Ambassador Cameron MacKay couldn’t have picked a better time to come to Costa Rica.
The 42-year-old career negotiator for the Canadian Foreign Service arrives in Costa Rica just as talks are beginning for a new trade agreement with the Costa Rican government. Canada is also seeking to conclude the negotiation of a joint trade agreement with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, referred to in the negotiations as the Central American Four.
MacKay – who will serve as ambassador to Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua – brings a wealth of experience in negotiating international agreements. He has worked on bilateral and multilateral negotiations relating to the environment, fisheries, border control and trade, and most recently, served on Canada’s negotiating team for the Central American Four talks.
Born in Prince George and raised in Vancouver, both in the province of British Columbia, MacKay studied economics and industrial relations at McGill University in Montreal and environmental studies at York University in Toronto. He spent a couple years traveling through Asia until he joined the Foreign Service in 1995.
MacKay arrived a month ago in Costa Rica with his wife Deidre Kent, his 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. He sat down with The Tico Times last week to talk about the Canadian government’s priorities in Central America, the upcoming trade agreement, and his other goals for his time here.
How are you settling in?
I think Costa Rica is fantastic. It was my top pick for a post. I am thrilled to be here. I had traveled here before for business about a year and a half ago and my wife had been here 20 years ago as a tourist. We were both really keen to come and, so far, it has met all our expectations.
What is the greatest misconception abroad of Canada and Canadians?
I think very few non-Canadians really appreciate how diverse Canada is. It’s not just all snow and ice. Starting with the geography, we have everything from temperate rainforest, to vast prairie and forests, to the arctic, to deserts.
It’s a country of immigrants, so we have people from all over the world. There are more than 100 languages spoken in Toronto, and about 50 percent of the residents of Toronto are immigrants. Vancouver has more than 70 languages spoken in the street and about 50 percent of the residents of Vancouver don’t speak English at home. They speak some other language, usually an Asian language. …(This) has produced an incredibly diverse culture, cuisine, and diverse economic and cultural ties all over the planet. So whenever someone asks me, what is Canadian food like, or what are Canadians like, it’s a really hard question to answer because the whole world appears in one way or another in Canada.
You come just in time to work on renegotiating Costa Rica’s Free-Trade Agreement with Canada.
Exactly. And we have ongoing negotiations with Nicaragua and Honduras. I am not the negotiator anymore, but I’d like to help those (processes).
Can you speak about the proposed changes for the free-trade agreement?
The Canada-Costa Rica Free-Trade Agreement has been a great success. It was implemented in 2002. Canada was one of Costa Rica’s first major free-trade partners. We are very proud of that. Since then, trade between the countries has more than doubled. Both governments consider the trade agreement to be very successful, as it has created new wealth on both sides. Since we negotiated in 2002, Costa Rica has completed comprehensive trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, and most recently China.
The agreement we had in 2002 was a goods-only agreement; a first generation agreement. Last month we had the Canadian minister for international trade – the honorable Peter Van Loan – and he met with (Costa Rican) Foreign Minister René Castro and Foreign Trade Minister Anabel González. They all agreed that we should look again at this first agreement and how we can improve it. What we would like to do is expand it to cover new areas. Negotiators will be looking at areas like services, government procurement, financial services. All of the things that weren’t covered in the first agreement. … Another key issue for us in the free-trade agreement is to make sure that it supports high labor and environment standards. I think that is important on both sides.
What are the primary goods traded between the countries?
Everything from building materials, agricultural products, processed food products, certain manufactured products. It’s a broad array. Canada exports pretty much everything. We import from Costa Rica agricultural products: fruits, vegetables, coffee and some textiles and apparel.
You’ve arrived during a controversy over the Crucitas gold mine, owned by a Canadian mining company. What is your evaluation of the issue?
I am new enough that I haven’t even met with representatives of the company and there is not too much I can say because it’s all before the courts. What I can say is that the Canadian government is very proud of our mining industry. We think the mining industry has made a positive economic contribution in Canada and in countries around the world. Canadian companies play by the rules. We expect them to. We have a clear policy on corporate social responsibility. We would like to work with the company and with the government of Costa Rica to find a way forward on this.
What are your goals for your time here?
My mandate is really quite clear. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has (emphasized) that the Americas are a foreign policy priority for Canada. As part of a broad strategy, there are three pillars guiding Canadian foreign policy here. The first is the consolidation of democracy. The second is the promotion of prosperity and the third is cooperating to ensure security.
More specifically in Costa Rica, I think many of my priorities were discussed last week by Trade Minister Van Loan, that we want to work with Costa Rica to implement the air services agreement, to implement the Youth Mobility agreement, to enhance people-to-people ties, especially among young people; to build on the existing FTA.
How do you plan to improve Canadian-Honduran relations after they cooled following Honduras’ June 2009 coup?
In Honduras, clearly there have been major problems on the governance side over the last year. Canada has worked very hard to try to get Honduras back on track. I will be continuing to work in that vein; to try to work to consolidate democracy there. Through the trade negotiations, we would like to create new economic opportunities for Canadians and Hondurans. And finally, Honduras is a country of focus for the Canadian International Development Agency. We are looking at expanding our presence and expanding our programming on the development and cooperation side.
What’s your stance on the state of democracy in Nicaragua?
We have had some concerns in the past and we have always been transparent with the government of Nicaragua when we have had concerns. We have an open relationship with the government of Nicaragua so when we have a problem, we are not shy to discuss it. In the future, if we have concerns, again, we will not be shy to share them with the government of Nicaragua just as we expect the government of Nicaragua to share whatever concerns they have with us. That’s an important part of effective diplomacy.
In Nicaragua, we have the trade negotiations. We would like to conclude them. We really think that liberalizing trade investment will create new opportunities, help strengthen the economy and promote economic growth. The Canadian business community is doing well in Nicaragua, including on the mining side. We have a good development cooperation relationship with Nicaragua and an office there. To give you an example, the Canadian government, with the Nicaraguan Mines and Energy Ministry, is working on a joint program that we hope will provide electricity to 100,000 people in rural communities.
It’s tough to be in all three countries at once. How often do you see yourself in Nicaragua and Honduras?
First I should explain that we have the full embassy here, but we have offices with staff in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Canadian government has an office and a presence there. We have top quality staff there. Myself and the whole team here travel pretty frequently. The head of the political section is in Nicaragua today. I am looking forward to spending lots of time on the plane, traveling, and I would like to get there as often as I can within budget constraints. My responsibilities there, in both countries, are important as they are here.
What are you looking to address in terms of serving Canadians living in and visiting Costa Rica?
We get more than 100,000 Canadian tourists to Costa Rica every year. Beyond that, some organizations estimate there are as many as 10,000 Canadian residents in Costa Rica – who have some kind of residency status. We have a big community of Canadians here to serve.
The embassy provides full consular services to any Canadian who needs them. We have a very experienced consular team. One of their principal services is providing passports. Frankly, we have had issues with a high number of Canadian passports being stolen, which causes us great concern because we don’t want those Canadian passports in the wrong hands. We’ve also seen in the last year, the last six months, that when there are major consular events, national disasters such as in Haiti or Chile, the Canadian Embassy has a very important role to play in terms of assisting the Canadian community after an event like that. Based on that, I want to strongly encourage Canadians living in Costa Rica to register with the Canadian Embassy. If we don’t know where you are, we can’t help you.
The important thing to know is that (the embassy staff) are all here to help. Whether it’s tourists who need a passport or business people who want to create new contacts in Costa Rica or Canadian residents here who want a service from the embassy. We are all here to serve. We can’t work miracles, but we will do everything we can to help enhance their experience in Costa Rica, and in Honduras and Nicaragua.