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Snowden Revelations: Shining a Spotlight on Canada, Washington's Junior Partner in the Americas

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Edward Snowden, who divulged secret activities of the National Security Agency or N.S.A., is now safely ensconced in Moscow. However, the notorious whistle-blower's disclosures continue to illuminate Washington's underhanded and unsavory agenda in the hemisphere, as well as U.S. links to junior partners such as Canada. According to Brazil's flagship news program Fantastico, which got access to Snowden's intelligence, Canada's electronic eavesdropping agency hacked into Brazil's Ministry of Energy Mines in a likely attempt to garner valuable industrial intelligence.

The recent reporting does not indicate what the super secret Communications Security Establishment Canada or CSEC was after precisely, though it is possible that Ottawa has actually been spying on Brazil for years. There is some suggestion, moreover, that the Canadians carried out their intelligence with the active collaboration of the United States. Indeed, the Fantastico report was based on CSEC documents which had been presented at an intelligence conference attended by the U.S. and its allies. According to the documents, Canada worked with an elite group of cyber spies at the N.S.A. when it hacked into the Brazilian Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Though certainly incendiary, Snowden's revelations concerning Canada's wider role in the region should not come as a surprise. Indeed, even before the recent reports about Brazil surfaced, CSEC reportedly targeted Latin America by spying on Mexico in advance of NAFTA trade talks in the mid-1990s. What is more, a Canadian eavesdropping station based at Leitrim, Ontario is said to be aimed at the interception of Latin American satellite communications.

Canada's Growing International Profile

On the surface at least, Canada's far-flung eavesdropping network seems a bit out of character. Canadians pride themselves on being a respectful and inoffensive bunch, and Ottawa does not share Washington's negative interventionist reputation. Yet in recent years Canada has become one of the globe's leading foreign direct investors and the country has eagerly exploited cheap labor, natural resources and the sale of public assets in much of the developing world. Canada is strong in key sectors as banking and mining, though the country also has a strong presence in sweatshop manufacturing, hydroelectric development and telecommunications.

Even as it conducts its big push into the Third World, Canada has pursued one-sided trade agreements which benefit its own corporate sector while sidelining human rights and the environment. Ottawa provides foreign assistance, though it demands that countries submit to a program of structural adjustment as a necessary condition of such aid. "Across industries and across regions," writes Todd Gordon, an author and authority on Ottawa's foreign interests, "Canadian companies, often with the diplomatic and financial support of the Canadian state, are actively displacing indigenous and subsistence communities, undermining unions and engaging in ecological destruction. As a result, they face stiff resistance wherever they go."

Might Latin Americans one day protest Canadian companies with the same vigor as American firms? Such a possibility cannot be entirely dismissed in light of Ottawa's big economic push in the wider region. In tandem with such efforts, Stephen Harper's conservative government has been shifting its aid priorities away from Africa and into Latin America. There, Ottawa has promoted "neo-liberal" style reorganization of the mining sector in Peru and the rewriting of mining codes to benefit foreign investors in Colombia.

Canada's anti-Chávez Leanings

Elsewhere, in Venezuela, Canada has developed its own economic and political agenda. During the Hugo Chávez years, Ottawa's substantial oil and mining interests fell afoul of the nationalist government in Caracas. In 2007, when Chávez demanded new terms for oil projects, Petro-Canada withdrew from the Andean nation. Two years later, Canadian mining company Gold Reserve filed arbitration proceedings against Venezuela after Chávez expropriated the company's gold and copper mine.

Not surprisingly, Ottawa's foreign policy in Venezuela has skewed toward support of the political opposition. Yves Engler, another commentator on Canadian foreign policy, points out that Ottawa invited one María Corina Machado to Canada for talks with government officials and parliamentarians back in 2005. Machado headed up controversial Súmate, an organization which was at the vanguard of the Chávez opposition. Engler reports that Canada provided financial support to Súmate, which was considered by Ottawa to be an experienced group "with the capability to promote respect for democracy, particularly a free and fair electoral process in Venezuela."

To add insult to injury, Canada did little to hide its political leanings upon the death of late President Hugo Chávez. "At this ... juncture," Prime Minister Harper remarked, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better ... future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights." Needless to say, the Venezuelan government was hardly amused by Harper's unceremonious declarations, and sent a formal letter of protest to Ottawa over the statement.

Honduras: Canada's Backward Interests

In addition to aiding opposition forces in Venezuela, Ottawa undertook retrograde and backward policies in Honduras. Within the tiny Central American nation, Canada has been the largest foreign investor in the mining sector for some time. Unfortunately, Canadian mining companies have reportedly been responsible for some of Honduras' worst environmental and public health disasters, including poisoning of local waterways with cyanide runoff no less. What is more, Canadian companies acquire their concessions under dubious means while shunting aside local indigenous peoples. Needless to say, the mining firms underpay their workers, who are exposed to brutal and exploitative conditions.

If that were not enough, Canada has also established a dominant presence in Honduras' notorious garment sweatshops. Within the factories or maquiladoras, female employees have been systematically subjected to sexist, violent and inhumane treatment.

Not surprisingly, Canada was hardly friendly to the progressive government of President Manuel Zelaya, a kind of Chávez protégé who sought to improve the economic and working conditions of Honduras' poor. When Zelaya was toppled in a military coup in June, 2009 Ottawa refrained from offering significant criticism of the regime and lambasted Zelaya for "recklessly" seeking to get back into power. Later, when Honduras finally agreed to hold an election under a climate of fear, Ottawa ignored calls for a boycott and heaped legitimacy on Porfirio Lobo, Honduras' new president who presided over a wave of political repression. In an effort to shore up the corporate sector, Stephen Harper later went to Tegucigalpa to ink a free trade deal with Lobo.

From Venezuela and Honduras to the N.S.A.

In light of Canada's earlier support for anti-democratic forces in Venezuela and Honduras, it is hardly surprising that Ottawa should now be caught spying on another progressive regime, that of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. While the contours of such spying are still unclear, it seems likely that Canada seeks a leg up for its mining companies in South America, and may view Brazil with some political suspicion. Canada's spying agency CSEC may not have the technological wherewithal to fully monitor Latin American governments, though serendipitously Ottawa has been able to profit from highly sophisticated N.S.A. resources.

To be sure, Canada doesn't really have the clout to dominate Latin America politically, let alone militarily, and probably couldn't orchestrate coup d'etats let alone invasions. Nevertheless, Ottawa has been steadily deploying all of the resources at its disposal, including spying and corporate influence, to ensure its hegemony over some of the hemisphere's poorest and most oppressed nations. Perhaps it would be more accurate to view Canada as Washington's junior partner; a nation which adopts a kind of "imperialist-lite" attitude toward South and Central America.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.