While most cabinet ministers spend the autumn days in Ottawa defending Conservative policies, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will spend much of the time far from the stormy debates of the Commons. At midweek, he leaves Ottawa for a 19-day foreign trip. It will take the Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife, Mila, a staff of about 20 and a 25-member media contingent, to two major summit meetings and four countries. But despite an itinerary spanning Los Angeles, Singapore, the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and San José, Costa Rica, only one stop is likely to produce a significant departure in Canada’s foreign relations.
During the trip’s final event, a Western Hemisphere summit in San José on Oct. 27 and 28, Mulroney will likely announce that Canada will reverse a 79-year-old policy and join the Organization of American States (OAS).
Most of the organization’s 31 member countries will welcome that decision—the OAS has repeatedly pressed Canada to join. Indeed, there is already a place set aside for Canada at the OAS meeting room in Washington, D.C.
The ornate mahogany chair, with a Canadian coat of arms
carved on its back, is one of a set made in 1910 for the members of the Union of American Republics, renamed the OAS in 1948. Canada declined earlier invitations to join, in part because successive Canadian governments worried that membership would nm the risk of putting Ottawa’s foreign policy at odds with positions taken by the U.S.-dominated OAS.
But after an eight-month review of Canada’s relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, Mulroney signalled—during an August visit with President George Bush in Kennebunkport, Me.—that Canada was ready to overcome its historic reluctance.
Mulroney’s travels begin with a two-day stopover in Los Angeles. His agenda there includes a reception with such Canadian stars as Geneviève Bujold and John Candy, and a private dinner with former president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. The trip’s Singapore leg, from Oct. 14 to 17, is intended in part to allow the Mulroneys to recover from jet lag after a 22-hour flight across the Pacific. But Mulroney also planned to meet Lee I Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime Ï minister for the past 30 years I and a friend of former prime
minister Pierre Trudeau, before the short trip north to Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 17.
There he will attend the annual summit of Commonwealth heads of government, opening on Oct. 18. Mulroney and the other 45 leaders will spend the following seven days in a series of meetings in the Malaysian capital and— during a three-day retreat isolated from the media—at an island resort 400 km away from the capital. According to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, those meetings are unlikely to produce the kind of sharp divisions between Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other leaders over Commonwealth policy towards South Africa that have marked recent summits. Instead, Mulroney, Thatcher and the others will likely subdue their criticism of South Africa, because its new president, Frederik de Klerk, has not yet had time to reform the nation’s race laws. Instead, officials said that Mulroney will press for closer international co-operation in the fight against drug traffickers and more attention to human-rights abuses within the Commonwealth itself.
But, for Canada, those initiatives pale beside Ottawa’s decision to join the OAS. Until recently, External Affairs officials viewed the organization primarily as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Although Canada has held observer status at the OAS since 1970, the officials have said until recently that full membership could compromise Ottawa’s independence of action in the region. Said Richard Gorham, Canada’s permanent observer at the OAS: “The traditional explanation for not joining was that we would either have to oppose Washington on particular issues or else run the risk of becoming a U.S. puppet.”
Canada had other reasons for not joining the OAS as well. Canadian diplomats have traditionally considered the organization to be ineffective. It has taken little notice of past humanrights abuses in such countries as Chile and Argentina, and it has failed to resolve several long-standing Latin American border disputes. As well, like many of the countries that belong to it, the OAS itself is deeply in debt.
Still, Gorham said, the OAS has begun to take some promising initiatives. Earlier this year, the organization sent a three-man delegation to Panama in an effort to convince dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega to step down and call free elections. Although that mission failed, Canadian diplomats considered it to be a signal that the OAS was prepared to play a more active role in the region.
For his part, Gorham acknowledged that there is a strong element of self-interest in Canada’s change of heart toward the OAS. It would cost Ottawa about $4 million a year to belong to the organization, and another $1.5 million annually in aid to member countries. In return, Gorham said, Ottawa hopes to increase exports to those nations. To that end, Mulroney seemed ready, after eight decades, to pull Canada’s chair up to the OAS conference table.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.