Canada’s Hemisphere

Canadian foreign policy sees Latin America as a playground for its most voracious corporations.

A mural reading "Water is worth more than gold" protesting a Barrick mining project in Chollay, Chile. Amilcar / Flickr

In recent years, the Canadian state has lent its support to a repressive post-coup regime in Honduras; it has provided military and ideological backing for a repressive regime in Colombia, one which boasts the hemisphere’s worst record on human rights; it has aggressively interfered in the domestic affairs of left-of-center Latin American governments, such as that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador; it has supported ecological destruction and the dislocation of vulnerable populations in the region through its support for Canadian natural resource companies; it has provided cover for exploitative working conditions in the factories of Canadian companies operating in the export processing zones of Central America; it has sought to delegitimize, coopt, or coerce popular movements that have directly challenged the economic interests of Canadian capital — this is the reality with which any honest study of Canada’s growing political and economic engagement with Latin America must start.

These are not extreme or isolated examples, unrepresentative of the broader character of Canada’s foreign policies in the Americas. These trends are at the core of Canadian foreign policy in Latin America, animating both Canadian capitalist expansion and popular resistance in the region.

Canadian multinational corporations (MNCs) have expanded rapidly into Latin America as a whole since the 1990s with devastatingly destructive force. Their deleterious impact on human rights has been matched only by their enormous ecological offences — indeed, the two often go hand in hand. Expansion of Canadian capital has in turn engendered waves of creative and militant community resistance, which has proved the most successful way thus far of containing predatory Canadian MNCs and the state policies that abet their operations.

This dialectic of capitalist expansion and popular resistance is well understood by Canadian policymakers. For example, Stockwell Day, the former minister of international trade, frequently noted the increasingly large amount of Canadian foreign investment flowing into Latin America. Summing up the drive of Canadian foreign policy towards the region quite effectively, he said, “these are substantial figures, and they indicate where our interests lie.”

But as a considerable portion of that investment is in the land-hungry and environment-imperiling resource sector — sometimes linked simultaneously to the Canadian financial sector — the realization of those Canadian interests, we argue, is never fully guaranteed. As surely as Canadian investment spells future mega-profits for the investor, it faces opposition from local communities.

Even when some governments do not openly oppose Canadian resource investment, their plans are not strictly reducible to the interests of the investor: an Ernst and Young report cited “resource nationalism” as the biggest risk to mining companies in 2013, up from tenth-largest in 2008. “Resource nationalism” encompasses moves by governments of the Global South to capture a greater share of windfall profits earned during the most recent commodity boom.

A central part of our argument is that Canadian “interests” are, by their very nature, fraught with contradiction and instability in Latin America, and require state protection if they are not to be undermined. Providing such protection is the overarching goal of Canadian foreign policy in the region — whether in its diplomatic, developmental, or security form — to ensure the successful expansion of Canadian capital in its relentless and insatiable drive for more profit.

“Canadian” Capital?

Now, one objection to our theoretical framework might be that it no longer makes sense to use the term “Canadian” capital. There is a widely held notion that in an age of transnational globalization it is no longer accurate to refer to national capitals and their particular interests; rather, it is said that we should speak of transnational capitals which root themselves in this or that nation-state opportunistically and flexibly.

While we recognize that there has indeed been a certain intensification of trends in transnational coordination of capitals (alongside ongoing competition) over the last forty years or so, we maintain that it continues to be crucial to retain the concept of national capitals, and in our case, to speak of Canadian capital — that is, capital that has a clear and indentifiable Canadian owner, whether as an owner of a private company or as a majority or minority (with controlling influence) shareholder of a publicly traded company.

Imperialism Today

Our fundamental analytical and empirical concern is the role assumed by the Canadian state within the worldwide system of capitalist imperialism in relation to Latin America. Capitalist imperialism is characterized by deep structural inequalities between regions and countries of the world. These inequalities are exacerbated by the uneven development of global capitalist relations, and are reproduced through the active policies adopted by imperialist states and powerful international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Capitalist imperialism involves the draining of the wealth and resources of poorer countries to the benefit of capital of the Global North, at the cost of the majority of the peoples of the Global South. The majority of inhabitants of imperialized countries experience imperialism through the blunt end of economic, political, ideological, and military bludgeons.

“Underdevelopment” or “dependency” in the Global South is not a necessary structural corollary of growth and development in the imperialist core — as per classical dependency theory. Rather, it is a product of the uneven way in which capitalist growth takes shape, itself a product of the logic internal to capitalism at the national, regional, and global levels that leads the most productive capital to concentrate in already wealthy regions and spread slowly, haltingly, and often under fairly specific conditions (for instance, to access raw materials, or in response to economic crisis at home) to other parts of the globe.

What concerns us here, however, is not simply a question of uneven development, or simply market forces internal to capitalist accumulation. We are interested in the manners in which uneven development is amplified and reproduced through the actions of capitalist states of the Global North in order to create and recreate conditions to the benefit of northern capital.

In some cases, these actions benefit all capital, but because of uneven development the patterns of contemporary capitalist imperialism tend to concentrate benefits in the hands of capital from the Global North. State managers of core imperialist countries introduce policies such as structural adjustment, free trade, market liberalization, and political interference of various kinds in order to structure the domestic political economies of weaker nations to the benefit of imperialist capital.

Dependency of peripheral countries on the core, therefore, is not a necessary product of capitalist accumulation, but rather the frequent outcome of the combination of uneven development and conscious actions taken by imperialist states. This is not to say imperialist states are attempting consciously to reproduce the impoverishment of dependent countries necessarily (though it may be the case in some instances), as much as they are trying to shape the political and economic dynamics of dependent states such that they remain politically subordinate to the interests of capital from the core. Patterns of dependency are, therefore, a combination of intended political action and unintended by-products of capitalist accumulation.

The strategic orientation of imperialist powers such as the United States and Canada vis-à-vis Latin America over the last fifteen years has been driven principally by an effort to assert control over access to the region’s immense natural resource wealth. The importance of this dynamic has intensified as opportunities for accumulation have been opened up in the context of the neoliberal privatization of natural resources, and, until recently, increasing prices of basic commodities on the international market.

At the same time, in geopolitical terms, both the United States and Canada have been interested in containing through persuasion, and/or eliminating through coercion, the rising tide of popular social movements and left-leaning governments in the region, an important part of whose mandates has been precisely to reclaim popular sovereign control over natural resources and reassert political and economic autonomy in the region vis-à-vis dominant external powers.

It is worth remembering here that Latin America and the Caribbean contain 25 percent of the world’s forests and 40 percent of its biodiversity. The region contains 85 percent of all known reserves of lithium, and a third of copper, bauxite, and silver. Latin America and the Caribbean are similarly rich in coal, oil, gas, and uranium, with 27, 25, 8, and 5 percent respectively of all discovered deposits in the world currently being exploited. New underwater oil reserves, meanwhile, are regularly being discovered along the region’s vast coast lines. Finally, the region contains 35 percent of the globe’s potential hydro-electricity and the biggest reserves of freshwater under its soil.

Indigenous Dispossession

As is the case with ongoing capitalist expansion within Canadian borders, much of the land Canadian resource companies are pursuing in Latin America is inhabited by indigenous peoples. Canadian natural resource companies often ignore indigenous claims to the land, and act as if these territories were terra nullius: empty and going to waste. It is up to MNCs to transform that land into a source of commerce and profit, and any indigenous communities that challenge the authority of investors — that are not grateful for the help foreign investors are bestowing upon them — are seen as obstacles to progress. They are to be removed, by force if necessary.

The mere fact that they do not demonstrate reverence to the interests behind capitalist development, and see the land as more than a means for capitalist exploitation, is cause for them to be dismissed as backward and naïve. This worldview also regularly provides justification for the repression of indigenous communities in resource-rich areas by legal and illegal security forces. Given the history of capitalism within Canadian borders, Canadian business and political leaders are well-practiced in these dynamics.

Ecological destruction of indigenous or poor peasant communities in the South transforms those communities in profound ways. Dislocated from the land and its resources, indigenous patterns of social reproduction are undercut, putting new pressures on women in particular who are often the primary caregivers for the young. The ability to sustain themselves on the land is threatened, and greater integration into market relations is encouraged by the IFIs and national aid programs, including Canada’s. But the sheer scale of displacement from the land over the last two decades has meant that market relations in poorer countries are not a realistic option for survival for most people. The natural resources sector has very low employment levels as a ratio of investment.

The growth of low-wage manufacturing zones in the Third World has drawn millions of dispossessed peasants, primarily women, in search of work, despite extremely poor working conditions. The new proletarians are desperate to eke out an existence on the rough margins of global capitalism. For many others, the only option for survival is migration to the Global North, leaving family behind in a desperate search for work at what is, inevitably, the very bottom end of the labor markets in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

In the Global North, racist exploitation of migrant labor is cloaked in the language of citizenship to exclude these foreign-born workers from the basic rights won by workers born in places such as Canada and the United States. In the neoliberal age of global mass migration — the scale of which is unparalleled in history — the social reproduction of increasing numbers of poor people of color is an international process.

The FDI Panacea

Articulations of modernization theory today, coming from institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, argue that foreign direct investment (FDI) ipso facto represents a necessary source for Third World development and improvement in the standard of living of the peoples of the Third World. And, indeed, the position is reiterated, albeit in a different register, in some Marxist theories of imperialism.

The goal of FDI has never been development per se, nor improved standards of living for peoples of the Global South. The goal, rather, is profit. Investors look for opportunities in scenarios that will allow for the repatriation of as much profit as possible with as little interference from local governments and communities as possible. If there is excessive “regulation” or “red tape,” or if demands from local communities threaten to make serious inroads on profitability, investors will move elsewhere when possible.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of what kind of development is most desirable for social justice and the future of the world’s ecological systems and human population, a simple uptick in FDI does not constitute a formula for improved living standards or endogenous industrial growth. As economist Anwar Shaikh has demonstrated, FDI flows facilitate and intensify uneven development and poverty, while simultaneously generating profits for corporations in the Global North, as well as a thin layer of the population in the imperialized country (mainly capitalists and politicians).

Any theory which suggests that FDI is the central driver for meaningful development, or which uncritically situates FDI as a solution to problems of poverty and inequality in the Global South, is dangerously simplistic and needs to be challenged.

Expansion of Canadian Capital

The scale of the expansion of Canadian capital in Latin America in the form of FDI over the last quarter-century has been phenomenal, following the liberalization of capital flows, the rewriting of natural resource and financial-sector rules, the privatization of public assets, and so on. In 1990 it stood at only C$2.58 billion in stock (that is, cumulative FDI flows). It rose to C$25.3 billion in 2000, an increase of 880 percent, and to C$59.4 billion — amid the deepest global economic recession since the 1930s — in 2013, an increase of 134 percent from the year 2000, and 2,198 percent from the year 1990.

The figures for 2000 and 2013, moreover, are certainly an underrepresentation of the extent of Canadian capital’s penetration of the region, as Statistics Canada’s data, from which these figures are primarily drawn, do not include Canadian investment that is routed through the Caribbean Offshore Financial Centers (OFCs), which, if it did, would likely double to triple the figures for some countries given how strong Canadian financial capital’s presence is in the Caribbean OFC, as we note below.

To put the growth of Canadian investment into Latin America into perspective, American FDI into the region over this same period, while not surprisingly much higher than that of Canada in absolute terms (at US$283.9 billion in 2012), increased at a slower pace: by 79 percent from 2000–2012 and by 555 percent from 1990–2012; and, notably, as a share of total FDI into Latin America and the Caribbean combined, US FDI decreased from 46.8 percent in 1990 to 38.7 percent in 2012.

From 2007 to 2012, Canada was the second largest external source of FDI to Latin America and the Caribbean combined behind the United States — it was the third largest source if Latin America as a whole is included as a source region — a jump from fifth during the period from 1995 to 2005. And while American investment is much greater than Canadian, the rate of the latter is much greater than that of the former. The Canadian economy is roughly one-tenth the size of its American counterpart, but Canadian foreign investment in Latin America and the Caribbean combined is one-fourth that of the United States.

Finance and Mining

Canadian investment is occurring across a range of sectors. In Honduras, for example, one of the largest sock and t-shirt manufacturers in the world, and the largest private-sector employer in the Central American country, is Montreal-based Gildan Activewear. Canadian oil and gas, pipeline, and construction companies also play prominent and controversial roles in the hemisphere. But it is clearly in the financial and mining sectors where Canadian companies are most prominent. Canadian financial companies have long-established historical roots in the region, going back to the nineteenth century, often connected to US-backed dictatorships.

But the neoliberal period has seen a sharp expansion of Canadian financial capital in the western hemisphere, growing from 15 percent of Canadian FDI in the early 1980s to close to half in the 2000s. Scotiabank, for instance, the Canadian bank most well-established outside of North America, generates more than one-fifth of its profits from its extensive international investments, the majority of which are in the Americas. It spent approximately C$6 billion on more than twenty acquisitions in the Americas from 2007 to 2012 — part of a wave of Canadian takeovers of foreign financial assets following the 2008 global crisis.

Canadian banks dominate the financial sector in the English Caribbean, controlling its three largest banks. Three Canadian banks — RBC, Scotiabank, and CIBC — own over C$42 billion in assets there (61 percent of total Caribbean banking assets), forty times greater than what approximately forty-odd local banks own. The significance of this influence extends beyond the English Caribbean, of course. As the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean notes:

The share of [Canadian] FDI going through international financial centers has increased significantly and represents a very important distortion, because these flows of Canadian capital do not remain in OFCs, but go on to final destinations in third markets, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, the United States, and Europe.

Canada’s mining industry, meanwhile, is the largest in the world. Approximately two-thirds of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, with its permissive tax and legal regime, long mining history that has nurtured an aggressive exploration and producing sector, and unflinching foreign policy support for companies with international ambitions. Those international ambitions, coupled with the Canadian state’s legal and diplomatic fealty, has led Canadian companies, big and small, to the four corners of the globe in pursuit of profit.

But the Americas (Latin America plus the Caribbean) account for over half of Canadian mining assets held abroad — C$72.4 billion. Whereas there were only two Canadian mines in operation (i.e., not simply exploration properties or mines under construction) in 1990, that jumped to eighty in 2012, with another forty-eight in the development or feasibility stage, according to the Canadian International Development Platform (whose numbers are drawn from the InfoMine industry database).

These operating mines generated combined revenue of C$19.3 billion in 2012 for Canadian companies. According to the Northern Miner (an industry web publication) database, in 2014, 62 percent of all producing mines in the region were owned by a company headquartered in Canada. The size and international leading role of the Canadian mining industry is no doubt the reason Toronto is the most important financial nodal point of the global mining industry. In 2013, for example, C$6.9 billion was raised in equity financing on the city’s two exchanges (the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Toronto Venture), representing 84 percent of the global total.

Super Profits

The dominance of Latin America’s natural resource markets has showered the owners of Canadian companies with super-profits. Looking only at the earnings from mines that were still operational in 2013 (fifteen gold mines in total), the three largest gold-mining companies by revenue — Barrick, Yamana, and Goldcorp — earned a combined net profit of US$14.9 billion between 1998 and 2013. The rate of profit for these operating mines was an astounding 45 percent; with taxes and royalties factored in for Barrick, it was still an incredible 42.4 percent. The average rate of profit for the Canadian economy as a whole from 1998 to 2013 was 11.8 percent.

Here, presented quite plainly, are the Canadian “interests” at stake in Latin America. As we discuss further below, the argument from Canadian governments of various stripes and the companies themselves, repeated ad nauseam, is that Canadian resource companies are not simply getting filthy rich off of the resources of impoverished and dispossessed communities. Canadian companies are, instead, improving the living standards of the communities where they are digging gold, silver, copper, and other toxic riches from the ground.

In truth, very little of the company profits are invested in local communities. Barrick and Yamana’s combined “community investment” spending — part of the companies’ “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) agendas to create the fiction that they give back to communities whose land they exploit — was a miserly 1.4 percent of net earnings in 2012 and 0.9 percent in 2011 (comparable figures for Goldcorp were not available). But beyond the supposed “community investments,” after construction is completed there is very little new inflow of money from these companies into the countries in which they are operating mines; and the construction costs of new mines are usually made back within the first few years of the mines’ operations. New capital expenditures on operating mines by Barrick and Goldcorp averaged 39.9 percent of previous years’ net profits during the period studied. These are thus reinvested earnings, not new inflows.

Most of their profits, in other words, leave the country, and after the construction period, mining represents a significant net outflow of value. It is important to keep in mind, as well, how poor a job creator large-scale industrial mining is, on top of the human displacement and irreparable ecological damage these mines, by necessity, cause. In short, these companies and their owners are getting incredibly rich from Latin America’s mineral wealth, at the expense of the often impoverished communities that are left to deal with legacies of dislocation, poisoned water sources and, not uncommonly, the violence that makes all this possible.

Capital and the State

Canadian capital’s penetration of Latin America has not been accomplished on its own; it has received the steadfast support of the Canadian state — from the prime minister’s office to Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (as of 2015 Foreign Affairs, CIDA, and International Trade are now part of Global Affairs Canada), National Defense, Natural Resources Canada, and Health Canada. Canadian foreign policy in Latin America has been intimately bound up with the outward expansion of Canadian capital, both responding to the imperatives and shaping the actions of Canadian MNCs as their investment in the region has steadily grown and encountered various political and social obstacles. Canadian state managers have prioritized new and aggressive engagement with states in the region, hoping to create the best possible conditions for the accumulation of profit.

Further expansion of Canadian investment into the region has become a strategic goal of policymakers. Latin America was clearly on the radar of the Jean Chretien and Paul Martin Liberal governments of the 1990s and early 2000s, who signed the initial free-trade agreements (FTAs) in the region, as well as a series of bilateral investment treaties (or Foreign Investment Protection Agreements as they are called in Canada), including the North American, Chilean, and Costa Rican FTAs. But foreign policy engagement in Latin America was given an extra boost, and received clearer articulation, under the Harper Conservatives, who signed another four FTAs while attempting to sketch out — publicly and privately — an agenda for Canadian intervention.

This observation should not be taken as suggestion that Canadian foreign policy is reducible to the whims of a particular government, whether Conservative, Liberal, or even New Democratic. Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, replaced Harper as prime minister in October 2015. While it is too early in his administration to make any decisive claims about its foreign policy orientation in Latin America, there is little reason to expect any significant rupture with the Harper legacy. Clearly the Harper Conservatives left their cynical imprint on Canada’s relation with the Americas (and the rest of the world for that matter), and, having been in power from 2006 until 2015, their actions deserve a lot of scrutiny.

But, to stress a point raised earlier in our discussion of contemporary forms of imperialism, Canada’s external policies, like those of other countries, are framed by the rhythms of capitalist accumulation, with all its economic and political demands, contradictions, and ecological limits, and by the country’s place within the privileged hierarchy of the world system.

These policies will persist — with changes in inflection, priorities, and aggression to be sure — in the absence of a fundamental reordering of the deep structural roots of global capitalist imperialism, even in the absence of Harper. Sober reflection of Canadian engagement in Latin America over the last two decades reveals that the Conservatives did not represent a radical departure from their Liberal predecessors, and with Trudeau now in the helm we should, once again, expect more continuity than change.