Canadian Foreign Minister Joe Clark and the Central American Peace Process
In the late 1970s, civil wars erupted in El Salvador and Guatemala; a ‘Sandinista Revolution’ gripped Nicaragua. Thousands of Central Americans died; large refugee flows ensued. The Foreign Ministers of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela responded in 1983 by creating the Contadora Group. Prime Minister Trudeau’s government declared support for that initiative.
Central America had not been prominent in the platform that brought the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives to power in Canada in September, 1984. By contrast, he – and his Foreign Minister Joe Clark – had a clear mandate from Canadians to improve relations with the USA.
Just days after taking office, however, Clark told the UN General Assembly: “Canada rejects the extension to Central America of East/West confrontation.” The Reagan Administration did not welcome Canada’s position – then, or subsequently.
In 1985, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay formed the Contadora Support Group. Clark declared Canada’s support, as he did in 1987 when Costa Rican President Arias and other Central American leaders reached the Esquipulas II Accord – a successor to Contadora.
Historically, Canada played a limited role in Central America. Our interests were considered marginal; the 1823 Monroe Doctrine had asserted U.S. regional primacy. Nonetheless, Clark chose to radically ‘upscale’ Canada’s focus on Central America by engaging the peace process, while impressing on his U.S. counterpart (Secretary of State George Shultz) during their many meetings, that Contadora and Esquipulas enhanced regional stability prospects.
Clark believed in fostering public awareness and debate via Parliamentary engagement. He frequently elaborated to the House of Commons on Canadian support for Central American peace. He did likewise in speeches across Canada during the critical 1984-1989 period. Not surprisingly, therefore, the 1986 Special Joint Committee of Parliament’s review of Canada’s International Relations received more submissions on Central American peace than on any other single issue (including South African Apartheid – another outrage against which Clark was mobilizing Canadian resources simultaneously). In 1988, extraordinarily for a Minister, Clark invited all parties to create a Special Committee on the Peace Process in Central America.
Clark oversaw considerable increases in Canadian aid funding to the region, including significant support for the conduct of elections. He named numerous Canadian observers to those elections. Refusing to endorse the USA’s trade embargo of Nicaragua, he approved that country’s request to open a Canadian Trade Office, and received Nicaragua’s Vice-President in Ottawa (notwithstanding U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams’ criticism of Canada for “shoring up Nicaragua”). He met with Central American Ambassadors to discuss concrete ways of assisting the process, and corresponded with their Foreign Ministers.
In November 1987, Clark visited Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In addition to ministry experts, he took with him senior Canadian military leaders, who thereby became positioned to work with Central American leaders to design a peace-keeping model.
Canada, West Germany and Spain were invited in 1988 to monitor any peace plan – with Canada leading, principally due to our UN peacekeeping expertise. In the end, the structure of ONUCA (the UN Observer Group) closely mirrored Canada’s recommendations. We contributed 40 military observers and eight light observation helicopters with crews and maintenance support.
In1989, bolstered by the sense of ‘belonging’ that flowed from our activist engagement with the Central American peace process, Canada finally joined the Organization of American States. Costa Rican President (and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) Oscar Arias came to Canada that year, thanking us for our significant contribution to peace in Central America.
By: Roy Norton, Ph.D., Senior Policy Advisor to Foreign Minister Clark from 1984-1989, with responsibilities that included Canada’s Central America policy.