That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
With 2014 drawing to a close, speculation will soon turn to the 2016 Presidential race in the United States. The Republicans will hold control over both houses of Congress come January, and will offer a wide array of potential candidates lining up for a White House run. With President Barack Obama leaving the White House, Republicans see the strong possibility of winning the presidency in 2016.
Attention has suddenly peaked towards the GOP race now that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has announced his intention to explore a White House bid—raising the prospect of another member of the Bush family facing expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The former two-term governor has been coy about his intentions for the past year, occasionally criticizing his party as being less hospitable to candidates like his father, former Republican President George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.
How serious is a potential Jeb Bush candidacy? In one word: serious. The current prospective field includes: Florida Senator Mark Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Kentucky Senator and libertarian Rand Paul, Tea Party favorite Texas Senator Ted Cruz, 2012 vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan, and, possibly, a third run by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. None of the above candidates are without liabilities, and no one is dominant. Bush’s announcement, therefore, shakes up the current field for both Republican primary voters and potential donors—he has immediate name recognition and has a reputation as a successful governor from a swing state.
The primary season is 13 months away and there will be a variety of forces at play in the Republican primaries. Social conservatives and Tea Party activists will not remain silent, and will play an active role on matters of policy and values. This could radicalize some of the early primary battles, leading more polarizing figures, such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, to be eliminated early. The more moderate Republicans, hungry for a White House victory after an eight-year drought, may choose a more classic conservative—Bush could emerge as the obvious choice. And history may be on his side.
It has been said that the United States is capable of the best and the worst. The Senate Intelligence Committee report, with its content on CIA detention and interrogation practices after the September 11, 2001 attacks, can be construed as an expression of the dark side of the world’s oldest and most durable democracy.
Making the report public, and thus subject to the world’s scrutiny—despite opposition from most Republicans and concerns by White House and administration officials—is a manifestation of what is best about America. As President Barack Obama has said, the U.S. is not a perfect country, but it should not be afraid to face the truth if it has erred.
While there has been some pushback about the report’s findings, some of what was divulged has already been documented in other publications. What the report now shows with its mountains of evidence is that the enhanced interrogation methods used by the CIA were actually more brutal and inhuman than we knew. The report describes, in vivid detail, the horrors of the torture practices in CIA detention centers with the help of hired outside contractors at a cost of $80 million.
The CIA is said to have lied and given false information to Congress and the Bush-Cheney administration at the time. The report adds that the torture practices employed were ineffective and failed to provide useful information to capture Osama Bin Laden or prevent future terrorist attacks. Finally, it points the finger at CIA upper management and criticizes the program’s ineffectiveness and deception. The word “cover-up” is used.
Like so many around the world, Canadians witnessed the coverage before, during and after the Grand Jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri regarding the shooting death of a young African-American teenager by a white police officer. To the outside observer, there was no middle ground—either police officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for the death of the young African-American victim Michael Brown, or he should not. The Grand Jury decided against an indictment.
The reaction was immediate and impassioned. Demonstrations, some accompanied by rioting, looting and destruction of property, followed. More fallout is expected in the days ahead. Even in Canada, there were demonstration in Montreal and Toronto opposing the verdict of no indictment.
The narrative of Ferguson, however, went beyond the jury outcome. The question of racism in America, excessive police force in communities of color, and the overriding issues of poverty within these communities dominated news analyses and debates. Unwarranted police behavior—including excessive force and poor judgment—in addition to the effects of poverty within communities, however, does not stop at the borders of Missouri.
U.S. Republicans did not wait long after their midterm gains to provoke a congressional vote on the approval of the Keystone Pipeline project.
It was not the first such try. Getting a strong and unequivocal vote in favor of Keystone in the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a strong majority, was easy. The Senate, on other hand, was another matter. The project narrowly failed to reach the needed 60 votes needed to make it to the president’s desk, with 59 votes in favor and41 opposed. So once again, the Republicans failed.
Obviously, this was a failed political ploy meant to embarrass the president. Republicans knew that President Obama would likely have vetoed Keystone, and would have had the votes to resist an override by Congress (two-thirds of both Houses are required to override a presidential veto). The new Senate, with 54 Republican senators (nine more than in the current Senate) will not be sworn in until early January 2015.
So it was all about politics—and the president expected as much, even in the current lame-duck Congress.
However, Obama is not beyond playing politics himself. He has essentially given up the Louisiana Senate seat currently held by Democrat Mary Landrieu (who faces a runoff election on December 6) to her Republican adversary. He repeated that he will not decide whether to approve Keystone until a Nebraska Appeals court rules on the pipeline’s route through the state.
For U.S. Democrats, hiding President Barack Obama and making the U.S. midterm elections about local politics was supposed to curtail the predicted gains of the Republican Party.
That strategy did not work, and the GOP gains turned into a wave. While midterms are not presidential elections, the new U.S. electoral map may favor the possibility of a trifecta sweep for the GOP in 2016.
We can therefore expect a spirited race for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. And unlike the Democrats, who could claim Hillary Clinton as their nominee early in the primary season (if not before), the Republicans will dominate the news cycle once the Iowa caucuses meet in January 2016. This could favor the GOP if the party veers closer to the political center.
Is it over for Obama? On November 6, Canada’s most respected daily, The Globe and Mail, published an editorial entitled “Obama is still alive and living in Washington.” Yet despite the convincing GOP victory on November 4, U.S. pundits on the Sunday shows have been careful to avoid concluding that the Obama presidency is over. Quite the opposite: spokespersons of both political parties recognize that political gridlock was likely uppermost in voters’ minds on Election Day. Talk of bipartisan immigration reform, tax reform, and an infrastructure rebuilding project was heard on various news shows in the course of the week, thereby keeping Obama potentially relevant in the political mix.
As the dust slowly settles on last week’s terrorist attacks in St. Jean, Québec and the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, it may be a good time to assess the fallout. Overall, Canadians did not panic, and responded with compassion and moderation. The Canadian media avoided the sensational, and stuck to a balanced and thoughtful coverage. Canadian politicians were able to stand above the partisan divide.
It was also a time to reach out to our Muslim fellow citizens. Canada is a pluralistic society that cherishes its diversity. It was a moment to reassert our values and not succumb to finger-pointing or profiling.
Our U.S. friends and partners immediately expressed their solidarity. President Obama called Prime Minister Harper at the height of the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will also visit Ottawa.
In the past few days, observers in the media have tried to make sense of what happened. The how and the why are only beginning to be scrutinized. The theory of the lone wolf terrorist acting domestically appears to be a serious by-product of the war against terrorism. After two soldiers were killed within a 48 hour period, it is now obvious to most Canadians that the homeland is facing a threat where there is no textbook defense or tested, reliable counteroffensive. Granted, the two killers were troubled individuals who apparently became Islamic extremists, but their actions seemed to be motivated by propaganda on the Internet. This is difficult to assess, much less prevent.
Author's note: Following the Boston shooting in April 2013, I wrote about how North America would continue to face the threat of domestic terrorism. Yesterday, Canada's Parliament was assailed by what is described as a "lone wolf" gunman. This was the second attack in a week, and Canada has lost two soldiers to the violence. The gunmen in both attacks, who were killed by authorities, are purported to be recent converts to Islam, though any ties to ISIS remain unclear at this point. Their Canadian passports were recently rescinded. Yet, despite these tragic events, Canada must continue to cherish its freedoms while remaining highly vigilant about security matters. My original blog post from April 30, 2013 continues below.
The last couple of weeks have shown that terrorism, or the threat of it, is not just something we read about in other parts of the world. Occasionally, we recall the events of 9-11, but soon it will be twelve years since that horrible day. However, the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon reminded us in vivid terms how vulnerable a free and open society is to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or imported. Hence, the balance between freedom to exercise our rights in society and the need for security and safety from harm is once again at the center of public policy.
A few days after the two Boston bombers were apprehended (with one killed in the process), Canadian authorities arrested two alleged plotters in Montreal and Toronto—supposedly linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Iran—and accused them of planning to derail a Via Rail passenger train with an explosive device. Although the Boston bombings might appear, for the moment, to have been the work of a domestic “lone wolf” operation, the Canadian incident might have a direct international link. Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament adopted a law giving authorities greater preventive powers in dealing with future threats of terrorism.
As the U.S. nears its mid-term elections, primetime U.S. media events—the recent debate on the war against ISIS, global terrorism, the international Ebola scare, and the pending approval of the Keystone Pipeline—are making top news fodder in Canada as well. The upcoming U.S. elections on November 4, 2014 are no exception.
With President Obama’s low approval rating, will the Republicans take control of the Senate? If so, Obama enters the real lame duck period of his presidency because speculation about the 2016 race will begin immediately after election night ends.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is clearly in the lead for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Not even Vice President Joe Biden comes anywhere close. Other potential candidates, such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Virginia Senator James Webb and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley are marginal, at best. The lack of a real primary contest for the Democrats will make the path to nomination a fait accompli for Ms. Clinton, but it will have the disadvantage of keeping her regularly out of the news cycle. Republicans, on the other hand, are expected to have a real contest with no front runner emerging until late in the campaign.
The paradox is that the Republicans have consistently won the House of Representatives in every election since 1994 with the exception of 2008, when the Obama victory wave swept both houses of Congress. The Senate, however, has been more contentious.
On Tuesday, the Harper Conservative government decided with its majority in the Canadian House of Commons to engage Canada in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS. In so doing, the Canadian government will carry out a mix of air strikes, surveillance, training and humanitarian aid. The mission is meant to last six months, but will be subject to assessment and review within that period. There is, however, the possibility that it could be extended or expanded.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals opposed the move. As requested, the opposition was able to have a full-throated debate, as a sovereign and healthy democracy should.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the case for the ISIS mission using arguments similar to those of U.S. President Barack Obama. Given its senseless violence and genocidal actions, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a brutal, murderous force that has a total disregard for the rule of law and basic humanitarian principles. With some ISIS recruits coming from Western countries such as Canada, Harper argued that it has become imperative for the Canadian government to either collaborate with the coalition abroad or face a more serious problem at home with homegrown terrorism.
The mission is UN-sanctioned, and involves over 50 countries, including key Arab states and our traditional allies, such as the U.S., France and Great Britain. Doing nothing would have been unthinkable: on this, most Canadians could agree. The real question was to determine the nature and the extent of Canadian involvement.
Resisting the rush to war has been a characteristic of the Obama administration since its election in 2008. Avoiding the Bush-Cheney approach, which led to the Iraq invasion in 2003, Obama has been criticized for indifference, detachment and sometimes weakness in dealing with international crises. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are engaged in some historical revisionism regarding their positions in the Obama administration on Syria’s civil war, where they purportedly recommended arming rebel groups against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The complex situation in the Middle East makes it highly risky to rush into any conflict. Obama’s reserve regarding events in Syria is understandable when U.S. intelligence has been less-than-reliable in the Middle East for the last forty years. Besides, America has had its fill of carrying the load and “putting boots on the ground.” This is why President Obama’s recent efforts to pluralize the Iraqi government under new leadership, to build a coalition of Arab states against the Islamic State (ISIS), to support ground forces in Iraq (the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga), and to train vetted Syrian rebels are welcome.
Granted, a war strategy without an exit plan is far from reassuring at this stage, and this war has, as of yet, no definable exit strategy or time limit. The alternative is believing that isolated and defensive measures will be sufficient to beat a group like ISIS—which recruits foreign nationals from the West—and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan group, which is bent on hitting Western targets, including airplanes in full flight. The ideology underlying the tactics of these terrorists will not end without a coordinated multinational effort requiring years.
The results are in and the United Kingdom “no’s” have won a modest but decisive victory in the referendum on Scotland’s independence. The choice was clear, as proven by the sudden resignation of First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP). In his parting remarks, Salmond closed by saying the “dream shall never die;” proving that the tension about whether Scotland will remain a part of the U.K. has not completely disappeared.
No one expects the Scottish nation to abandon its heritage, its pride and its hope for a better future. The SNP believed that this better future would be guaranteed through an independent, sovereign Scotland, rather than as part of the U.K. However, opponents of this option, acting under the umbrella of “Better Together,” made the case for continuing the union. And when opinion polls began to tighten in the latter half of the campaign, U.K. political leadership promised extensive reforms.
It was not long before other constituent parts of the U.K.—Wales and Northern Ireland—jumped at the occasion, asking to be a part of the process for reform. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron responded positively by referring to a wide-ranging constitutional reform effort. Considering that the U.K. has no written constitution and is organized as a unitary state (with one level of government, as opposed to two levels of government with sovereign powers as in a federation), intensive and prolonged discussions regarding the extent of the reforms and some acrimonious debate about jurisdictions are to be expected.
In Canada, we have had our share of constitutional battles, largely provoked by the pro-independence Parti Québécois, including two referenda on Québec independence in 1980 and 1995. While the Canadian model has had little success in stopping the quest for independence by the Parti Québécois, the fact that Canada has had a successful go at making a federal state work for nearly 150 years may be a useful reference for the post-Scotland referendum period.
With only a few days left for Scottish voters to decide about their future in or out of the United Kingdom, the international media hype around Scotland’s September 18 referendum on independence has intensified. The fact that the “yes” side—supporting Scotland’s independence from the U.K.—has narrowed the gap with the “no” side in recent polls only adds to the drama.
The rather complacent British political and economic establishment is now showing serious concern about the potential of a “yes” victory. On the other hand, pro-independence movements outside the U.K. appear enthused at the prospect of a “yes” victory on September 18. Just recently, Catalans in Barcelona took to the streets over their own referendum on independence, scheduled for November 9.
In Québec, pro-independence emissaries from the Parti Québécois (PQ) and Bloc Québécois (BQ) have gone to Scotland in the closing days of the campaign, and are salivating at the possibility that the 307-year union between Britain and Scotland could come to an end. Will a “yes” vote have direct repercussions for the independence movement in Québec? What are the overall implications if the “yes” side wins in Scotland?
In recent days, Michel Coulombe, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), took the unusual step of printing an op-ed in both French and English dailies in Canada warning Canadians of the threat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He notes that Canadian “nationals” who have joined “nationals” of other Western countries in fighting for the Islamic State represent a threat, not only to the Canadian homeland, but to their respective countries. Coulombe concludes by asserting that involuntarily exporting terrorist acts is just as serious as having it on our homeland.
In the United States, war hawks, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, appear on talk shows criticizing the Obama administration for being weak and employing half-measures with respect to ISIS, in a fashion similar to the 2003 pre-Iraq invasion buildup. Talk of escalating U.S. air aids in Syria is now a daily reality. The second beheading of an American journalist will not reduce the pressure.
Even Democrats are beginning to criticize the Obama administration, which has not shown the kind of sure-footedness expected in a time of crisis. Granted, the world is more complicated these days: a war in Gaza—currently in ceasefire, but for how long?—Russian aggression in the Ukraine, a serious outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa and potentially beyond, and now the barbaric, self-declared caliphate—ISIS. Surely, it is difficult to have a textbook response to multiple and diverse crises. Yet, the civil war in Syria has gone on with extremists building their forces, and the U.S. wielding little influence. The ISIS threat of attack is now real and may be what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called “imminent.”
Summer has never been an uneventful period for U.S. President Barack Obama, ever since becoming a candidate for the Presidency in 2007. His dip in political support and public approval often occurs during the sunny months of the summer. This year is no exception.
Events in Ferguson, Missouri, showed that the racial divide in America persists despite the twice-elected African American to the White House. It has been reported continuously in newscast that African Americans have the highest rate of unemployment, the greatest levels of incarceration, and are the most likely to be victims of police brutality. This did not end with Obama’s election and will unfortunately continue beyond. Hopefully, the lessons learned from Ferguson will lead to some improvements in the short to medium term.
Events beyond the borders of America, including the war in Gaza, the conflict in the Ukraine with Russian interference and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a radical Sunni jihadists group intent on creating an Islamic state in the territory of Syria and Iraq—have also affected Obama’s current approval ratings (around 40 percent), as well as his presidency and likely, his legacy.
The war in Iraq, started under the Bush administration, has not resulted in stability as the ISIS has taken large portions of land and destabilized the Iraqi government. In Syria, the civil war has morphed into the rise of a self-declared caliphate by the ISIS terrorists with greater implications for security concerns in Europe and North America. Efforts by the U.S. government to achieve a two-state solution peace settlement between Israel and Palestine are now mired in war. And the crisis in the Ukraine remains unresolved as U.S.–Russia relations worsen.
As we approach the commemoration of the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, is the world safer? Clearly, the answer is no. I was present in New York City at the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and I can attest to the lasting scar on the American psyche. With foreign recruits possibly involved with the ISIS, the Western world, and American security officials in particular, cannot believe that the worst has passed. The fact that the U.S. is now conducting multiple air attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq and in support of the Kurds is indicative that America is changing course in this volatile part of the world. The Obama Administration and the American people have every right to be worried about future homeland attacks or greater involvement in ground conflicts in the Middle East.
In the weeks ahead, it is likely that the Obama administration will ask for wider war powers. It is also possible that U.S. air raids will take place against the ISIS on Syrian soil. In short, we can anticipate an extension of the current conflict.
The savage death of American journalist James Foley has brought the potential horror of the ISIS closer to home. While the Republicans and even to some extent Democrats, Hilary Clinton included, have been critical of Obama’s approach to foreign policy in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, we can expect a closing of the ranks as the threat of the ISIS becomes more imminent to the security of the American homeland.
Events in the Middle East have received their share of coverage in Canada, but never to the same extent as in the United States. This, however, is about to change as Obama addresses the latest turning point—greater U.S. involvement. Certainly, all this could have negative implications for his presidency and his legacy. More important, however, it will also have more serious consequences for U.S. allies as the conflict will surely escalate.
Since the birth of Canada in 1867, Quebec has been an influential player in determining the country’s leadership. Throughout the country’s history, Quebec has played an important role in federal politics, most notably in modern times. Not only have Quebecers (Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin) occupied the seat of the Canadian Prime Minister for over 36 years (1968 to 2006), but throughout those years, the pro-independence movement in Quebec has had a persistent impact on the conduct of federal politics.
Until the 1993 federal general election, it was conventional wisdom in Canadian electoral politics that no party could form a majority government in the Canadian House of Commons without some significant Quebec representation. This changed with the emergence of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which took the majority of seats from the province of Quebec, thereby becoming the Official Opposition. The Bloc went on to become a dominant voice for Quebec in the federal parliament in every subsequent election until the last electoral rendezvous in 2011. It is fair to say that Quebec’s absence within the federal power structure curtailed its influence and gradually resulted in its decline as a player in federal politics over the next two decades.
After a long and dreary winter and an unusually rainy spring, Montrealers have greeted the summer season with the Canadian Grand Prix, a series of elaborate street festivals including Jazz Fest and Just for Laughs, and the traditional national holidays of Québec and Canada. They are part of the usual rituals of summer associated with Montreal.
This year, however, may mark the beginning of a new optimism and a concerted effort at reviving the city—and may make the buzz a year-round reality. At least, that’s the hope.
This past winter, a prominent businessman and executive banker, Jacques Ménard of the Bank of Montreal, Canada’s oldest bank, released a report he had commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) dealing with Montreal’s current challenges and ways to revitalize the city.
Comparing Montreal with other cities possessing similar characteristics, the BCG report presented a ten point revitalization program, including additional powers usually associated with a city’s status as a metropolis, such as greater powers of taxation and greater autonomy.
The activities surrounding the 70th anniversary Normandy landing commemorations on June 6 displayed the tensions between western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper avoided meeting Putin altogether, while other leaders, including President Obama, participated in the minimum photo-ops to honor the sacrifice of those who liberated Europe.
Maybe it is a sign of the times, but I am perplexed by some of the western media’s treatment of Putin. Never mind that he violated international law by unilaterally annexing Crimea this past spring or that he systematically used his Security Council veto to avoid a possible alternative to the atrocious civil war in Syria in its early stages. Now we have a humanitarian crisis that is out of control.
Last September when it was discovered that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, President Obama was faced with a real challenge to his “red line” ultimatum about the use of such weapons in the conflict. With Obama unable to get Congressional endorsement for air strikes to counter Assad’s regime and its tactics, Putin took the lead in the removal of chemical weapons operation, with backing from the UN. The result was interpreted as a successful outcome for Putin and an embarrassing moment for both the Obama administration and the western powers. The general consensus was that Putin put one over on Obama, but few questioned Putin’s real role in the conflict.
Last summer whistleblower Edward Snowden was making the headlines about the U.S. security apparatus’ illegal surveillance on American citizens. Not only did he divulge the National Security Agency (NSA) policy, but he may have revealed information considered damaging to national security. We know the rest. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong, was charged by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act, and eventually received refuge in Russia. An ironic twist, given the repressive nature of the Putin regime, that Russia is now harboring a U.S. charged criminal.
This year represented the twentieth edition of the Conference of Montreal, organized by the International Economic Forum of the Americas. Much like the Davos World Economic Conference held in Switzerland, the Conference of Montreal has become a “go-to” conference. The brain child of founder Gil Rémillard, it provides an opportunity for economic and political actors to discuss, debate and initiate policies and ideas designed to meet the economic challenges of tomorrow. It also sets economic trends and provides a forum for forward thinking.
This year, among numerous speakers and over 3,000 attendees, the conference hosted several featured guests, including International Monetary Fund director general Christine Lagarde, former Obama and Clinton economic advisor Lawrence Summers, and the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Ángel Gurría.
The conference’s theme this year focused on dealing with what organizers call the “next era of growth.” With the Great Recession behind us, there remain concerns about whether the right conditions exist for sustained global growth. It is clear that the financial crisis of 2008-2009 left its scars, and growth patterns remain inconsistent in both developed and emerging economies.
Like so many in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe, I was moved by the commemorative events surrounding the Normandy landing that took place 70 years ago on June 6, 1944. It was a moment to remember the ultimate sacrifice of what journalist Tom Brokaw labeled “the Greatest Generation,” who struggled in the defense of freedom and the elimination of Nazi barbarism. We owe so much to those who fought and to the few veterans remaining. It was a fitting memorial.
In stark contrast to the events surrounding the Normandy landing, a growing controversy in about a prisoner-of-war swap soon became the news of the day. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. combatant who was held captive for five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan, was part of a deal that released five Taliban terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2001.
While the news was greeted with elation in the early hours of its announcement, allegations soon began surfacing that Bergdahl may have actually been captured following a planned desertion. Some of his troop members, who went searching for him and allegedly suffered casualties, took to the airwaves criticizing the deal made by the Obama Administration and brokered by the Qatar government.
On two previous occasions, I have used the Americas Quarterly blog as a space to talk about gun violence. The incidents in Aurora (July 2012) provoked one, and another surfaced when remembering the events of Montreal’s Polytechnique Engineering School in 1989 where 14 women were gunned down. We can also recall Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Dawson College as further evidence that gun violence is still very prevalent. All this violence has occurred on school campuses involving assailants with serious mental problems.
Now we have the sad and scary events in Santa Barbara. As the parent of one of the victims said last Saturday: when will it stop?
This past weekend we were exposed to the YouTube video of the alleged killer in Santa Barbara where six people died and 13 were injured. The footage was chilling to watch and was replayed continuously over various newscasts. The killing rummage was quick and sudden and it surfaced that the assailant purchased his weapon and armaments legally.
It would be easy to say this is an American problem and that we in Canada can only shake our heads in disbelief, especially given that these killing sprees are more frequent in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. However, violence does not stop at the border as we have seen all too often.
The botched April 29 execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett made headlines throughout the world, leading to appeals to either abolish capital punishment in the United States or revisit the methods used to execute by lethal injection (in this case, the nature of the drugs).
Since 1976 (after a brief suspension of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court), over 1,000 people have been executed and over 3,000 are currently on death row. Presently, there are only 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty altogether.
U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the circumstances surrounding the execution in Oklahoma. However, there will likely be little change resulting from this initiative. Obama is not an abolitionist himself, and individual states have the upper hand on this issue.
Proponents for or against capital punishment weighed in on Sunday talk shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week”. The views ranged from limiting the categories of murders subject to the death penalty to the use of drugs tested and approved to avoid future botched executions—not too encouraging for those who oppose capital punishment and want a wider debate.
On April 7, 2014, Québec voters chose to elect a majority Liberal government, and handed the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) its worst defeat ever. Since then, speculation has surfaced about the future of the Québec independence movement.
In his first post-election press conference, Québec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, struck a positive note when he was asked whether the idea of Québec independence (separation) was over. An ardent federalist, Premier Couillard astutely responded that you could not kill an idea. And he’s right both in fact and in tone.
The dream of an independent Québec has its origins in history, from the early settlers who followed Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to the British Conquest of 1760—where the struggle for survival and identity became the central theme within French Canada’s polity for the next two centuries, and beyond.
By the early 1960s, pro-independence political parties surfaced in Québec, in line with the progressive forces dominating the political debate of the day. The so-called “Quiet Revolution,” led by the progressive Liberal Party of Premier Jean Lesage, ushered in dramatic reforms in the economic, health, cultural, and educational sectors. With it came the rise of a democratic pro-independence movement that in 1968 merged into a political party—the Parti Québécois, led by former prominent Liberal minister René Lévesque.
After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec's April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.
Since Hillary Clinton’s visit to Montreal on March 18, Montrealers are convinced that we were in the presence of the next President of the United States. She was her usual, poised self, inspiring with her thoughts, and reassuring with her experience and knowledge. Most polls that make it to Canadian media indicate strong support for Hillary against all potential Republican challengers. So, what can stop her from becoming the first female President of the United States?
For one thing, it is likely that she will face a heavily funded Republican Party and also endure a barrage of attacks ranging from the scandals associated with Bill Clinton’s presidency to the events in Benghazi. Considering the criticisms by more hawkish GOP members like Senator John McCain on Obama’s foreign policies, it will not be long before Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State is associated with such criticisms.
It is clear that the Republicans expect to win both Houses in the 2014 midterm elections, leaving the 2016 victory over the White House as their next target. While factions such as the Tea Party and Libertarians get most of the media’s attention, it is likely that the GOP is already planning to support a more moderate standard bearer to challenge Mrs. Clinton in 2016. With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal, the name of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is already beginning to surface.
The Republican brand has taken a beating in recent years—the Bush Presidency ended poorly and the party seems out of the mainstream on issues such as gay marriage, abortion and immigration reform—and was also decisively beaten by Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, in recent months Republicans in congress have reached deals with their Democratic colleagues and compromised on a budget to avoid another government shutdown. This illustrates a willingness to adopt more moderate positions, which can only help the Republican presidential nominee of 2016.
It may not be as dramatic as “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” but Hillary Clinton’s conference at the Montreal Board of Trade Leadership Series on Tuesday had all the trappings of someone on the move towards the big prize in Washington. Unlike Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Nicholas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, and Rudy Giuliani, who participated in the Series after their active political careers, Mrs. Clinton was seen as a “leader with a future.” Will she or will she not run in 2016?
The event attracted over 4,000 patrons as well as the three major Québec political party leaders, who interrupted their election campaign to listen to Secretary Clinton, whom most of the attendees hoped will be the next President of the U.S.A. She won over the room with her presence, garnering a standing ovation before she even spoke. The conference was composed of an address given by Mrs. Clinton followed by a question and answer session.
In her speech, she spoke about women’s issues and the impact of integrating women into the economy, illustrating how studies show a marked increase in a country’s GDP if women are fully integrated and become active economic participants. It is clear that her work in philanthropy will continue to be focused on helping women in all spheres of human activity. Needless to say, her message was well received by the audience.
During the Q and A session two women, Mrs. Clinton, and the CEO of GazMétro, Sophie Brochu, spoke at length about economic issues, covering topics such as paid maternity leave in the U.S., relations between Canada and the U.S., the crisis in Ukraine, and civic engagement. The discussion was undoubtedly inspiring for many in the room.
If there is one election campaign that usually resonates across Canada outside of a national election, it is the one held in the province of Québec (a federated state). This has been the case since the 1960s when the modern age of Québec politics and the growing impact of television converged. A strong thrust for major progressive reforms advocated by the Liberal government of the day, and the emergence of a strong nationalist fervor dominated the campaigns. The political effervescence of the day resulted in the creation of pro-Québec independence party with a social democratic agenda in 1968. It was named the Parti Québécois (PQ).
In the early 1970s the pro-independence and highly nationalist PQ became a growing force. By 1976, they formed a majority government and committed to have a referendum that would result in an independent Québec and the breaking up of Canada as we know it. Since then, the PQ has been in (1976-1985/1994-2003/2012-) and out of power but when in power, they tend to promote Québec’s political separation from a federal Canada. There have been two referenda in Quebec (1980,1995) and the pro-independence forces have lost both.
In September 2012, the PQ formed a minority government and has worked since then to win a majority by building up support. On March 5, Québec Premier Pauline Marois asked Québec’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the National Assembly for an election to be held on April 7. A majority would give the PQ the reins to push for Québec independence and possibly stronger advocacy of language legislation to protect the French language (Québec’s official and majority language).
The Sochi Games are over and Russian President Vladimir Putin is back to business as usual. The decision to use Russian troops following the Ukraine’s establishment of a new government is reminiscent of Cold War politics and Putin’s disregard for international law.
In reaction, the Canadian government has already chosen to recall its ambassador to Russia. Through President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. government has also warned that there will be consequences to Putin’s response to the change of government in Kiev.
In recent weeks, the Western world has seen the street reaction in Kiev’s Independence Square to now former President Victor Yanukovich’s decision to choose a Putin-directed economic deal over one from the European Union. The violence ordered by Yanukovich to quell the protesters only intensified and inflamed the degree of opposition. Many in the West following the Olympics in Sochi were stunned by how quickly the ‘’street revolution’’ replaced Yanukovich and installed a new government in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution (impeaching Yanukovich and releasing a prominent political opponent were both legal and constitutional).
Certainly, Putin’s objective to present the best face of Russia to the world during Sochi suffered a major setback. While invading and taking control of Crimea may give him the upper hand against a cash–strapped Ukraine with a new provisional government, it does little to show the emergence of a new Russia. Already, the anti-gay law and the release of political opponents from prison depicted the calculation of a ruthless and inward–looking leader.
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.
If there is one issue that has pitted the Canadian government against a U.S. administration in recent years, it has been the Keystone Pipeline XL project. The project is meant to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Final approval of the trans-border pipeline rests with President Obama.
It is fair to say that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping that the Obama administration would decide to approve the project during its first term in office. In addition, the Canadian prime minister showed remarkable restraint when President Obama was facing reelection in 2012, knowing the president had to wrestle with a portion of his political base. Instead, Harper used discreet diplomacy.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer proved to be an effective spokesperson and promoter. Having a strong environmental background, Doer pushed the case in a methodical manner with U.S. legislators and administration officials behind the scenes. The case for Keystone and North American energy security can be compelling.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013--Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
In a recent blog, I described Canada’s new and emerging American economic challenge with our neighbor to the south as it was heading towards energy self-sufficiency with its consequent impact on the manufacturing sector of its economy. While Canada has increased its trade with new partners in recent years and is actively pursuing new markets for its products through free trade agreements, I concluded by saying that the United States remains our number one export nation and this will not change in the near future.
On the political front, there are few relationships more stable and predictable than that of Canada and the U.S. We have fought wars together, have done peace missions together, have shared intelligence on national and continental security matters, and generally have had compatible national interests. The post-World War II years have seen some differences between these two neighbors, but none significant enough to doubt the depth of trust, commonality of interest, and shared commitment. At least until recently.
The current trip by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with a huge delegation of government officials and business people to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, has raised speculation that Canada has steadfastly decided on a go-it-alone policy at a crucial moment as U.S. diplomacy is actively pursuing peace in the region. The reception offered to the Canadian visitors by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is unmatched in recent memory and Prime Minister Harper has reciprocated with an unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s conditions for peace. Some observers in Canada are asking: is Canada more supportive of the Israeli government’s negotiating position than the brokering efforts of the U.S.?
The Canada-Israel bond contrasts with the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Considering the Israeli Prime Minister’s warmth to the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, and his public lecturing of President Obama, Netanyahu’s enthusiastic praise for Harper’s policy seems meant to convey an implicit mistrust of the U. S. government in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Clearly, this did not seem to be a factor in the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip.
Since the Edward Snowden–National Security Agency (NSA) affair exploded in the media last summer, some world leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, have since discovered that they were under some surveillance by the U.S. security apparatus. The negative reaction that followed the German chancellor discovering the bugging of her cell phone is evidence that NSA policies are more than an infringement of privacy if they have created a diplomatic incident with a major ally to the Obama administration.
NSA methods seem to be out of control when a country is caught spying on its allies. Concerned about this type of fallout, the Obama administration, along with its outside NSA review panel, is now considering sweeping changes to existing policies.
Just over the holiday season, The New York Times made the case for clemency for the former NSA contractor. British newspaper The Guardian, which has been the conduit of many of Edward Snowden’s sensational bombshells, called for an outright pardon by U.S. President Barack Obama.
What started out as a “hero versus traitor” debate about the actions of Edward Snowden is now becoming one about whether an individual whistleblower who broke the law while purportedly acting in defense of the U.S. constitution (the Fourth Amendment) should be tried for a 'crime' created by a governmental institution.
If 2013 saw a rebound in the Liberal brand nationally, how will 2014 fare for the ruling Conservatives on the federal scene? A year ago, the Conservative government, despite some good economic numbers, was facing a resurgent Liberal party in the midst of a leadership race with the emergence of the charismatic and likeable Justin Trudeau leading all other contenders. By the end of 2013, Trudeau had established his standing in the polls leading both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and official opposition leader Tom Mulcair.
The Canadian Senate scandal erupted in the spring of 2013, where three Conservative senators were accused of spending irregularities. They eventually left the Conservative caucus and were suspended from their duties. However, the scandal, along with the Trudeau leadership victory, marred what could have been a good year for the ruling Tories.
With the economy undergoing modest growth, most seemed appreciative of Harper’s economic management. And just a few weeks ago, Canada concluded a free trade agreement (yet to be ratified) with the European Union. Still, by the end of 2013, the Tories were facing disapproval numbers hovering over the 60 percent mark, and had 29-30 percent voter choice number (voter intention).
The Tory prospects for 2014 may rest with how the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals perform with their respective bases (generally progressive), and their appeal to disenchanted voters.
Author's Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .
Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.
There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama's legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.
I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.