabilizar” el régimen. Los meses subsiguientes no fueron menos frenéticos: el Ejecutivo venezolano denunció que Washington no sólo podría ser el culpable del cáncer que afectó a Chávez, sino que además tejía planes para asesinar a Maduro, y, también, a su contendor Henrique Capriles Radonski.
En medio del vaivén discursivo, Calixto Ortega, actual encargado de negocios venezolano en Washington, aseguró que no existe aquello de “malas relaciones” con Estados Unidos, es sólo “una matriz mediática”, frase de efecto que emplean los seguidores de la causa revolucionaria para desmeritar un hecho y volverlo apenas una invención de la prensa opositora.
Paradójicamente, Ortega afirmó este miércoles que “hay una nueva etapa en las relaciones con Estados Unidos”, hasta adelantó que podría venir un encuentro Obama-Maduro. Tocará ver si esta nueva etapa se materializa, o si, por el contrario, la máxima de Maisto también se aplica a los herederos del proceso.
For many of us north of the border, we are watching the showdown emerging around the U.S. fiscal cliff discussions. Despite President Barack Obama’s rather convincing victory, it is clear that the divisions remain—and the role of government is central to the discussion. The 2011 debt ceiling stalemate resulted in a process where gridlock was essentially institutionalized with December 31, 2012 as the ultimate date to find a negotiated settlement or else. It is a collective “jump off the cliff.’.
Influential voices such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde are warning about the decreasing role of the U.S. in global economic matters should it fail to get its debt and deficit problems under control. The increasing possibility that a deal will not be reached in time for automatic tax increases and spending cuts to kick in and threaten a second recession in four years has to preoccupy world economies.
The European Union is in recession, emerging markets are less robust and the U.S. economy has had a sluggish recovery since the middle of 2009. A U.S. recession could have catastrophic results, especially north of the border. In recent days, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney sent some ominous signals about the risks associated with failure to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff. We in Canada may have done better coming out of the Great Recession, but there is evidence that another U.S. slowdown will have a serious impact on a range of our exports and overall consumption leading possibly to a Canadian recession as well.
While Canada’s economic future is often dependent on how the U.S. economy fares, we did get some things right that could serve as a guide to U.S. policymakers. The balanced approach regarding revenue and spending cuts that Obama so often advances has been on our radar with successive governments—both Liberal and Conservative—since the mid-1990s. Deficit reduction, debt control, revisiting entitlement programs, modest stimulus programs, tax reductions, free-trade agreements, and reducing the size of government has been very much a part of Canada’s public policy agenda in the last 20 years. Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats have been sending some more encouraging signals in recent days.
It was Winston Churchill who once said that America will try all solutions until they find the right one. It is clear Obama has a mandate to tax the top two percent, whether he does it by raising tax rates or closing tax loopholes. But there is an indisputable reality: tax revenue will not be enough. Some tough decisions about spending cuts including the defense budget, Medicare, Medicaid, and possibly social security will have to be part of the eventual “grand bargain.”
To do this, it will take leadership and political courage on all sides of the partisan divide. It will also have to involve vision and audacity. Clearly, the eyes of the world are directed on the U.S. political class, and especially on President Obama. Having been decisively re-elected last month, it has been said that Obama has a rendezvous with history as he begins his final term. All are waiting to see how he pulls it off, including Canada.
On a university campus in Montréal on December 6, 1989, a lone gunman deliberately targeted innocent victims, killing 14 young women and injuring another 14 before turning the weapon on himself. The horror of this tragedy led the Canadian government to institute a gun registry law in 1993, which became a source of controversy for many gun owners regarding the mandated registration of unrestricted guns and the larger bureaucracy to regulate it. The law was eventually modified by Canada’s ruling Conservatives in April 2012—abolishing the firearms registry that was established after the Montréal tragedy. The two Canadian opposition parties in Parliament—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—opposed the Conservative initiative.
Since 1989, other tragedies have occurred in both Canada and the United States. Every time such an incident occurs, the initial instinct is to raise the issue of access to firearms and the proliferation of gun-related violence. Gun violence has no boundaries; while Canada has greater restrictions in terms of access, the fact remains that gun violence is still high in North America and the conversation must take place beyond the initial shock of the crime.
The U.S. Constitution provides an explicit right to bear arms. In itself, this has resulted in the reluctance by the political leadership to deal with the issue of gun violence and bring the conversation to a national level. To his credit, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to start a national conversation on the matter. Following the recent murder-suicide of an American football player, sportscaster Bob Costas tried to follow Bloomberg’s efforts—a comment that resulted in swift condemnation from the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) and its like-minded allies in the media—which put an end to the national conversation.
Enrique Peña Nieto’s meeting today with President Obama and other senior U.S. government officials in Washington sets the stage for a productive and vibrant bilateral relationship, but challenges await. As expected, the atmospherics surrounding the brief visit are welcoming and congratulatory. Both leaders seek to establish a meaningful personal connection that will carry them through the coming years of inevitable ups and downs in a dense and fluid bilateral relationship—one of the most complicated, yet potentially rewarding, in the world. At the same time, they are anxious to discuss the outlines of the agenda anticipated under a Peña Nieto presidency, including energy and tax reform, social security, and security, all areas that impact Mexico’s global competitiveness and priority areas for reform.
Fundamentally, these are issues for Mexicans to address. The United States can nonetheless assist the new president by taking actions that are in our own self-interest. Foremost among these is immigration reform, which President Obama has promoted as an issue for 2013. The United States could also do more to promote the rule of law, first by curtailing our own demand for illegal drugs and also by curtailing the supply of automatic weapons and ill-gotten financial gains from the United States to Mexico.
But the real opportunity, as Mexico’s Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan has suggested, is to move from a transactional to a strategic relationship, much like the United States enjoys with Canada, especially in the economic sphere. The three nations of North America now make up an integrated platform for manufacturing and production; for example, it no longer makes sense to talk about cars that are “made in America.” Now, they are made in North America, as are numerous other products. Rather than resisting this trend, we should be celebrating and promoting it, because doing so makes our own economy more efficient and our people more prosperous, as it does with both Mexico and Canada.
The recent reelection of Barack Obama as President, the increase of Democrats in the Senate, and their slight gains in the House of Representatives has led analysts to talk about a changing America. While Obama is a highly popular political figure in Canada, it was somewhat surprising for many of us glued to our television sets to see him declared President before the stroke of midnight on November 6. After all, the polls had been close, but the victory seems to convey that America has indeed begun to change.
There are two ways to assess what this U.S. election tells Canadians. One way is the actual results which show a changing electorate where minorities, women, and youth will continue to play an increasing role in the choice of future presidents. State referenda also showed a transformation on certain social and cultural issues—legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage.
The Presidential map with its omnipresent Electoral College seems decidedly more favorable to the Democratic coalition. The Senate map is also favorable to Democratic candidates. The House may still be Republican, but districting in states led by predominantly Republicans governors (30 of 50) can be a determining factor. This has led to some public soul-searching on the part of prominent Republican leaders. In a recent television appearance, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich spoke of the U.S. “as a centrist country with a dominant left”. Where is the center right America of just a few weeks back?