The Harper-Uribe Handshake



The photo in Colombia’s daily newspaper “El Tiempo” from earlier this week, of Canadian Prime Minister Harper and Colombian President Uribe gazing into each other’s eyes, locked in the sort of handshake the Canadian PM gives his sons in the morning, turned a few Canadian and Colombian stomachs. Uribe’s government, after all, is infamous for having had its politicians heading off to jail for their collusion and links to paramilitaries that are steeped in massacre, assassination, kidnapping, and narcotrafficking. Paramilitary chiefs like Salvatore Mancuso have given evidence of their connections to politicians. Computer files from paramilitary leaders contain memos of signed agreements between Uribe’s supporters and paramilitary killers. The massacres have been spectacular – paramilitaries cut people up with chainsaws and play soccer with people’s heads. They’ve used terror to clear territories of their rural and indigenous inhabitants and concentrate land in the hands of landowners – some of whom are these same politicians – who have contracts with corporations to produce various things, the hottest one being biofuels. Palm and sugar cane plantations stand where campesinos used to live, and fortunes are being made speculating on the fuels of the future. If ripping up most of the Canadian province of Alberta for oil sands development can make Canada an “energy superpower”, as Harper said, perhaps slaughtering tens of thousands of Colombians and displacing 3.5 million of them for palm and sugar plantations can make Colombia one as well. Perhaps Canada, with its oil sands and militarization, Harper told Latin Americans, could be a better model for the region than Chavez’s Venezuela, with its serious efforts to address poverty and inequality.

One can imagine the process that led to the visit. Uribe’s regime is shaky, his own role in paramilitarism is becoming increasingly public, and he needs to demonstrate his closeness to the US, one of the only sources of prestige he has left. Bush wants to help Uribe out for his years of loyal service. Bush calls Harper and asks him to go associate publicly with Uribe. Harper does what he’s told. If Canada can say it wants free trade with Colombia, why not the rest of the world? Canada has long played a role of selling the unpalatable to the world for the US – the Korean war in the 1950s, the Congo coup in the 1960s, the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s, the Iraq wars of the 1990s, the Afghan war in 2001, the Haiti coup in 2004 and the sanctions on the Palestinians in 2006, as just a few examples.

There is at least a possibility, however, that Harper has jumped on to a sinking ship. Uribe has been so discredited that even the US Democrats don’t want to touch him – they have used their majority in Congress to freeze the ratification of a free trade agreement with Colombia because of the paramilitary scandal. In the country, indigenous people are planning a major mobilization (1) against paramilitarism and free trade next week (July 22-28). These aspects of Harper’s visit and of Colombian politics were not much discussed in the Canadian press.


But then, the Canadian public debate on foreign policy is blighted by straight racism and simplistic analysis, from the top down. Harper, after all, has Canadian troops engaged in a brutal occupation in Afghanistan, a war in which dozens of civilians are killed every week in NATO airstrikes. These killings, and other human rights violations, are casually reported and coldly discussed in much Canadian commentary on the subject.

Take professor Sean Maloney of Canada’s Royal Military College. On a visit to Afghanistan where he was embedded with NATO troops, an experience he wrote about in a flippant, unapologetically imperialist, and frank and valuable book called “Enduring the Freedom”, he casually discusses a war crime:

“A Taliban insurgent had either fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) or a 107mm rocket at the camp. The AMF (Afghan military forces – these are the militias, warlords, NATO is supporting -JP) had gotten ahold of him. His body was hanging upside down from a bridge on the main road to Kandahar, just outside the outer perimeter. They had cut his throat, and it looked like they had pulled some of the skin down. A cardboard sign hung from the corpse said, approximately, “Don’t fire rockets at the camp.” Afghan solutions to Afghan problems. This was the sort of thing that Public Affairs people went crazy about, and the corpse was removed.”

It is, of course, unthinkable that Professor Maloney would describe the mutilation of the corpse of a Canadian soldier with such amusement, or as simply a public affairs problem. Nor would Maloney call the torture and murder of a child, which Canadian soldiers committed in Somalia, a “Canadian solution” to a problem, though he can call the mutilation and murder of a suspected insurgent an “Afghan solution”.

As for the analysis of the counterinsurgency more generally, Canadian commentators seem to have missed the important fact that the occupation of Afghanistan has, in various ways, contributed to bringing neighbouring Pakistan to the brink of an Islamic Revolution. A sensibility that considers mutilation of corpses as “solutions” may not be compatible with a sophisticated understanding of the politics of the region. The consequence, however, is that Canada is in a war with people it does not begin to understand.


The public debate on Canadian foreign policy is not entirely vapid, however. Linda McQuaig’s book, “Holding the Bully’s Coat”, brings a dose of reality about the motives of Canada’s elites to the discussion. She quotes Sean Maloney, saying that “we will finally resolve the softwood lumber issue and keep our border open to trade by lessening America’s burden in Afghanistan.” (p. 104) McQuaig’s answer to Maloney: “Now hold it a minute. How did the softwood lumber issue and the fact that 87% of our exports go to the US creep into a discussion of our military involvement in Afghanistan? Is it concern about our trade balance that compels us into battle? is it actually increased profit margins for the Canadian lumber industry that [Canadian soldiers] are risking their lives for?” (pg. 104)

Of course, elites do think this way. In exchange for a better deal on the lumber (harvested from indigenous lands by workers with insecure jobs), Canada offers some military support and, importantly, diplomatic cover, the image in the world that this is not unilateral US imperial policy, but some kind of internationally agreed upon policy.

McQuaig, unlike nearly the entire racism-blighted Canadian political spectrum, thinks of victims of imperialism as human beings. While Canadian pundits were deliberately ignoring the asymmetry of hundreds of Palestinians dying in shelling and bombing for every Israeli casualty of Palestinian rockets, McQuaig discussed the current Canadian government-initiated sanctions regime against the starving people of Gaza as follows: “The Harper government made it clear that Ottawa was cutting off financial support because Hamas refused to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. At first glance, this position may have seemed reasonable? But why are these demands placed only on Palestinians? Shouldn’t Israel also have to renounce violence?” (pg. 265) An obvious question, but one that is beyond the thinking of the Canadian mainstream, and far beyond the thinking of the likes of Harper, or Maloney.

McQuaig’s book was recently subjected to a somewhat oddball critique by Canadian activist Yves Engler (ZNet Commentaries, July 14 2007 “Imperialism or Holding the Bully’s Coat”), who argued that because McQuaig didn’t discuss Canadian corporations abroad and argued that UN peacekeeping was a better tradition than the current emphasis on servicing US goals, that she was blinded by Canadian nationalism (2). But if McQuaig’s nationalism does not have her romanticizing Canada’s record, does not prevent her from seeing the terrible failures of the UN in places like Haiti (on which she cites Engler’s own book, “Canada in Haiti”), and does not stop her from being more solidly anti-racist than almost all Canadian commentators, then there should be more of McQuaig’s kind of nationalism. My own view is that Canadians need to understand and stop Canada’s colonialism towards indigenous people (3) and the third world, but I doubt McQuaig would disagree.

In any case, it would be better to view McQuaig’s book as having opened space in a very important debate that was, until her book, almost monopolized by liberal or reactionary thuggery. Critics of Canadian foreign policy have a long and difficult task convincing the Canadian public against hostile media and politicians. Contributions like McQuaig’s have helped widen an opening for this.


See this pamphlet in English on the Colombian mobilization: For those who know Spanish, a 3-minute Youtube video on the mobilization is here: Engler’s review – and a response by McQuaig – can be found here: See (and sign) this petition for some information about the struggle of one community, the Mohawks of Tyendinaga:

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.