Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard .)
I am pleased that we are debating UK relations with Latin America today. I shall divide my speech into three parts. I shall discuss Latin America in general, then talk quite a lot about Bolivia, and in conclusion make some general remarks. Looking at the number of hon. Members here, I think that we can all do the arithmetic and agree the timing so that everyone can contribute.
This is a time of high excitement throughout Latin America. The continent is going though incredible changes at a very fast pace. There is in the air a sense of optimism and, in many countries, of liberation from past oppressions. I have been involved in debates about Latin America ever since I first entered the House in 1983. During that period, there have been terrible times in Latin America, but there have also been times of great hope. I think that now is one of the optimistic times.
One thinks back to the period of dictatorships in the 1980s in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru and one remembers the vast human rights abuses that have happened throughout the continent at various times. Now one sees, not necessarily liberation for everybody, but optimism on a grand scale, particularly for people who have been systematically discriminated against—namely, the non-Spanish-speaking minorities in a number of countries, and the people who suffered under the various dictatorships. It is pleasing to see that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is up and running and is effective. I hope that, if required, we will be able to give recognition, help and support to that institution, because it is important to have it.
Britain has always had a huge relationship with Latin America, not only through trade and investment. Indeed, the Bolivarian wars of independence started in Britain, when Simon Bolivar and de Miranda sat together near Warren street and plotted the liberation of much of the continent from the then Spanish empire. British commercial involvement was huge throughout the whole continent. I therefore find it rather sad to have to say—I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on this—that there seems to be a problem, in that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been systematically downgrading our diplomatic representation throughout the continent and closing quite a lot of embassies.
The Department for International Development has followed suit by leaping to the headline figures that show that most Latin American countries are deemed, in the Department’s terms, to be middle-income countries, which means that the requirement for British overseas aid is limited. We therefore have fewer DFID offices in Latin America than in any other part of the world. Although we still have a substantial programme throughout Latin America, my suspicion is that once the office is closed and representation is taken away, two things happen: first, the accountability of the programme starts to diminish; secondly, the programme is cut altogether. We should be aware of that process. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort and good news on that point.
The United States has traditionally had enormous influence over Latin America. That stems from the Monroe doctrine, which arose after most of the countries in Latin America had gained independence. Essentially, the US sees Latin America as its own backyard, and its intervention throughout the region has seldom been a benign affair. One thinks of the numerous incidents of US military involvement and engagement in Latin America and of the promotion of coups, such as those in Chile and Guatemala.
Trade with the US has always been dominant throughout Latin America, but things are changing fast. Two schools of thought are running throughout Latin America: there are those who want to have direct trade links and treaties with the US, such as those signed by Peru, Columbia and Mexico; but there is also the community of Andean nations debate, which is dominated by Bolivia and Venezuela, which most strongly promote the idea. I hope that the Minister can give us some positive news and that she will encourage the EU to engage directly with the community of Andean nations and negotiate with them, as well as having the bilateral agreements that are currently being made with individual countries.
Huge change is happening throughout Latin America. Essentially, a political debate is going on about the economic and cultural independence of Latin America, and whether its development, growth and future depend entirely on relations with the USA, or whether it will take a much more independent route in the future. For example, a few years ago, Argentina had a massive economic problem: it had huge debts and its economy had collapsed. Now, internally, Argentina has turned itself around; it is much more economically stable and standards of living are rising. Although there are still political tensions within Argentina, it is very much part of the development process throughout Latin America. Likewise, the huge changes that have recently taken place in Venezuela—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about them this morning—show that there are different paths to development and out of poverty. Those paths do not necessarily rely solely on the traditional development of trade patterns; they also relate to the idea of a stronger internal market, a stronger indigenous economy and the ability to break free from the cycle of debt, depression and poverty.
As I mentioned at the start of my speech, behind all that lies the fault line throughout Latin America. The independence movement of the 19th century brought about independence essentially for the settler classes and the colonials who dominated the continent at that time. We now have the growth of non-Spanish-speaking communities, the development of indigenous people and their rights, and demands that their human rights be recognised and dealt with.
Traditionally, Latin American people have migrated in large numbers—mainly to the USA, but to Spain and other parts of Europe as well—to seek salvation, to find work and to send money home. On a recent visit, many people mentioned to me their anger at the way in which the European Union is treating Latin American migrant workers. Some time ago, many hon. Members here today were present in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room when the all-party group on Latin America invited all the ambassadors from Latin America to come and talk to us about their concerns. They were unanimous in their condemnation of the EU ruling that threatens the deportation of large numbers of Latin American people who work in Europe, often as unskilled workers such as office cleaners and in similar jobs. We should think again about that policy. Deporting those people is cruel and inhumane to them, damaging to their economies back home, and damaging to relations between Britain, Europe and Latin America.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Latin American immigrants and migrants to this country from other parts of the European Union make a real contribution to this nation and its economy, but is he saying that he is at odds with his Government’s position and the introduction of the new points-based migration system? Does he agree with the system or not?
We are dealing with two issues here. One is the position of migrant workers in Europe. I personally strongly support the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign as the right way forward, because it recognises that people have been here a long time and that they seek to work and to contribute to our economy and society. That path makes for a more cohesive society. I do have a number of concerns about the points-based immigration system, not least its effect on poorer countries throughout the world. Such a system often sucks out the most skilled and able people when they are most desperately needed in those societies. We must look at that aspect.
I stress that this is a debate not about immigration but about our relations with Latin America. However, since the hon. Member who wishes to intervene represents the area where I grew up and learned many of my political skills, such as they are, I cannot resist the temptation to give way to him again.
And Adams’ grammar school is an excellent grammar school—and partly fee-paying, just for those people on the left of the hon. Gentleman’s party to note.
I am a little confused. A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman appeared to argue against the Government’s position of resettling people in and asking people to return to Latin America. In a second point, however, he contradicted himself by saying that migration to Europe sucked out the best brains from Latin America. Which is it? He seems to be confused.
I made two separate points in response to a very gentle intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who is trying to divert this debate from its true purpose. I do not intend to be diverted. That is the sort of tactic they use in Adams’ grammar school’s debating society, so I am not prepared to go any further down that road. I have made my views clear, but, if he doubts them, he can read Hansard tomorrow.
I was privileged recently to be the leader of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Bolivia. We spent one week there and met a large number of political representatives of all hues. We had an important meeting with the Vice-President of the country, met a number of popular organisations in El Alto, the very poor area just north of La Paz, and went to Santa Cruz to meet those who, for all intents and purposes, are the leading opposition forces. The IPU organised the visit, and I hope that representatives of the Bolivian parliamentary system—probably after the elections later this year—will be able to undertake a reciprocal visit to this country.
The purpose of our visit was to build relations at parliamentary level. The delegation consisted of, from the Commons, my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and myself, accompanied by Kenneth Courtenay, the general-secretary of the IPU, and the House of Lords members of the delegation, Baroness Gibson and Lord Kilclooney.
My hon. Friend may be aware that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Latin American country profiles, Bolivia is restricted to about 10 or a dozen words, in contrast with other countries that are the subjects of detailed analyses. Does he believe that Bolivia’s relatively weak economic status means that, as a priority for the FCO, it is correspondingly low and vanishingly small? Does he regret that?
The British Government. I have just had a very useful conversation with our esteemed Minister, who deals with these matters, and I am sure that she will not mind me repeating it. She is to meet the delegation that went to Bolivia, and we will apprise her of all the details of our visit. Indeed, I have offered her 60 pages of my hand-written notes on it.
Sadly, the Minister declined to receive them. Even though they are written in English, I am sure that they are just as incomprehensible as if they were written in any other language, but I am confident that, at the end of the meeting, she will appreciate the importance of Bolivia as a developing country in Latin America and of according a higher status to British representation there. I look forward to doing that.
I have yet more good news for the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the delegation’s visit, which, as far as I am concerned, was extremely successful, was significantly enhanced by the more-or-less constant presence of both our ambassador to Bolivia, Mr. Nigel Baker, and the Bolivian ambassador to Britain, Señora Beatríz Souviron? Is it not true that the British ambassador’s profile was significantly enhanced by his participation as an international facilitator during the national meetings on the new constitution between the Bolivian Government and the regional prefects?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he says, we were accompanied throughout the visit by the ambassador, Nigel Baker, on behalf of the British embassy, and by Beatríz Souviron, the Bolivian ambassador to the UK, which meant that we had very good advice from them both before and after all the meetings that we held. The visit was also considered to be important because—I believe that this is correct—the British parliamentary delegation was the first national parliamentary delegation to go to Bolivia from any European country for a very long time. There has been an EU delegation, but none from any national Parliament. As a result, we were very well received. The Bolivians felt that the visit was an important recognition of the democratic changes and process in their country. We were able to discuss how we can support and assist that political and democratic change, and I was most impressed by the people whom we met.
There are two images of Bolivia which are fundamentally wrong. If one reads most of the press, one assumes that Evo Morales is some kind of stooge of President Chavez of Venezuela and that Bolivia is tantamount to a Venezuelan colony. That is absolute nonsense—there is no such feeling. There is a feeling of mutual support and solidarity, as there is between many other Latin American countries, but that is now how the relationship is presented in the press. Secondly, although enormous and fundamental political debates are ongoing in Bolivia, it is not true to say that the democratic or parliamentary systems have broken down—quite the opposite. We witnessed pretty robust discussions between the various political groups, but surely the important point is that they were having those debates.
Another fundamental point is that President Morales became the President of Bolivia as a result of popular social movements, including the campaign against water privatisation in Cochabamba and the cocoa growers’ campaign, of which he was an intrinsic part and effectively the leader. He was also helped by the strength of the miners’ unions in several places, particularly Potosi, and the strength of the popular movements representing one of the poorest places in Bolivia, El Alto, a large barrio on the Altiplano above Le Paz. Morales became President as a result of those campaigns and popular movements and, in many ways, he represents the hopes and aspirations of the very poorest people in Bolivia.
Furthermore, Morales was the first non-Spanish speaking, indigenous leader to be elected to the presidency on a popular vote, the highest popular vote ever received by a presidential candidate in Bolivia; and it was the first time that somebody had won in the first round of an election. That is very significant, indeed, and we should pay due respect to it. At a reception organised by the British embassy, somebody who, as far as I can gather, is not necessarily a supporter of Evo Morales or the political process that he represents told me, “Forever, Bolivia will be judged before and after the election of Evo.” His election has been that fundamental to the change in attitudes in Latin America.
The new constitution pursued by the Bolivian Government is being developed through a constituent assembly chaired by a redoubtable lady, Silvia Lazarte, who addressed a meeting in the House when she visited late last year. The constitution is designed to protect indigenous rights, land rights and linguistic rights, to provide education, health, opportunities and hope, and to protect human rights in Bolivian society. This has been met with huge opposition, particularly from the wealthier provinces, mainly led by Santa Cruz, which are opposed to it and to the land reform elements in particular. It went to a national referendum and was approved by just over 61 per cent. on a national vote. The vote in La Paz was considerably more than 61 per cent. and in Santa Cruz and the other opposition provinces, for want of a better word, the result was more or less the mirror reverse of the national result, with around 40 per cent. support for it and about 60 per cent. opposed. Nevertheless, it has been approved.
During the first three days of our visit we were gasping our way around La Paz because we rather unwisely went straight into activities and meetings without taking sensible advice to spend a day acclimatising ourselves to living at 4,000 m. So we got through it, shall we say. We had meetings with the Government, the Vice-President and the Foreign Minister and were able to discuss Bolivia’s relations with neighbours and with Europe.
Bolivia’s relations with its neighbours are obviously important. It has a small population and is a poor country that relies particularly on exports of hydrocarbons and minerals for its survival. Therefore, relations with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru are important. Unfortunately, Bolivia’s history has been one of wars and loss of territory to Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile. There is a continuing problem with the competing claims over the northern part of Chile and how those are going to be resolved. It is not for us to decide how that situation will be resolved: that has to be done bilaterally within Latin America. It is creditable that there has been a series of meetings and quite a good relationship developing between the Bolivian and Chilean Governments. One just has to support that process and hope that something good comes out of it. Bolivia requires good relations to export its crops and goods.
On the democratic developments in Bolivia, we met representatives of all the political parties and had an interesting meeting with the public defender or ombudsman, who is effectively a kind of human rights commissioner. The person we met was impressive. The reports that she had produced on investigations were objective and interesting, particularly the one on the killings in Pando, where a number of people died in a conflict between a group of campesinos and representatives of the prefect. One can say with confidence that there is a strength in the democratic process there and in the inquisitive process through the public defender’s office, for example.
We went to Santa Cruz where we met the prefect, who is strongly opposed to the general trend of Bolivian politics and would not count himself a great friend of Evo Morales, to put it mildly. He complains loudly about the land reform and we were slightly puzzled by that, because it seemed fairly modest to us, in that there is still an enormous land area allowed to be owned under the new constitution and a huge imbalance in land ownership. We urged him strongly to undertake a series of meetings with President Morales and join in the national debate and consensus, because although a constitution has been passed into law, a lot of subsequent legislation is needed before the elections can be held in December. The logjam that exists between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies is not helpful. We urged him to take part in debates and in that discussion. Indeed, we presented him with two whisky glasses, suggesting that he drink from one himself and keep the other for President Morales when he visits, so that they can have a little chat together. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington complimented him on the high quality of the British suit that he was wearing during the discussion.
The other aspect of Bolivia’s future is its mineral resources and hydrocarbons. Bolivia has been pillaged by Spain and by international companies that have taken the silver and tin and paid, effectively, low prices to the Bolivian people. The Bolivian Government have taken into public ownership all mineral resources, particularly hydrocarbons. There was an interesting debate about how Bolivia now goes forward, both in respect of exploration for new reserves of gas in particular, and the exploitation of those reserves.
We spent a day visiting the BG Bolivia gas field near Villa Montes, in the south, looking at the process used to extract the gas from the ground—drying it and cleaning it—after which most of it is exported to Argentina and Brazil. We also had a discussion with a representative of the state hydrocarbons company. Essentially, at the moment the hydrocarbons are in state hands. The companies operating in Bolivia extract, cleanse and export the gas. The process is monitored by the state company, and the extracting company—in this case, BG Bolivia, but there are others, such as Repsol—is paid accordingly. There seemed to be a fairly good practical relationship, although the issue of the funding of future exploration has not been satisfactorily resolved as yet. We hope that it is resolved in the near future.
For me, going to Bolivia was exciting. Seeing what was happening, including feeling the sense of hope and optimism of many of the poorest people—particularly, meeting the indigenous groups that have traditionally suffered the most appalling discrimination, including lack of access to education and the political system—was exciting and made me optimistic.
As my hon. Friend has noted, President Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, in a society in which, in living memory, indigenous people were second-class citizens who were not allowed into certain parts of La Paz and not even allowed to meet a person of European origin and look them in the eye. Do not all the left-of-centre Latin American Governments—those led by Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela—represent groups and ethnicities that have hitherto been marginalised in Latin American society? Is it not important that Her Majesty’s Government look at these Governments not just through purely ideological eyes, but through those of the marginalised ethnic groups and indigenous people whom they represent and put ourselves on the right side of history in supporting the progressive change that they represent?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I first went to Latin America at the age of 19. I remember going to remote towns and villages in Bolivia where nobody spoke one word of Spanish, and they did not feel safe in going—and did not even feel the need to go—much beyond those communities. As far as they were concerned they were surviving and a Spanish-speaking elite ran the politics and dominated the whole country. Things have changed and they are never going to change back. A fundamental, exciting change has happened. The change is not just linguistic: it is cultural, iconic and religious and permeates all the way through society. All of us are going to begin to understand a lot more about the culture of Latin America that has been suppressed for a long time and is now bubbling up to the surface and coming out into the open. That is exciting.
The way that we deal with the change is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said in his intervention, there was a serious attempt at derailing the Government of Bolivia last year and there was a series of stand-offs. A number of things happened. The European Union ambassadors, particularly our ambassador, got involved in trying to promote political dialogue, which helped stabilise the situation, and every one of the neighbouring countries, bar none, took part in an important meeting in Santiago and declared their support for the unity of Bolivia and opposed the idea of any secession of the wealthiest parts in the south and east of the country. The ambassador and others have played a valuable role in that process. I think that I am right in saying that all the members of the delegation concurred on those points.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that there is still a tension between the national Government and the regions? To some extent, I compare that with the tension 10 or 15 years ago between the different regions of our country. That tension needs to be resolved through dialogue and talking, and that is what we—as a neutral nation, as it were—should be promoting in Bolivia.
I agree that the only way to resolve the issues is to accept the need for justice, dialogue and democratic and accountable government. I did not detect any hostility to that concept by most of the politicians whom we met, but I detected a group of people in some parts of Bolivia who are extremely wealthy and powerful and who believe that they need not pay taxes and that revenue should not be used to deal with the appalling poverty that the people on the Altiplano typically suffer. More than half the population survive on less than $2 a day, and living in Bolivia is not cheap.
On the tension between different groups in Bolivian society, more dialogue is certainly necessary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that particular groups should not believe that they have the tacit support of the United States?
US strategy towards Latin America has changed for several reasons. Its economic problems, its obsession with the middle east, and the war in Iraq have taken its attention away from Latin America. The new President and his Administration have not made a high priority of relations with Latin America. This is a period when Latin America can consolidate itself as an entity following the eternal dispute with the United States.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it right, while the British Prime Minister is in Washington talking to world leaders about avoiding protectionism, to call for protectionism in Latin America when almost all Latin Americans, whether in Bolivia or Venezuela, want free trade—albeit fair free trade—to improve their life chances?
I do not remember calling at any time for protectionism in Latin America. I was talking about investment to ensure that hydrocarbon and other mineral resources are properly developed and that anti-poverty programmes strengthen the internal market and internal buying power of people in Bolivia, and about the development of intra-Latin American trade, rather than Latin America’s tradition of exporting raw materials to other parts of the world. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that a considerable body of opinion throughout Latin America is trying to develop the Latin American economy and internal trade. Bolivia’s trade pattern is increasingly with Brazil and Argentina rather than with other parts of the world.
Not at all. I am merely trying to be helpful. Every export that might be prevented could have an impact on British imports. Brazil is our biggest trading partner in Latin America, and any hint of trimming exports or imports would have an impact on both Brazilians and the United Kingdom.
I do not know whether I am missing something here, but I have said nothing of the sort. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. There is terrible poverty in Bolivia and in most Latin American countries. The whole political imperative and process of an anti-poverty strategy is to liberate people from the oppression and depression arising from poverty and from lack of opportunity, education and health care. We should be pleased to witness that, and to support it.
The underbelly of Latin America is poverty and oppression, and the human rights abuse that comes from that. Individual human rights—the right to vote, the right to free expression, the right to free organisation, the right to religious freedom—are obviously important and are enshrined in the universal declaration, but people have a right to be able to live where they are, free from poverty. For many, the only way out of poverty is to escape, and ones sees poor migrants leaving Guatemala, travelling through Mexico to try to get into the USA to survive, but being brutally oppressed at various points. The death rate among migrants is very high. There is a “fourth world” of migrant peoples, and we would do well to recognise that the way to prevent that is to encourage the economic development and anti-poverty programmes that are so important and exciting throughout much of Latin America.
I hope that the Minister will say that the Government take seriously our relations with Latin America, and that they are prepared, if necessary, to upgrade our diplomatic representation, and prepared to encourage DFID to become far more involved in Latin America.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman has concentrated on Bolivia, but he has not said much about his old friend, President Chavez of Venezuela. Does he think that seizing assets by nationalisation, whether in Venezuela or Bolivia, will encourage investment in delivering mineral resources, which in turn benefit the people through trade and exports?
Time does not permit my hon. Friend to expand on the glories and triumphs of President Chavez in Venezuela—[Interruption.] Others among us will do that. Our delegation to Bolivia was greatly aided by my hon. Friend’s expert leadership and his fluent Spanish.
I thank my hon. Friend for that kind intervention. I am tempted to speak at great length about Venezuela and other places, but I will not, save to say that any country has the right to take into public ownership resources, industries and services. That is what a sovereign nation can do. This country has done that. We have just taken several banks into public ownership. Even Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), could not bring themselves to vote against bringing banks into public ownership—[Interruption.] I was there, and I observed what was going on.
I am being extremely careful, but I am sure of my facts.
President Chavez in Venezuela is taking some industries and services into public ownership—I understand that he is minded to take rice processing into public ownership—because he believes that his Government are being held hostage by the administration of those companies and the denial of food supplies. Some of us witnessed the same process against the Popular Unity Government in Chile in the 1970s. Governments have the right to do that.
We had discussions with Bolivia about its nationalisation programme, and about its wish to ensure, by agreement, open negotiation and public contract, exploitation and exploration of mineral resources. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Any country can do that if it wishes, and we must respect the sovereignty of any nation that wishes to take its own path to economic development.
These are exciting times in Latin America, and poverty can be conquered. For the first time, many people can see a pathway out of poverty. I hope that we will respect and support that process, and the cultural liberation that is taking place throughout Latin America, with an even-handed approach that ensures decent, fair and reasonable trade, and that we support the independence of every country in bringing that about. Opportunities exist for British companies in railway development, construction, high technology, machinery and tools, and so on. There are huge development programmes in Mexico and elsewhere in which we could and perhaps should be involved. There is nothing wrong with that, because that is reasonable and fair trade, but above all we must respect the integrity of the nations concerned, and their choice of pathway out of poverty.
I shall try to keep my remarks to 20 minutes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on initiating the debate, which is timely, and I thank him for his generosity in giving way so often. I also pay tribute to Baroness Gibson, Anne Gibson, in the other place, who chairs the all-party group on Latin America and does an excellent job in that role.
The hon. Gentleman, in his concluding remarks, mentioned the word “exploitation” and of course none of us in the House, whatever our political views, would want to see the exploitation of a single person in Latin America, but even if there has been exploitation by some Governments and some states in Latin America, that should not be replaced by exploitation involving the private sector. We need an end to exploitation from whatever quarter.
That leads me to renationalisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is right to say that renationalisation of assets is not only illegal in most cases; it also sends a negative message with regard to future investment. It creates a negative investment climate that international observers, with many places to shop around, might decide to avoid and which would put off would-be investors. The hon. Member for Islington, North himself said that in relation to his trip to Bolivia. There is a big unanswered question in relation to future exploration. It is okay to renationalise assets, but what do people do once they have them? That applies to many countries, not only in Latin America but across the world, once they have taken back state assets. One might even argue that it even applies in this country more recently. What do people do once they have such assets, and how is future investment encouraged?
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) seemed to think that the whole nationalisation debate was about a virility symbol and whether sovereign countries have the right to take those assets. Of course they have that right. The question is whether it is wise to deploy it. If the private sector sees assets being taken with no money being paid for them, that affects not only the minerals sector, which is directly affected, but the whole economy, because other countries will not want to invest in those economies and therefore the standard of living of those peoples suffers as a result.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as he always does. The other relevant point is that there is a direct impact on constituents in Islington, Shropshire and everywhere else represented here, because there are pension investments in those countries and for every industry that is nationalised, there is a direct impact on pension funds in the City of London as well. It is a very worrying step that President Chavez has taken deciding to move into food production and food supply and, as we have heard, to renationalise rice production in his country.
That leads me to land reform which, of course, is needed in Latin America—I accept that. Redistribution of land is needed, but it must be both legal and fair. A sensible period of consultation is needed with the people whose land will perhaps be taken back to the state. A right of appeal is also needed. So often in Latin America we have not seen that. We have seen just the heavy hand of the state moving in and the state saying, “We’re taking land back from you.” There is no consultation or compensation. It is illegal most of the time and it certainly is not fair. Again, that sends the wrong message about Latin America as a continent. Unfortunately, there is a negative halo from certain countries in Latin America, which impacts on the whole continent when other countries are wanting to do the right thing, even with land redistribution and—dare I say it?—renationalisation.
The same applies to free trade. Some countries want global free trade. Some want regional free trade and, indeed, free trade with north America. If those countries, which have elected Governments, want to have a free trade agreement with north America, they should be entitled to do so. They should not have to deal with meddling, either political or through other, more sinister means, by countries that take a different ideological view, as that is unsettling and destabilising for the region. If countries such as Colombia and Peru want to trade with north America, they should be entitled to do so. That is not to suggest that they do not want to trade internally, within the borders of Latin America. I believe that they want to do that as well, but if they want to do both, they should be able to do so without having political machinations set upon them by neighbouring nations or others on the continent.
That is why it is important, as we have heard today—I hope that the Minister will note this—that there is cross-party consensus on real concerns about UK diplomatic representation in Latin America. It was a backward step for the Paraguay embassy to close. Paraguay is a huge country; Argentina is large as well, and to try to run operations in both countries from Buenos Aires is very difficult. If I were, for example, a Paraguayan Transport Minister wanting to construct three new bridges and there were a French embassy and a Germany embassy but no British embassy and a trade counsellor in those embassies, who would I be more likely to call and want to nip round to see to talk about that investment project? From a political, diplomatic and trade point of view, the United Kingdom is losing out for every diplomatic mission that it closes around the world, including in Latin America.
It was rather sad that when the Serious Organised Crime Agency took over from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, it took a different view of the role of drug liaison officers working with Governments in Latin America. I hope that the Minister will speak to her counterparts in the Home Office to ask this question: given that Latin America is still one of the major providers of drugs that end up on our streets and impact on all our communities, and given that there has been a change since SOCA replaced HMRC on this important issue, are we confident that the current level of drug liaison officer support for our embassies and for Governments in Latin America is adequate? I am conscious of time, but I want to touch on two more issues. What would be helpful to you, Mr. Amess? You saw how many people rose to their feet wishing to speak.
To be helpful, Mr. Amess, I shall speak for just three more minutes, first on animal conservation and secondly on human rights. I hope that the Brazilian Government will consider illegal logging. We have seen the demise of the giant otter, squirrel monkeys and macaws. There is also the issue of the illegal shipping of mahogany. According to Nature Conservancy, only 7 per cent. of Brazil’s Atlantic forest remains. Excessive commercial ranching causes deforestation. I am very concerned about illegal logging in Peru, which I visited a couple of years ago. I am especially concerned about the Tahuamanu rain forest. I hope that hon. Members will join me in supporting the WWF campaign to save the declining turtle populations in Colombia, Guyana, Ecuador and Peru. In Chile, the kodkod, one of Latin America’s smallest wild cats, has become endangered, as its habitat is being destroyed.
I hope that the Government will consider the pet trade in this country. I introduced two Bills on the issue in this Parliament, but they were rejected by the Government. One was on the sale of endangered animals on the internet. Endangered animals from the countries that we are discussing are still being sold on the internet in this country and being homed and housed in this country, which is wrong. The Government also rejected my Bill on the sale of primates as pets. Some 3,000 primates are being kept as pets in this country. Many of them were sourced from Latin America. Latin American countries, along with the UK Government, need to do far more if they care about their environment and habitats. Eco-tourism may be a motivation: why should people come to the diminished rain forests—albeit that some of them are saved—if there is no wildlife to see there?
Human rights are improving in some countries, for example, Colombia. I welcome the decline in the number of homicides and kidnappings in Colombia and in the homicides of union leaders. More needs to be done and each killing is unacceptable, but I want to put on the record my recognition of the efforts of the Government of President Uribe. Cuba has not been mentioned. One could argue that it is not really part of Latin America, but it is for the sake of the work of Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I hope that the Foreign Office will look urgently into the case of Church leader Pastor Robert Rodriguez—previously the national president of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers in Cuba—whose trial was due to be held in the past 72 hours. I believe that the charges against him are trumped up and that there should be a fair trial. If Raul Castro is serious about changing Cuba, one of the best things that he can do is allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and set an example by allowing a fair trial for this pastor, who is seriously ill in prison. All that Pastor Rodriguez does is preach the gospel, serve the poor and help his community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has few peers in Parliament in terms of his commitment to the people of Latin America.
What is so interesting about Latin America is that it was the first continent to have neo-liberalism imposed on it, beginning with the coup in Chile on 11 September 1973. It is heartening that the mass of people on whom the neo-liberal experiment has been tried have rejected it, and we can draw some lessons from that as we face the current economic crisis. I will avoid the temptation to praise the 50 years of the Cuban revolution and to be slightly critical of our policy in Colombia, because—surprise, surprise—I want to deal mainly with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country; indeed, the only two facts that I knew about it before I became involved were that it quite often won the Miss World competition and that it never qualified for the World cup. However, I have now dug a bit deeper, and it was a question to our former Prime Minister that got me really interested in Venezuela.
As I said, Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country. We have never been at war with it; in fact, Venezuelans feel historical connections with Britain because of our support for them in the war of independence and because Bolivar lived in London for a time. However, if I were a Venezuelan—certainly a supporter of the majority—I would be slightly uneasy about the British Government’s stance towards Venezuela in the past few years.
Let me begin with former Prime Minister Blair’s reply to my question. He said:
“It is rather important that the Government of Venezuela realise that if they want to be respected members of the international community, they should abide by the rules of the international community.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 873.]
There was no substantiation of those comments, which were not well received in Venezuela. In addition, a Foreign Office Minister was—how can I put this diplomatically?—ambivalent about the coup in Venezuela. I will push it no further than that. We then have the dodgy statistics. Another previous Foreign Office Minister—the Minister’s predecessor—used a series of statistics from something called Transparency International in Venezuela to substantiate claims of corruption there. Unfortunately, some of the personnel who staffed Transparency International in Venezuela took part in the coup against Chavez. The organisation is hardly independent, and I urge Ministers to stop using such dodgy statistics.
It is important to address some of the misinformation that the international and British media have perpetuated about Chavez and the process of change in Venezuela. It is worth knowing that there were no halcyon days of neo-liberalism, when private companies were rampant across Latin America. Venezuela tried the neo-liberal model, but it led to deep inequality and poverty, despite the country’s vast potential wealth. I have checked the figures, and more than 50 per cent. of the population lived in poverty, with 20 per cent. in extreme poverty. One in five children suffered from malnutrition. In 1995—before Chavez—the figures peaked, with 75 per cent. of the population living in poverty. The experiment with neo-liberalism and free-market capitalism was not a success, which explains the victory of Chavez in the late 1990s.
My hon. Friend quoted the previous Prime Minister’s reply to his question, but he has raised questions about the weakness of neo-liberalism much more recently with the current Prime Minister. When he did so, was he disappointed by the barracking and chanting from members of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who are clearly unreconstructed disciples of neo-liberalism and just keeping their heads down for the moment?
I will not respond to that.
There are some other things that I need to put on the record. For ordinary Venezuelans, progress under Chavez has been quite impressive. More than 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Even though oil prices were high at the time, the former Governments did not attack poverty in any way whatever.
Thanks to the Barrio Adentro service, millions of Venezuelans who did not have access to any kind of health service now have access to doctors for the first time in their lives. As a result—this is just one statistic—there has been a massive decrease in infant mortality. Another important point—hon. Members who went to Bolivia will realise the importance of this—is that 6 million Venezuelans have been given access to clean water since Chavez came to power. Educational programmes have also drawn millions of people into schools and universities, which did not happen before.
I am pleased to say that the minimum wage in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, at about $370. An additional 900,000 Venezuelans are now entitled to a pension and to social security benefits, which are set at the same level as the minimum wage. One of the big battles that Chavez faces is with media. The international and domestic media are incredibly hostile to him, but I want to deal with the British press, because that is what we are more concerned with. Mark Twain said that if
“you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed”,
and that is certainly the case with the British press. In the lead-up to the recent Venezuelan elections, an editorial in The Guardian claimed that Venezuela had an “authoritarian government”. The Independent falsely claimed that Chavez
“is threatening to jail a popular opposition leader”.
The Daily Telegraph explained support for Chavez by claiming—this is a really good one—that
“thousands of poverty stricken ‘supporters’ have allegedly been bribed with alcohol and cash”.
The Times quoted Chavez’s ex-partner, Marisabel Rodriguez—a candidate for the Opposition—as saying:
“If he is not a dictator, at least he seems it”,
which is a really penetrating analysis.
Worse, however, is the role of what we would class as the liberal press. The Guardian has spent money keeping correspondent Rory Carroll in Caracas. He had a full-page article extolling the virtues of Chavez’s ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, but she finished up with 1.7 per cent. of the vote in the election. The statement that the British press is unbalanced can therefore be substantiated.
On international trade, the Government can and should improve our relations with Venezuela. Countries such as France, Spain and Portugal have certainly taken the opportunity to sign deals with Venezuela. I am conscious of the time and of the need for the Minister to reply. What I am really asking for is a cool, dispassionate acknowledgment of the great social progress that has been made in Venezuela, which is substantiated by some of the facts that I have given. I ask the Minister to make sure that we do not engage in, or succumb to, the kind of misinformation that we have experienced over the past few years. Instead, we should build a constructive and open dialogue with the people of Venezuela and their leader, Hugo Chavez.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. One and a half hours seems a short time in which to cover thoroughly the many issues affecting a huge continent, but it is good that in this short debate we have been able to raise many aspects of the things that affect the continent and the UK’s relations with it.
The debate is particularly important because in foreign policy terms it is often easy to overlook a region such as Latin America when the daily news headlines are about the latest crisis between Israel and Palestine and the middle east, continuing threats concerning Iran and its potential nuclear capability, geopolitical changes involving Russia and China, and our military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often Latin America is not at the top of the agenda, which is why it is important that Parliament should find the time to discuss the issues. I was, like other hon. Members, particularly intrigued to hear from the hon. Member for Islington, North because of his more than a quarter of a century of interest in the issue, and the fact that he has great knowledge and expertise, having made many visits to Latin America. It was fascinating as well to hear about the recent parliamentary delegation to Bolivia. I feel that when one has visited a place there is additional authenticity when one talks about it, so it has been particularly interesting to hear those views.
Why should Latin America matter to the UK? We have heard a host of reasons, such as climate change and the environment. Apparently more than 20 per cent. of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rain forest, which is sometimes described as the lungs of the earth. Deforestation is a big and pressing issue and it accounts for a large percentage of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. It will grow in importance in the coming years. Indeed, Latin America’s global influence is growing. Brazil, in particular, looks as if it will become a regional superpower. That will lead, no doubt, to discussions in other international bodies. There is already, and has been for years, much discussion about Security Council representation at the UN, and which countries should be entitled to permanent seats. The UK will have to be involved in the relevant negotiations. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) highlighted the political consequences of closing UK missions in Latin American countries, given that the area will grow in global importance.
Other reasons why Latin America matters to us are the drugs trade—most of the cocaine that ends up in the streets of Britain comes from Latin America—and poverty and human rights: problems which, even though they are on the other side of the world and not on our doorstep, should concern all parliamentarians.
Would the hon. Lady include in her reference to human rights the position of women in Latin America, and specifically in Guatemala? I secured a debate on that some time ago, and have asked questions about it more recently. Women in Guatemala are subject to horrific levels of domestic and street violence, rape and murder, and more needs to be done by countries such as ours to promote human rights, particularly for indigenous women, and to help them get access to the Guatemalan system of justice. The position of women there is bleak and dire.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is interesting to hear what he says about Guatemala, which I confess is a country I do not know a huge amount about. It is unfortunate that often in countries where human rights abuses are rife, women suffer the brunt of them. It is certainly important that our Government should do all they can to encourage the promotion of human rights in Guatemala and other countries.
I want to go into more detail about climate change and deforestation. It is staggering to think that nearly 50 per cent. of Latin America—45.9 per cent, to be exact—is forest. That is a higher proportion than occurs in any other region of the world, and, as I mentioned, 20 to 25 per cent. of global carbon emissions come from deforestation there. One might think that avoiding deforestation should be a quick win. It would not require a massive change in technology. However, it is proving very difficult.
I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is conducting an inquiry on deforestation. We recently visited the Congo basin in Cameroon, which is of course on a different continent from the one we are discussing, but gives rise to similar issues. It is difficult for the world community to get the right balance between managing to avoid deforestation while maintaining the rights of local indigenous people who live in the forest. We are not yet anywhere near a robust payment system for the avoidance of deforestation. Brazil announced plans a couple of months ago to reduce deforestation by 70 per cent. in the next 10 years, but that target is not necessarily as high as is needed. Greenpeace Brazil has been critical of it in relation to the level of change that is needed. Indeed, although deforestation had been decreasing in the four previous years, last year it was on the rise again.
Biofuels present another environmental issue. There can be advantages to them in reducing deforestation—Brazil produces a huge amount of sugar cane ethanol, which can be a quite good, sustainable biofuel—but when land, and particularly forests, are cleared to grow biofuel crops any environmental benefit is lost. That is why the Environmental Audit Committee, in a report on the issue, called for the Government to halt the rush towards increasing biofuel targets in Europe. The sustainability guarantees were not in place.
The hon. Lady may know that one of the problems is that the growth in maize-based ethanol has forced up the price of maize, and thus tortillas, which are the only sustainable form of food for many poor people, particularly in central America. Essentially, those people are starving to feed American gas guzzlers.
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food called the growth in biofuels “a crime against humanity”, which is pretty strong and stark language but certainly highlights the scale of the problem. There are many unintended consequences from the production of biofuels, although it may be pursued with good intentions. We need sustainability guarantees, and fortunately there have been recent moves by the Government to establish those.
The cocaine trade in the UK is estimated to be worth about £6.6 billion. Much of that comes from Latin America and in particular Colombia. There are British Government efforts to reduce drug trafficking, of course. I had the advantage last summer, while I was in Cuba, of meeting some Navy officials from our ship Wave Ruler, which is one of the British vessels that patrol in the Latin America region. As well as providing assistance when hurricanes strike, it has a counter-narcotics remit. Those officials were engaged in an interesting conference with Jamaican colleagues about successful strategies.
I note that some good work is happening, but I hope that the Government will recognise that we must fight a continuing battle. While we tackle demand on the streets in the UK we must also tackle the supply side from Latin America. I am sure many hon. Members will have seen the information campaign “Frank” on the television, and it is certainly welcome. However, as well as highlighting the social and health problems of cocaine use, it is important to get across the message about the darker side of funding the trade, such as terrorism, kidnapping and violence.
Hon. Members made some interesting contributions about economic development in Latin America—particularly about improved quality of life in Venezuela, such as better water supply, and a narrowing of the equality gap. However, there is still huge inequality in Latin America. In Brazil the richest 10 per cent. earn 44.8 per cent. of the income, and the poorest 10 per cent. earn just 0.9 per cent. There is a huge equality gap. Many Latin American countries are seen as being in the middle income tier, but that masks the huge poverty that exists there. There is thus still a role for the Department for International Development, and the Minister has a background in that Department to bring to her consideration of the issue.
Finally, on the issue of human rights, the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made an important point: we may or may not agree with the ideological standpoint of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales; none the less, their very election, as members of the indigenous population of their countries, is a great step forward. There are still many human rights challenges in Latin America, and in the context of the support that we give to the Colombian military, in particular, I should like the Government to do more. A recent report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs found that there was widespread and systematic killing of civilians. If we are supporting the training of the Colombian military—if that is what is going on—it needs to be rethought, because there seems not to be an appropriate guarantee that those human rights are being protected. That is one area where we clearly have a little leverage when calling for an improvement in human rights there.
I visited Cuba last year. Given the change of Administration in the United States, I hope that there is cause for optimism in Cuba. I was there before Obama had been elected, but I found a huge amount of optimism in the country. The Cuban people want good relations with the rest of the world. I believe that the internet could be a great leveller in Cuba, because although the country has tried to segregate Cuban and non-Cuban—whether through finance, with a different currency, or through where people are allowed to go—ultimately they cannot keep the Cuban population away from the outside world. The Cubans will eventually find out what they have been missing. It has been predicted for a long time that change will come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He has long championed the cause of Parliament taking a greater interest than we tend to do in the affairs of this region. I share his regret that we rarely have the opportunity to debate a part of the world whose economy, and whose importance in environmental matters and in efforts to alleviate the impact of climate change, will be of increasing importance as the century progresses.
I enjoyed the other speeches made this morning, particularly that of the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). Indeed, I was waiting for the cry, “La luta continua”, at the end of his speech. I was left with the clear impression that, metaphorically at least, he has a copy of the Athena poster of Che Guevara still blu-tacked to his bedroom wall, and that even now he is probably searching to identify who within the current Labour party leadership is the new Chavez, Ortega or perhaps Eva Peron, and thus able to take over the leadership of his party and take it in a direction that would be more to his taste.
I do not have time to dwell on more than a few of the important matters that define relations between the United Kingdom and the various countries of Latin America, but may I begin by expressing agreement with the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about the reduction in British representation in that part of the world? I have long argued that Britain should give a higher priority to our relations with the countries of the middle east, but the overall economy of Latin America compared with that of middle eastern countries shows that Latin America is the emerging giant of the 21st century. However, we have no posts in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay or Surinam; in other countries—for example, in Uruguay—there is still British representation, but it has been cut to a minimal level. That does not go unnoticed by the Governments or the industrial and commercial leaders of those countries. As a result, we are missing out on opportunities for trade and for increased co-operation in action against narcotics, climate change and conservation measures, which were alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin.
We also have wonderful historic ties with that part of the world. When one dips into the history of Latin America, one can find the graves of British soldiers on every battlefield of the wars of liberation. To this day, there are strong ties of affection and friendship between our country and every part of Latin America. For example, although our political relationship with Venezuela has been difficult in recent years, I was delighted to read that Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar youth orchestra of Venezuela will be taking up a temporary residency on the south bank later this year. That will be a truly exciting cultural event for London and the United Kingdom. I hope that, in a small way, that will help improve mutual understanding and achieve better relations between the two countries. In the context of bilateral relations, on behalf of my party I welcome the forthcoming state visit by the President of Mexico. I hope that that visit and the attendance of the leaders of Argentina and Brazil at the forthcoming G20 summit in London will provide an opportunity to strengthen those relationships.
I turn to the prospects for improved trade between the European Union and the countries of Latin America. Three sets of negotiations are in progress at the moment. One is between the EU and Mercosur, another is with the countries of central America, and the third is with the Andean community. The Mercosur negotiations have been on ice since 2004. There are signs that Argentina is moving towards a compromise over some of the outstanding Doha-round issues. Does the Minister believe that there is a prospect of putting new life into the EU-Mercosur negotiations? Will she say whether the Falkland Islands’ economic ties to the continent of south America are likely to be a continuing problem in the negotiations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as he has so little time. Does he not agree that the EU-south American ministerial meeting in May this year in Prague will be an ideal opportunity to make progress on that front? Will he press the Minister to say what progress can be made, particularly in the Doha round, which will benefit disproportionately some of the poorer countries of south America?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and I hope that if the Minister does not have time to reply in detail she will write to Members.
I turn to the negotiations with central America and the Andean countries. Lady Ashton, the trade commissioner in Brussels, has said that she hopes for a successful conclusion to both sets of talks this year. Do the Government consider that to be an attainable timetable? In the context of the two sets of negotiations, how are the Government addressing the concerns expressed by some of the African, Caribbean and Pacific counties, particularly Guyana, about the impact of a wider free trade agreement between Europe and the Latin American nations on the protected access enjoyed by the countries of the Caribbean, particularly for their bananas, sugar and rum? Exports from those small, vulnerable Caribbean economies are of enormous importance to the Commonwealth nations, and the Minister needs to make it clear where the Government stand.
Narcotics are still a huge problem. There is no doubt that smugglers and traffickers are extremely well organised and are willing to use ruthless violence to defend their interests, and their tentacles spread across the Atlantic. Indeed, reports in today’s press suggest that yesterday’s assassination of the President of Guinea-Bissau may be linked to the narcotics trade between south America and west Africa. We know that the Government are putting a lot of work into assisting the Colombian authorities to combat drug trafficking.
Will the Minister say whether the Government and the Serious Organised Crime Agency are making efforts to reach out to the Government of Venezuela; and, if so, what response they have had from the Venezuelan authorities? A report in The Daily Telegraph in June last year cited senior British drug officials as saying that more than half of all cocaine reaching the United Kingdom came via Venezuela, which was often used as a transit point before the drugs went on to west Africa and then Europe. Is that the Government’s assessment of how that trade is carried on, and if so, what representations are they making to President Chavez about action that surely is in the interests of both our countries?
Finally, I urge the Government to continue to take the issue of human rights seriously; to urge serious reform upon Cuba; to stick to their guns when standing up to electoral malpractice, as in Nicaragua; to congratulate and work with countries that challenge the culture of impunity, as Argentina has begun to do in recent years, and to speak robustly to friendly countries, such as Colombia, which has been struggling to exist as a democratic nation against an utterly ruthless, well-organised and drug-financed terrorist group. Having said that, however, it is undoubtedly true that real issues remain around the persecution of trades unionists and human rights defenders in that country. Sometimes, the promises and good will expressed by the Colombian Government are not translated into practical effect in improved human rights at grass-roots level. I hope that the Minister will continue to give those issues a high priority in the formulation of Government policy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing today’s debate, which provides hon. Members with a welcome opportunity to discuss the UK’s relationship with Latin American countries and the importance of the region as a whole. In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate on some of the main headlines, but I am more than happy to write to, or meet, hon. Members to discuss the matters raised.
A strong Latin America is in everyone’s interests—both the millions who live there and the people of Britain. The Government regard our relationship with the region as important, not least because of its contribution, which we want to see as a positive one, to the many global challenges that we share, and which we have heard about today, such as sustainable development, climate change, international crime, including the supply of drugs, respect for human rights and poverty and inequality. We are working closely with the region as we tackle those shared challenges. The visit by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to Bolivia unearthed some of the excellent work being done. For example, 35 royal, ministerial, senior official and parliamentary visits have been made to and from the region since the start of 2008. That is evidence of the interest that we take in the region.
My hon. Friend raised some questions about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s strategy paper, “Latin America 2020”, which sought to demonstrate why Latin America matters to the UK and the world. The issues that it discussed remain relevant. However, since the strategy was issued, we have developed a whole new approach, which provides greater clarity on our global role and how we follow through our strategic priorities. Many of those priorities are relevant to Latin America: for example, the prevention and resolution of conflict; the promotion of a low-carbon, high-growth global economy; the development of effective international institutions; and building respect for good governance and human rights, for which hon. Members rightly asked. Our essential goals apply across the Latin American region and help to support the British economy, British nationals abroad and managed migration for Britain.
Of the 20 generally recognised Latin American countries, the UK runs a balance-of-trade deficit with 11. Does the Minister agree that the scope for greater trade with south America is huge? What extra efforts can the Government make in that respect?
I would certainly agree. My visit to Brazil showed me those great opportunities to which hon. Members have referred. All our posts in the region have very clear business plans. Cross-Whitehall mechanisms exist, especially for our Brazil and Mexico strategies, but we can do more, and UK Trade & Investment plays a big role in that.
We are very engaged with Bolivia, and I am pleased that the delegation got so much out of its visit. I look forward to meeting its members to discuss in more detail their views and perhaps how we can move forward. We are fully supportive of the democratically elected Bolivian Government, but as hon. Members saw, fundamental political differences remain between factions in Bolivia, which poses many challenges. It is important for the country’s future that their Government and Opposition continue to be in dialogue, and I am glad that the referendum was carried out well and peacefully. I thank hon. Friends for their generous comments about the role played by our ambassador in the process of national dialogue; he remains available if asked to act as an international facilitator. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) raised the issue of Venezuela; as he knows, we value our relations with that country.
Before we leave the subject of Bolivia, will the Minister pass on to Home Office Ministers the concern that we heard in all quarters in Bolivia about the introduction of a visa regime for that country? There is a feeling that not enough consultation has been carried out, and there is great unhappiness.
I am happy to draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of the Home Office, but there was considerable discussion of the visa waiver test. On Venezuela, many discussions were held on how we can ensure that countries fulfil their obligations and that we are satisfied that the right level of visa security is applied. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet could apprise her of all that.
I want to emphasise, as I have done before, how much we welcome President Chavez’s emphasis on policies to help the poorest and most vulnerable people. We engage with the Administration on the many social justice initiatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet will be aware. We have also tackled drug trafficking and corruption; have promoted and protected British business; and we look after Britons in need of consular access. We work very closely, and will continue to do so, with the Venezuelan authorities. He also asked about information and misinformation. I shall continue to draw information from a broad range of sources, including non-governmental organisations and hon. Members.
I would like to address a few key points about Foreign Office post closures. Posts in the region have indeed been closed—Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Paraguay—but there have been no closures since 2005. Those closures followed the publication of the December 2003 White Paper, when the FCO needed to undertake a review of our overseas network, as I am sure that hon. Members realise, to ensure that we used our resources to best effect. I was interested in Opposition Members’ comments on post closures, and I am sure that they will want to clarify whether they will pursue that spending commitment, should they ever be in a position to do so.
We have appointed British consuls in each of countries where posts were closed to ensure continued consular cover. I do not feel that we suffer compared with EU missions; we have only a slightly smaller number than comparable countries. Perhaps I can clarify for the benefit of the hon. Member for Panama City—the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—that we still have an embassy there. We continue to use new and flexible ways of providing the necessary services to develop regional networks, and at the core of that work is our aim to ensure that our relationships with the region remain close and productive. Tackling poverty and inequality is crucial to the work of the Department for International Development. Our DFID Latin American spend has increased, and the new approach has been widely welcomed by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam and other NGOs.
This has been a useful debate. I have been unable to refer to many issues, but I am glad to reassure all hon. Members that we regard our relationship with Latin America as crucial and developing, and I look forward to working with them in pursuing our objectives.