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Trudeau’s South American trade trip: Shifting alliances and new global challenges

Justin Trudeau returned home from a Latin American trip Monday with a few plums in his pocket and relationships that he hopes will bear more fruit over time.

This was a trip with two destinations tacked on to an obligatory appearance at the APEC Summit in Lima, typically attended by the leaders of all 21 member-nations. Parked next to Trudeau’s plane on the apron at Jorge Chavez airport were the jets of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Also present: Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull (Trudeau met privately with Obama, Pena Nieto and Turnbull, and chatted with Abe on the sidelines).

The talk in Lima seemed at times to be as much about Trump as about trade. His protectionist spirit hovered over the entire summit.

APTOPIX Obama Peru APEC Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama, centre, shares a laugh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima Sunday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Those leaders whose countries are less vulnerable to the effects of the Trump presidency, such as Australia’s Turnbull and New Zealand’s John Key, spoke about it more freely. The most exposed, Mexico and Canada, were far more constrained.

Trudeau stuck tightly to his talking points, built around four core messages:

  • First, he looks forward to working with the new president, or whomever the American people elect.
  • Second, the ties between the two countries are so wide and deep they transcend the personalities and policies of any individual leader.
  • Third, nine million U.S. jobs depend directly on trade with Canada.
  • Fourth, we really don’t know what he’s going to do anyway, so there’s no point in panicking.

China’s Xi Jinping, whose country was targeted as much as Mexico during Trump’s campaign, clearly feels far less threatened and was consequently far less inclined to be contrite. Xi seemed almost to revel in the arrival of an anti-trade U.S. president, and announced that China would be the new beacon of free commerce in the world.

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the APEC summit in Lima on Saturday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

He essentially told Asia Pacific nations to forget about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. had envisioned as a counterweight to Chinese hegemony in Asia but which Trump has labelled “a disaster,” and instead sign up to a new trade pact that would clearly be dominated by Beijing.

Trudeau did not meet with Xi, and his officials made it clear that Canada would rather deal with Trump’s America than with Xi’s China.

Lima also presented Trudeau with his last chance to meet face-to-face with President Obama, who was uncharacteristically wistful.

Farewell to a friend

There were echoes of a note Obama seemed to strike when he visited Ottawa in June, and seemed almost to be passing his mantle as a progressive leader to the younger man just beginning his mandate.

Back then, of course, Hillary Clinton was still in the running and expected to win. Today, Obama knows his legacy is in the hands of a successor who he says “could not be more different” from him.

Malcolm Turnbull Justin Trudeau APEC

Even though Donald Trump was not at the APEC summit, his upcoming presidency was the subject of informal chatter. At a breakfast meeting, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, joked to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about ‘big political changes in your neighbourhood.’ (CBC)

“I have to say that there are few leaders around the world who can combine vision and talent and values the way the Justin does, and I am very much looking forward to his continued leadership in the years to come,” Obama said.

A heartening endorsement for Trudeau, no doubt, as he prepares to deal with a president who is probably even less well-aligned with him than Nixon was with his father.

Stopover in the 1970s

Speaking of Trudeau Sr., this trip began with a visit to Cuba that was as much about family and nostalgia as it was about diplomacy or trade.

Trudeau essentially did what 1.3 million Canadian visitors do every year: he went to Cuba without really trying to challenge its communist system.

Trudeau APE

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, participate in a meeting of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) leaders at the APEC summit in Lima. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But as a leader who often talks about human rights and spreading “Canadian values,” Trudeau has more responsibility than the average sun-seeking tourist in Varadero to actually stand up for them.

While he did talk about issues such as gender equality and racism, those are areas where Cuba’s Communist Party — officially at least — would be in complete agreement.

The word “democracy” didn’t pass his lips in any of his public comments on the island. There was no talk of multiparty elections, and no call for Cuba’s government to let up on its harassment of people who don’t agree with it and dare to say so.

Open airwaves

Instead, officials relayed details of how fond the Castro family were of the Trudeaus and Canada (they smiled a lot, they gave him a photo album and a signed speech by his father) without explaining how that benefitted either Canadians, or Cubans.

Perhaps sensing that Trudeau was unlikely to say anything controversial, the Cubans threw open the airwaves of state television for a live broadcast of his speech at the University of Havana, and a QA session with Cuban students, who also stayed away from controversial topics.

It was an honour they didn’t risk bestowing on President Obama when he spent three whole days on the island in March, probably because Obama was much more outspoken about Cuba’s dictatorship.

In short, it all felt a bit like a missed opportunity.

Farthest south: a new partner

Buenos Aires, the other stop on the way to Lima, had seemed the least focused of the three visits. But that leg of the trip exceeded expectations.

First, Trudeau was able to show some actual results, including the lifting of visa requirements on Canadian business travellers to Argentina, and of a ban on Canadian pork and live swine imports.

Trudeau also seemed to establish a rapport with President Mauricio Macri, a centre-right leader who came to power at the same time as himself and whose mandate will coincide with Trudeau’s own.

Canada has commercial interests in Argentina, mostly in the mining sector, and also has for years been interested in a free trade deal with the South American trading bloc Mercosur, dominated by Argentina and Brazil.

Forgotten continent rediscovered?

The trip should also be seen in the context of a drive by successive Canadian governments to diversify this country’s trade and reduce its dependence on the U.S. market.

With the exception of Canada’s mining sector, there has been a tendency for Canada to overlook the southern half of this hemisphere. The visit also serves to remind South Americans that there is a land beyond the United States.

The trip followed what seems to be a new pattern of travel for the prime minister on foreign trips, with more nights spent on the plane and fewer in hotels.

Trudeau takes to the skies again later this week for another obligatory stop for Canadian prime ministers: the Francophonie Summit in Madagascar.