I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I am grateful for this timely debate. I do not often speak about Latin America, but it is registered in the “Dod’s” directory as one of my interests. I am a long-standing member of the all-party parliamentary British-Latin America group, as well as chairman of the newly formed APPG on Venezuela.
As I said, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on the situation in Venezuela. Latin America is an area of the world where Britain has a myopic view—partly due to the continent’s Spanish and Portuguese colonial past, and partly due to its own sense of history in relation to those two European nations and, of course, the Vatican. It is in British interests that there is a change of outlook on South America, Latin America and Venezuela, particularly given our exit from the European Union and the need to build new international bridges. Latin America is an important part of the planet that we should be mindful of in protecting the wellbeing of this fragile place that we all inhabit. I appreciate that our South American relationships have been somewhat skewed—rightly so, in my opinion—in terms of protecting the UK sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
Although the issue of Venezuela has been a concern for a while, it landed on my constituency doorstep when constituent Andrea Adamson came to see me in June. Her son, Adam Cowell, of Oswaldtwistle, died of cocaine poisoning due to its purity. That unnecessary death in Hyndburn recently led the local coroner, Michael Singleton, to say:
“I can tell you from the inquests that I have recently conducted, and those that are going to be conducted by me within the next few weeks, that this is reaching epidemic proportions.”
“I am becoming increasingly concerned with the number of young people who are dying from cocaine toxicity.”
In relation to Adam’s case, the pathologist said:
“At the time of post mortem there was 8.4 micrograms of cocaine per millilitre of blood.
That is very high, anything over one is potentially fatal.”
The coroner said:
“I have been doing this job for 25 years and this has reached phenomenal levels.”
Mr Singleton went on to make a searing criticism of the UK’s failure to tackle the cocaine epidemic. His comments are online.
This so-called party drug has been responsible for the deaths of at least 17 young people in the Lancashire district in the last nine months. I promised Andrea that I would raise the issue of cocaine dealing, trafficking and production locally, nationally and internationally, for they are all part of one deadly supply chain.
This was a Daily Telegraph headline as long ago as June 2008: “President Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela has become the key trafficking route for most of the cocaine sold on Britain’s streets”. The report stated:
“Anti-drugs officials estimate that more than 50 per cent of all the cocaine consumed in Britain has been trafficked through Venezuela—under the ‘revolutionary’ regime of Mr Chávez. The figure could be as high as two thirds.”
In 1998, the last year before Mr Chávez came to office, Venezuela’s security forces made 11,581 drug-related arrests. By 2005, that had plummeted to just over 1,000, and the figure remains low to this day. That journalistic piece highlighted the Venezuelan gateway for cocaine into Europe and the United Kingdom. It alleged that Mr Chávez’s Administration had
“a longstanding relationship with Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These guerrillas fund their insurgency by smuggling drugs”.
Back in 2008, The Guardian reported from FARC sources in Colombia
“that powerful elements within the Venezuelan state apparatus have forged a strong working relationship with Farc”
“that Farc and Venezuelan state officials operated actively together on the ground, where military and drug-trafficking activities coincide.”
The allegations were that the Chávez regime, alongside the Venezuelan military, supported the FARC rebels with military equipment in exchange for cocaine.
In 2012, The New York Times used radar information—when we look at the radar maps of flights out of Venezuela, we see that it is remarkable where they go—to show that Venezuela was
“one of the world’s busiest transit hubs for the movement of cocaine”,
with FARC Colombian guerrilla rebels able to operate “with…impunity.” The drug is coming from Venezuelan airports, not from inside Colombia. The flights by and large go to Honduras; it is going to the Caribbean and on to the United Kingdom.
In 2014, Reuters reported that the “Venezuela drug trade rings alarm bells”. It reported on a major French seizure:
“Hidden in a large ochre-colored container, the 1.4 tonnes of cocaine got past two dozen army checkpoints during a 500-mile journey from the Colombian border to the Venezuelan capital.
The drugs were stored for several days at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas, then placed in 31 suitcases with false name-tags and put on an Air France flight to Paris on Sept. 10, 2013.
Ten days later, French police announced the biggest cocaine haul in their history—the shipment was worth about $270 million—after a meticulous operation involving French, British, Spanish and Dutch authorities.
The foreign agents kept Venezuelan authorities in the dark.”
The problem for the Minister and the Government is that the flow of drugs from Venezuela into this country continues unabated to this day. Only recently, during our general election, Spanish police seized more than 2 metric tonnes of cocaine—£1 billion-worth—from a ship with a Venezuelan flag in the Atlantic ocean.
There are ample stories of cocaine seizures, but the UK and EU Governments seem to have little success in stemming drug trafficking from South America and Venezuela in particular and to be unable to take firm action against a corrupt narco regime. The UK Government have had enough signals. Mr Chávez halted co-operation with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration way back in 2005.
Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—UNODC—stated that Venezuela has become more important in recent years as trafficking organisations move Colombian cocaine overland across a porous border and take advantage of the busy maritime traffic between the coast and the islands of the Caribbean and Europe.
In the UK, we have seen rising purity levels for cocaine, along with ease of supply and vibrant demand. My constituents and their families are bearing the brunt of that. Our own National Crime Agency identifies Venezuela as a producer country and a major transit country for cocaine coming to this country.
Early last month, The Times ran a warning headline: “Pure cocaine fuels rise in drug deaths”. Deaths linked to cocaine jumped by 16% between 2015 and 2016 to a record high of 6.4 deaths per million. That sharp rise was widely reported across all media. The Office for National Statistics report said:
“The National Crime Agency reports that there was a significant increase in both crack and powder cocaine purity at all levels in 2016, including user-level, which may partly explain the increase in deaths relating to cocaine.”
A decade on, little seems to have changed. The Chavistas continue, through the new President, Nicolás Maduro, to facilitate and funnel cocaine to the west. Last November, two of Nicolás Maduro’s nephews were convicted in a New York court of attempting to smuggle 815 kg—about £350 million-worth—of cocaine into the United States. Throughout that trial, details emerged suggesting that high-level Venezuelan officials had serious involvement in the drug trade. The court heard that the President’s nephews intended to use the presidential aeroplane hangar at Caracas’ international airport to move the drugs. It also heard that “government executives” and the Cartel of the Suns were the “only ones who worked” in drug trafficking in Venezuela, and that they were
“in charge of fumigating [eliminating] anyone who tried”
to get involved in the drugs trade in Venezuela.
Venezuela is a narco-state and the UK cannot have a policy of “do nothing”. The US Administration have acted. They have imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami for facilitating shipments of narcotics on board planes leaving a Venezuelan airbase, as well as controlling drug routes through Venezuelan ports. Since appointing Mr El Aissami to the post, Mr Maduro has granted him expanded powers, including over the economy and expropriating businesses. The Guardian reported:
“Venezuela’s top convicted drug trafficker, Walid Makled…said he paid bribes through El Aissami’s brother to officials so they could turn a blind eye to cocaine shipments that proliferated in Venezuela over the past two decades of”—
so-called “socialist rule.” In March, the US Administration also announced sanctions against eight corrupt Venezuelan Supreme Court justices for stripping the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers.
Mr El Aissami joins a long list of senior Venezuelan Government officials who have been sanctioned or indicted by US law enforcement for complicity in drug trafficking to the United States. That includes Minister Néstor Reverol; the former head of military intelligence, Hugo Carvajal; sitting Governor, Henry Rangel Silva; former Interior and Justice Minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín; and several others. It also includes Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela—Maduro’s party—and an alleged member of the Cartel of the Suns.
Before briefly turning to the economic turmoil, which has been widely reported and I am sure colleagues want to speak about, I ask the Minister why it has been left to the US Administration to take action against this rogue regime, which has been operating with impunity for many years. When will the UK Government look into this issue in the interests of my constituents and UK citizens, and publish their findings? What measures can the UK Government take independently, as well as with the EU, on implementing individual sanctions? Finally, will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office facilitate a much-needed parliamentary visit to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for eloquently setting out the woeful conditions in Venezuela and the very human impact that that regime has on people’s lives not only in Venezuela but in this country as well. In my previous life I prosecuted serious organised crime gangs, including drug traffickers. Will he join me in wishing that all Members of Parliament, including his leader, would condemn the Venezuelan regime and spread the message that anyone buying cocaine in this country is supporting organised crime?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. I say to her that it is the Government—her party—who are in power, and I am asking the current Government to tackle the situation on the streets of the United Kingdom. I can speak for myself and I condemn the regime, as I have done.
I want to turn briefly to the economic and political situation. I asked the House of Commons Library to update Members of the House and am grateful that it has done so. I am also pleased that it provided a debate pack for Members before the debate. It does a marvellous job and we should all thank it for that.
Venezuela is an economic basket case. Despite more than $1 trillion of oil revenues and billions of dollars from narco-trafficking and remittances, it is possibly the most mismanaged economy in modern history.
My hon. Friend describes Venezuela as a socialist state. It is in fact yet another failed communist state, and shows the inability of a command economy to run the economy properly or, indeed, to feed its people. We should note that as well as huge revenues, it has the world’s largest oil reserves; but oil production is going down because of failed management.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a failed authoritarian communist state, but are not all communist states authoritarian in their outlook? It is certainly a basket case.
I do not need to elaborate on the stories from Venezuela that we have all witnessed over the summer and before. Recent political events have been condemned by all—the UN, the EU, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the South American trading bloc Mercosur and Venezuela’s neighbouring countries. Importantly for Opposition Members, and coming to my right hon. Friend’s point, Socialist International has also condemned the Chavista regime, and we stand alongside our sister socialist parties in opposition to the Venezuelan regime.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that in politics there is sometimes a clear right and wrong? When any President in effect abolishes a Parliament that opposes him and replaces it with a lapdog Assembly, there is only one side—whatever President Trump or anybody else does—for democrats and those in this House who believe in human rights to be on regarding that issue: condemning that action of abolishing the Parliament.
I, and Members of this House, do condemn the actions of the Maduro Government. My hon. Friend alludes to the point that we must not conflate power and the powerless. These are the decisions of those in power, not of those who are powerless—the protestors—and it is the regime that we should condemn, not the people of Venezuela.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing such an important issue forward for debate today. He talks about condemning, and over the summer he suggested himself that the Leader of the Opposition would condemn the human rights abuses in Venezuela “in his own time”. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with his leader’s response to date?
The response from the Labour party Front-Bench Members has been a condemnation, and I am pleased with the words put forward by them in condemning this. I reiterate that this is the Government’s responsibility. They won an election; it is now for them to resolve this issue and for us, as Opposition Members, to put pressure on them. Let us not conflate the two.
The humanitarian situation in Venezuela is calamitous. The scarcity and shortage of food and medicines are making Venezuelans’ daily lives a nightmare. Record high inflation and the systematic destruction of the commercial and industrial sectors are only making things worse. Criminality and political violence are the norm.
As chairman of the British-Latin America APPG, I am absolutely delighted in the hon. Gentleman’s debate. May I urge him to look at the misery of people trafficking and the record numbers of displaced persons who are now living in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia? In fact, we now have more people displaced from Venezuela than from Syria. That is a shocking statistic.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I cannot cover all aspects of the issue in this debate, but the misery of those who have had to flee Venezuela to neighbouring countries is considerable. I think we underestimate the numbers involved and are not fully aware of the scale of the problem of those refugees who have had to flee for their own safety into neighbouring countries and the pressure that puts on those countries. The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) rightly identify those who are poor, dispossessed and being forced to flee, but is not the additional tragedy of Venezuela that many with university educations and technical skills are also fleeing because of the breakdown of civil society inside Venezuela? That is a long-term tragedy for that country, which, because of its natural resources, should be a very prosperous state.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is probably the most mismanaged country in the world. As a result, it is experiencing a brain drain: those who are educated are leaving Venezuela, because the regime is strangling intellectuals’ careers and the economy, and because their human rights are being undermined and they are being persecuted for taking part in demonstrations. Many of them are taking the decision to leave, which is having an adverse effect on Venezuela.
Venezuelan cities are the most violent in the world. Gangland violence, political brutality and drugs have taken hold as the economy collapses. The motorbike militia are quite frightening, and seem to operate hand in hand with the Maduro Administration to oppress the people of Venezuela. Inflation is at 720%, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is expected to surpass 2,000%. Rather than cutting budgets and raising taxes, the Chavista Government have borrowed from their communist allies Russia and China at high prices, and have resorted to printing money. The value of the Venezuelan bolívar has plummeted 99% against the US dollar since Hugo Chávez came to power.
The crunch will come later this year when Venezuela’s debt repayments come due. According to the World Bank, Venezuela has run a budget deficit in 15 of the last 17 years, and over the last four years, that deficit has averaged about 15% and climbing. Most of Venezuela’s reserves—what little it has—are in the form of gold, so in order to make debt repayments this year, Venezuela shipped gold bars to Switzerland. China has bailed out Venezuela by loaning it an eye-watering $60 billion, but now, according to analysts, even it is reluctant to give its Latin American ally more credit. Despite all this borrowing and huge receipts from legal and illegal exports, the country remains in dire straits. Food prices are soaring and hospitals are broken. If Members want further information, there are some good illustrative examples in the House of Commons paper provided for the debate.
Transparency International consistently ranks Venezuela as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The House of Commons Library briefing paper states that former president Hugo Chávez
“inherited a weak economy which deteriorated further under the initial phase of his Presidency”,
with an average fall of 5.1% in economic performance, which was finally offset only by significant increases in world oil prices. Its modest rises in GDP between 2004 and 2008 were financed solely by rising oil prices. Oil accounts for 98% of total exports and 59% of official fiscal revenues.
Economic problems were exacerbated from 2005 onwards, when so-called unproductive land was nationalised, along with strategic industries including electricity, steel, cement, tourism, telecommunications, agriculture, oil services, and food distribution. By 2013, the World Bank ranked Venezuela 160th out of 185 nations for electricity availability, and 185th out of 185 for paying taxes.
We must question how Chávez’s daughter, Maria Chávez, has amassed a personal fortune of $4.2 billion. The Bolivarian revolution has spawned many “boligarchs”; the presidential palace, according to elected opposition members, costs more than $3.6 million a day to run. Such profligacy extends to the state oil company, whose US subsidiary, as reported in April by The Guardian, donated $500,000 to Donald Trump’s inauguration. All overseas trade is currency-controlled. Since 2003, the Chavista Government have controlled currency. The real currency rate is now thought to be 700 Venezuelan bolívars to the dollar, but those needing dollars require a Government permit.
As the economic situation deteriorates, the dollar is becoming the de facto currency, yet poor people cannot access it, which means they cannot access many basic goods that must be imported. The four Government rates, including what can only be described as mates’ rates, are just another means by which the Chavista elite can gain material advantage. Corruption and incompetence have been endemic throughout the Chavista regime. According to Transparency International, when the state oil company, PDVSA, took over a programme to buy food in 2007-08, more than
“1 million tons of food were bought for US $2.24 billion, but only a little more than 25% of the food was received. And of this figure, only 14% of the food was distributed to those in need. At one port alone, 3,257 containers with a total of 122,000 tons of rotten food were found.”
The United Nations says that President Maduro, the country’s leader, is responsible for “widespread and systemic” human rights abuses. The UN has said that blame for the oppression there lies
“at the highest level of the Venezuelan Government”
and slammed Maduro’s use of excessive force. More than 5,051 protesters were detained and 1,000 are still in custody after months of clashes, according to Foro Penal. Some 600 cases of torture have been referred to the International Criminal Court; according to the Casla Institute, 70% of torture cases involve sexual assault. There are 620 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to the Organization of American States, and 73 people have been killed by security forces during protests, according to UN High Commission for Refugees. The UN states that violations include house raids, torture and ill-treatment.
Before I conclude, it is worth briefly mentioning democracy in Venezuela. Although elections take place, the Government spend most of their time manipulating the law—either breaking it or changing it—with the sole intention of undermining the opposition. That has gone on for a considerable time. The line dividing state and the ruling party spending has been erased. Citizens and organisations loyal to the Government get most state jobs, contracts and subsidies, while overt opponents get nothing or are locked up. Proportional representation has been manipulated and mayors sacked to favour the PSUV.
I would like to ask the Minister about UK nationals caught up in Venezuela. My constituent Judith Tregartha-Clegg is worried that political turbulence could leave her daughter stuck in the country. She states:
“A few airlines have been cancelling flights out of Caracas because of the trouble and some just won’t fly there anymore.”
She expressed her worry and her daughter’s about the journey to the airport. She has received no support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so far. What support have the UK Government given to UK nationals living in Venezuela? Do they have a plan to evacuate all UK nationals from Venezuela if the situation deteriorates?
Judith has described to me the dire situation. Her daughter now lives in the town, as their home was taken over by squatters following 2006 legislation allowing for requisitioning of property. It is not safe outside urban areas. Schools do not have teachers, because they have not been paid.
In summary, condemnation is not enough. The UK Government must show resolve through tangible actions that will put pressure on President Maduro and his allies to respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The UK Government should lead on targeted sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan Government responsible for drug trafficking, human rights violations and breaches of democracy. Those sanctions should include: freezing any UK assets belonging to those individuals; preventing UK individuals and companies from doing business with them; enforcing a travel ban against them; enforcing a ban on exporting weapons or any equipment that might be used for internal repression in Venezuela. I note that we give Venezuela export licences for military equipment. Surely that must stop.
Those are not economic sanctions against Venezuela. It is important that the UK targets the regime and not its citizens. Can the Minister update the House on what progress he has made in introducing sanctions, and when we are likely to see some? Many thanks for your patience, Mr Stringer; I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing today’s debate, which is as timely as it is important.
We work in the shadow of George Canning, whose statue stands in Parliament Square and who gave moral and material aid to the nations of Latin America as they emerged from the wreckage of the Spanish empire. Since then, Great Britain has always taken an active interest in the continent’s affairs. There has been so much progress in recent years: Latin America is more prosperous and more free than at any time in history, and nations such as Colombia and Chile stand as shining examples of what the continent can and should be.
In Venezuela, however, chaos reigns. The gross economic mismanagement that the hon. Gentleman referred to means that inflation is running at more than 1,000% this year and is forecast at more than 2,000% next year. That kind of inflation guts an economy and a society. It brings with it the incalculable miseries that we have already heard discussed today. Some 82% of Venezuelans live in poverty. Businesses have been ruined. Unemployment stands at more than 25%. Life savings, and with them any chance of a dignified retirement, have been destroyed. There is not enough food for 90% of the population, and there are shortages of basic medicines.
According to the Venezuelan Government’s own data, infant mortality rose by 30% last year, maternal mortality rose by 65% and malaria jumped by 76%. The people, understandably, are desperate for change, but they face naked political oppression. The utterly illegitimate Constituent Assembly has sidelined the opposition-led National Assembly. The Supreme Court has been expanded and packed with Government supporters. Just since April, at least 73 people have died at the hands of the security forces and pro-Government groups, and a further 51 deaths are unaccounted for. Opposition leaders have been arrested and dragged off in the dead of night. Dissenting TV and radio stations have been censured and shut down. We should be in no doubt that this is a tyranny.
With that in mind, will the Minister inform us what pressure the Foreign Office is exercising on the Venezuelan Government to reinstate basic democratic norms? What dialogue has he held with neighbouring Governments in Latin America to promote and co-ordinate regional pressure on Maduro? What further steps will we take at the United Nations following the report issued by its Human Rights Office on 30 August that calls for the regime to release demonstrators who have been arbitrarily detained and to end the use of military courts to try civilians? Finally, can British influence be brought to play on President Putin and the Russian Government not to bail out Maduro as the calamitous consequences of his rule bring his regime to its knees?
Closer to home, I am clear that we in Westminster have our part to play. I hope that colleagues will join me in utter condemnation of the Venezuelan Government’s actions and in deploring the likes of early-day motion 1278 of 17 April 2013, which
“congratulates…Maduro for his victory in Venezuela’s…Presidential elections”,
praises his continuation of
“Chavez’s Socialist revolution”
and urges the then Prime Minister
“to extend an invitation for…President…Maduro, to visit this country at the earliest opportunity.”
There were just 13 signatories to this nonsense—unlucky for some. Among them were the current Leader of the Opposition, the current shadow Chancellor and the current chair of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
For some historical context, allow me to read the assessment of Venezuela made by Human Rights Watch just one month before that early-day motion:
“the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.”
Lenin used to gloat about useful idiots to his cause. I call it grotesque. Either the signatories are blind to the point of crippling naivety about the ruin that Chávez and Maduro have unleashed on their country or they are complicit in actively misrepresenting the regime to the world as some kind of socialist paradise. That matters because the right hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) head the alternative Government of our country. The signals that they send out by their failure to condemn the terror, murder and totally avoidable economic ruin are powerful ones, and are wholly unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He mentioned some statistics about deaths. I am informed by the Library that there have been 124 deaths during clashes between police and protesters. The crisis in Venezuela is not just economic but political, and it is entirely self-made. Democratic institutions are being torn apart and there are violent clashes on the street. Does he share my disappointment that the Leader of the Opposition holds up Venezuela as a different and better way of doing things?
I think my cold war credentials are fairly clear, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman and some other Members who have made interventions are fairly new to the House. Do they recognise that one can make a greater advance by uniting across party lines on issues of common agreement than by trying to score cheap political points? The points speak for themselves, but what we need is a united attitude from the British Government and the British Parliament on this issue. He is not getting the balance right.
I am afraid I totally disagree. The Leader of the Opposition speaks for the right hon. Gentleman’s party, and he is absolutely and totally mealy-mouthed in refusing to condemn violence by the regime. He talks about condemning violence by all sides. What does that mean to the victims of this monstrous tyranny?
Let me try to bridge the gap between the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and Conservative Members. Is there not, indeed, a great deal of agreement in this Chamber about the woeful conditions in Venezuela? Is not my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) simply saying that it would be nice if the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition joined us in condemning Venezuela and the way in which it is treating its people?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for the importance of standing up to these people. Will he therefore join Labour Members in calling for the Government to do what the American Government have done and introduce a travel ban? Perhaps they could come up with some practical suggestions for sending a strong message that this House universally condemns human rights abuses, and then actually act on those suggestions. The need to take the plank out of one’s own eye before looking at the splinter in somebody else’s is a wise thing to remember in this place.
On this issue, the splinter in the eye of the right hon. Member for Islington North is a large one. However, I am perfectly happy to look at practical steps that could be taken to bring the regime to some form of account. I see the Magnitsky Act in Russia as an encouraging precedent that we should seek to follow. We need to hold those at the very top of the regime to account for their actions, but it is also important that the moral lead set by the Opposition—
I am asking the Minister for an update on precisely those issues: the steps that the Government are taking to hold Venezuela to account. However, at least we on the Conservative Benches are absolutely crystal clear that what the regime is doing in the name of socialism is profoundly wrong.
I close my remarks with a message of heartfelt solidarity with those who are fighting to keep the flickering flame of democracy alive in Venezuela; with an utter condemnation of President Maduro and his associates; and with a call to the leadership of the Opposition to show some belated moral clarity about the true nature of the regime that they have supported for far too long.
I never thought that I would speak in a debate on Venezuela, although I am interested in what is going on. The international issues that I become involved in are normally determined by the concerns of my constituents, whether the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the Ahmadiyya Muslims.
I became involved in the issues of human rights and the terrible economic conditions in Venezuela through football—not the wonderful Latin American game, but the league one game. Ivor Heller, the commercial director of my team, AFC Wimbledon, contacted me to ask what could be done to help his partner Lisa, her Venezuelan family and the great Venezuelan community in south London. I had the opportunity to meet members of that community a fortnight ago and many of its representatives are listening to this debate. So I gently say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) that their anxieties and distress about the starvation and murder of their families is much greater than our own inter-parliamentary and party disputes.
I would like to give a few pen portraits of the people I met, and of their families. I would like to tell you about my constituent and neighbour, Marifel. Her brother is a surgeon in a Venezuelan hospital and he faces complications beyond anything we can imagine in our healthcare system. Marifel showed me a photo of him holding a torch to carry out an operation due to the regular blackouts in the hospital. And that is just the beginning. In her own words:
“Patients need to bring everything with them, from bed sheets to surgical gloves and antibiotics. The x-ray machines are not working and nor is simple equipment to take blood pressure. You may think we are talking about a hospital in a war zone”.
Those deplorable facilities face the country’s worst healthcare challenges in decades. Diphtheria has come back after previously being eradicated, malaria has multiplied tenfold since 1999 and maternal mortality has increased by 67% in the last year alone—I could go on.
Jennifer tells me that her grandmother had a severe stroke three months ago and that she feared the worst. Fortunately, she is still with us, but the doctors treating her told her that the medicines she needed were no longer available. Jennifer has resorted to reaching out to friends in Spain, Chile and Colombia to locate, purchase and transport the medicines that her grandmother needs to survive. Similarly, Erika, who has joined us here to watch the debate, spends every night praying that her mother will be able to obtain the blood pressure pills she needs to survive.
Those terribly sad stories are the real-life examples behind the 87% shortage of food and medicine in the country. Last year, three quarters of the Venezuelan population lost an average of 19 lb because there is so little food. The annual inflation rate is expected to rise to 1,100% by the end of 2017 and the family food basket currently costs almost five times the monthly salary of the majority, leaving 82% of the population in poverty.
Leana contacted me with her story behind the shocking statistics. Her mother sends a monthly care package and money to her family in Venezuela, as they cannot afford to live on their salaries. The prices of the items they can actually find in the supermarkets are too high, and those who cannot afford food are eating out of rubbish bins. Day-to-day survival is their primary focus. Militza’s nephew and niece missed 60 days of school last year because of the street protests; they live in fear and desperation, yet many of their peers do not even reach school age. It is estimated that 54% of children suffer from malnutrition, and infant mortality has risen by 30% since 2012.
Compounding the extraordinary levels of poverty are world record levels of murder across the country, with a staggering 78 homicides per day. Thamara contacted me to tell me that her brother was kidnapped by a violent gang but luckily managed to escape. Unfortunately, the younger brother of María, who also wrote to me, was murdered. No investigation has been conducted and no justice served.
Without doubt, Venezuela is in a state of humanitarian and economic crisis that we simply cannot ignore. Democracy has been breached through the illegitimate Constituent Assembly, and the regime should be condemned loud and clear. I have not all the answers, or perhaps any of the answers, but I know that there are 5,000 British-Venezuelan citizens in our country who look to us, our Parliament, our parties and our MPs to show leadership and concern for them and for their families. I hope we can show that today.
Hon. Members have made absolutely evident the problem we face regarding Venezuela, so they will forgive me if I do not repeat the claims and statements that have been so clearly pronounced. Members on both sides of the House have rightly condemned the brutality of the regime and have called for the UK Government to do more, and I welcome the opportunity to hear the Minister’s views on that. I also look forward to hearing how he is working with our European partners—as they still are—on getting joint action, particularly on the sanctions and prosecutions.
If I may be permitted one small reminder: the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) focused on her constituents and she is, of course, right that that is what we are here to do, but it is also right that we remember that these distant places are not so distant. The drugs that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) spoke about kill people in our country. The drug money that goes back into the FARC pays to train the IRA—at least it certainly used to—and that brought death to the streets of Northern Ireland. The links between the UK and South America may appear distant, but they are not. Our history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) described, links us to the revolutionary era and the end of the Spanish empire. Our present, through air, communications, friendship and marriage, links us to some of the most wonderful people in the world, in some amazing countries in one of the most beautiful continents but, sadly, also to the destruction, the failure of Governments, the abuse and the violence caused by people like Maduro.
So today, we should perhaps remember some of the names that deserve to be mentioned, not the ones that should be forgotten. We should remember names such as that of Leopoldo López, who has done so much for the cause of democracy in Venezuela, and that of his wife, Lilian Tintori, who has been refused permission to enter Europe to talk to the leaders of some of our European partners by an abusive and despotic regime.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on bringing the debate to the House, thereby giving us all the opportunity to be involved. We are not here to point the finger; we are here to look at the situation in Venezuela and, for me, the focus, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, is on poverty and human rights.
I have an interest in the issue because the political situation in Venezuela is clearly precarious, and it is my belief that there is a sincere need for intervention from this House, to help where possible—the Minister will tell us about that shortly. Regarding human rights and poverty, the statistics that were sent to many of us highlight the dire straits that innocent people living in the country face daily. There is 80% poverty—it was 40% when Chávez came to power and the oil price was only $9 a barrel. As the parliamentary briefing states, hunger is rife, with 12.1% of the population eating fewer than three meals a day—I wonder how many of us could deal with that every day of our lives—and the Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition estimates that 30% of school-aged children are malnourished. We need to look at what we can do to assist the children—either through the Government or by bypassing them—in whatever way we can.
In its May 2017 report, Caritas, a Catholic non-profit organisation working in Venezuela, found that, in the four states it surveyed, 11.4% of children under five were suffering from either moderate or severe acute malnutrition—a serious issue for families. Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report stated that infant and maternal mortality rates were rising sharply. Some 85% of medicines are running low, and Venezuelans face shortages in everything, from vaccines to rice and bread. Diphtheria had been eradicated, or at least they thought it had gone, but it is back. The incidence of malaria is up by 79% and the number of cases of the Zika virus is rising. It cannot be denied that there are acute health issues.
The International Monetary Fund estimated Venezuela’s budget deficit to be 15% of GDP in 2016, and the Government have monetised the deficit by printing money—my goodness me, how silly and completely out of control—which has led to soaring inflation. Official figures have not been released since 2015, but the IMF estimates that the annual inflation rate was 255% in 2016 and, as has been mentioned, that it will rise to 1,100% by the end of 2017. After more than $1 trillion in oil revenue, the country has tripled its international debt and there are real concerns about its ability to meet its obligations on that international front. GDP has fallen by a third in the four years since 2013 and unemployment stands at 25%. To many people those are just statistics, but it is real, cold life for those in Venezuela.
Many jobs have been destroyed and most of the population works in the informal economy. People are going hungry every day; many are forced to rummage through rubbish bins to find food. The country was once one of the richest in middle America. It has fallen so far down the league of economic stability that it is in dire straits. The UN has just published a report stating human rights have been violated extensively in Venezuela—I want to speak about that in the short time I have. The Independent reports that Venezuelan security forces have wielded excessive force to suppress protests. They have killed dozens of people and have arbitrarily detained 5,000 since April, including 1,000 still in custody. Instead of easing off, they are getting stronger. If ever there was a time to have a debate on Venezuela, it is now. As the UN report further shows, more than 100 lives have been lost in the struggle for democracy, with 4,000 people wounded, 5,000 detained illegally and some brought to military tribunals, often in inhumane conditions, and in some cases tortured. That should not happen in this day and age.
The UN has investigated 124 deaths in connection with demonstrations against President Maduro’s Government. It found 46 deaths attributable to security forces and 27 to pro-Government armed groups. These are armed militias—terrorist groups—doing the Government’s work under the table, behind closed doors or with balaclavas on, or however we want to describe it. It is clear that action must be taken.
Reports state that the Attorney General had to flee the country, leaving in flux one of the major stabilising effects of the rule of law and justice. He had to flee, which shows the level to which law and order has fallen.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the loss of life. Some is state-sponsored, but much of it is a result of the breakdown in law and order. I want to bring to the House’s attention the numbers of people losing their lives as victims of people trafficking, which is off the scale. These are some of the most vicious people-trafficking gangs anywhere in the world. They have no intention of trafficking people: they take their money and kill them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he has clearly illustrated the issue of people trafficking. It is one of the most wicked, depraved, violent and evil activities that takes place. Taking people’s money with the sole aim of killing them, as he described, illustrates the extent to which law and order has broken down and how much the Government have lost control.
When we look further afield, we see that the US and Mexico have frozen the assets of 22 top Government officials, including President Maduro. It has been reported that while previous records indicate the absence of any major assets, several now show millions of dollars stored in foreign banks. We are all entitled to our wages, but that is nothing short of theft and literally taking food out of the mouths of children in that country. That money could and should be used to supply the food and medications that are needed for children and families and to try to restore law and order in that country. I ask the Minister the same question that I suspect others have, although perhaps in a slightly different way. What steps can we take to freeze the assets of those with bank accounts in this country and then use them for the welfare of others?
One case brought to my attention is that of a 23-year-old violinist, Wuilly Arteaga, who played the national anthem on the violin during street protests. Wuilly was arrested and put in jail. His crime was instigating violence and having an incendiary substance in his possession. Since when was a violin considered an incendiary substance? That clearly tells us that the Government there look upon any kind of protest as something they simply cannot take. He was tortured in prison. Amnesty International was alerted and secured his release after 19 days of wrongful imprisonment. Again, that illustrates the type of thing taking place.
It is abundantly clear that this situation is a time bomb. We have an obligation to act and not simply provide aid, which I believe we must do. We need to provide aid and get it to the people who need it, irrespective of Government, but also ensure that it reaches the proper destination and makes a difference to the children who are malnourished. We must also get medication to those who need it—for example, the blood pressure tablets that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned. We must also seek to support the cause of democracy—we all believe in democracy, freedom and liberty—and exert any pressure that we can to see a real democracy in operation. The fact that the President of Venezuela has asked the UN for help to address the crisis must allow us a door to hopefully bring about change. Let us use it. Let us hear what the Minister, our Government and our allies—the United States of America or Mexico—are doing to bring about change. I ask the FCO what steps we are taking to help Venezuela at this time of great need.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate, which is of personal interest to me and some very close friends. The recent political history of Venezuela has not often been the subject of debate in this place. There has been too much subtlety when there should be clarity, and strong opinions when it is obvious that there are many complicated and intractable historical issues at play: issues not only in Venezuela, but across the South American continent, as it seeks—I paraphrase Linz and Stepan—to overcome the problems of democratic transition and consolidation in the post-colonial and cold war era.
The violence of the summer has been troubling. The deaths of many, thousands injured and the brutal Government crackdown, including the arrests of thousands of mainly peaceful opponents and demonstrators, as well as members of the Venezuelan National Assembly, can lead to no other conclusion than that the Venezuelan Government, their military and police forces have lost any democratic mandate they were seeking in July.
Let me be clear on behalf of the Scottish National party: we call urgently for an end to the violence. Venezuelans and the political parties that represent them have a right to protest, but the democratic process must be put back on track. I am sure we all hope that the United Kingdom Government and the Minister here today can work with the European Union and other allies to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis. Those of us who have taken a keen interest in Venezuela over many years will have found something sadly inevitable about the recent events we have seen there, as a democratic deficit, economic mismanagement, and human rights abuses have combined to create a crisis that we have not seen in the Americas for more than a decade.
There is also something inevitable about the way that many in this place have used and continue to use Venezuela to prove narrow political points. I know from speaking to enough left-wing opponents of the late President Chávez and also Maduro that ideology is not the principal driver in this crisis. I will say something about the right in a moment, but the leadership of the Opposition can be criticised for the way in which they have ignored legitimate critiques of the Venezuelan regime and continued to lend it their support until long after it was credible for them to do so. Unlike many of the Chávez fanboys, from whom we would expect this sort of thing, they should have a good enough grasp of Spanish not to fall for the dismal, knee-jerk anti-Yankee propaganda that the regime of Maduro and the late Chávez put forward. But let us not fall either for the nonsense put forward by those on the right, which somehow derives from the tragedy the belief that social radicalism is doomed always to fail. The example of one south American country that I personally know best, Brazil, shows that right-wing parties seeking to take the left to task on corruption often find themselves equally as culpable.
The examples of Chile and Bolivia, while not themselves perfect, show that progressive Government and the responsible stewardship of national resources mean that the problems we see in the Bolivarian Republic are not inevitable. Venezuela, as does the continent of south America, carries the scars—on its landscape, in its cities, and in the hearts of its people—of a legacy of nearly five centuries of colonial exploitation. The United States, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries, must carry much responsibility for that, but it is wishful thinking on a grand scale to think that they are the only villain in this piece. The elites, both political and economic, must face up to their repeated failures and impoverishment of the Venezuelan people. That President Evo Morales of Bolivia is the only indigenous leader of a South American state shows that there are much deeper issues at play in most of the continent. Although the Morales regime has its own problems, it has demonstrated how putting the people in charge of their own resources can have positive results for the economic and social whole of a country.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Venezuelan Government have run deficits in 15 of the last 17 years? Evo Morales and the Bolivian Government have run surpluses in virtually all those years. There are two distinct, different economic answers in those countries.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Morales shows a model of economic stability that I think many in south America would hope for in their own countries.
Venezuela deserves peace in its fractured and divided society. It will have none while the left and the right fight over the bones of the cold war. In summing up, the Minister may bring forward plans on the British Government working with our partners to be more stringent in banning travelling for Venezuelan officials—but we must, most of all, stand up for peace in Venezuela, for all Venezuelans. I hope the Government will play their part.
What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on showing the foresight he did in requesting this debate in July. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.
My hon. Friend pointed out clearly the importance of looking at the Latin American countries and seeing the connections between what is happening in those countries and what goes on on our streets. He described the problems of drug-taking in his constituency. I join him in asking the Minister to say some more about what the Government are doing to limit and control the arrival of those drugs in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke eloquently about the humanitarian crisis. She has constituents with relatives who are suffering some horrendous experiences. We have all been reading about the issues over the summer in the newspapers. Her Majesty’s Opposition entirely share the concerns that have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House about the deteriorating and serious humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela. We mourn all those who have been killed and injured in recent months on either side of the sham election in August. We believe that the bloodshed must end without delay. While that means that all sides must put down their arms, there is a special responsibility on the so-called forces of law and order to live up to their name.
We condemn the closure of the Parliament, which was established in 1999 under a constitution supported in a referendum by 88% of the Venezuelan people. We are also deeply concerned about President Maduro’s sacking of his independent-minded Attorney General. When we see police and security personnel assaulting civilians in the streets, using military tactics and weaponry against unarmed protestors and snatching political opponents from their homes at dead of night, it is obvious that they stand for neither the rule of law nor the restoration of order. Those actions must stop.
The Government of Venezuela must recognise their duty to protect human rights, free speech and truly democratic elections, rather than undermining them. They must stop the ever-escalating cycle of repression, division and violence for which they have been responsible.
Of course, in making that demand, we are not blind to the historical and economic context in which today’s tragic situation occurs. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) pointed out that the recycling of drug moneys into Europe predates 1998, but everybody—particularly the Minister, who was an oil trader in a former life—must understand the significant impact that the collapse of the oil price was bound to have, and undoubtedly has had, on the Venezuelan economy.
In 2012, Venezuela was selling its oil at $103 a barrel. By 2016, the price had collapsed to $35 a barrel. That is bound to be a problem for a country when 90% of its export earnings are from oil exports, which raises another issue. Why has there not been greater diversification over time to build up other parts of the Venezuelan economy? That debate is not confined to Venezuela; Nigeria suffers similarly. When the oil price is high and the exchange rate is pushed up artificially, it can be difficult to get other sectors of the economy to become competitive and effective—indeed, such criticisms were made of this country in the 1980s. It is clear that the Venezuelans have not diversified in an intelligent and strategic way.
Notwithstanding the economic difficulties, the Maduro Government have no excuses for the political crisis that now faces the country, to which they have contributed. The Government must take responsibility for the crisis and respond to the legitimate concerns, expressed on both sides of this House and throughout the international community, about the increasingly dangerous direction the country has taken over the last five years, and particularly since the beginning of 2017. If they believe that those concerns are misplaced, it is not enough to ignore or dismiss them. They must take the necessary actions to prove them wrong.
One of the major long-term problems is that millions upon millions of ordinary Venezuelan people now regard themselves as “ni gobierno, ni oposición”. They are not for the Government or for the Opposition. They regard Maduro’s current Administration as a long way distant from the aims, methods and achievements of the original Chavista movement, but they have no faith in the official Opposition to do anything but return to the pre-Chávez norm of serving the elites and ignoring the masses.
As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, there can be no political or economic solution in Venezuela until the needs of those disenfranchised citizens are met. If the rest of the world treats the dispute simply as a binary one between the PSUV and the MUD—the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática—that will not help. I hope that the Minister will reflect that in his remarks.
The basic foundation for a flourishing civic society must be respect for human rights. We need that before we can build the democratic institutions. The destruction of the popular democratic institutions in that country is unhelpful, extremely concerning and straightforwardly wrong.
Hon. Members have asked the Minister a number of questions, and I will add a number on the Government’s policy towards Venezuela. In addition to asking about the Government’s policy on limiting the drugs trade, I want to ask about the funding programme. The Government previously committed to improving the operation of the National Assembly via the Magna Carta fund. I shall be grateful if the Minister brings us up to date on how that money will now be used. What are the Government proposing to do to build civic and democratic institutions in Venezuela, or will they abandon that plank of Government policy? The need to fund the promotion of human rights is obviously greater than ever, but there will be concerns about how to guarantee that any future funds are spent appropriately in the country when its institutions are so weak. We would like an update.
Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister about arms sales. Given the legal requirement for UK Ministers not to authorise arms sales to regimes that might use those arms for internal repression, will he explain why £80,000-worth of such sales to Venezuela were authorised in the past year alone? In light of the Maduro Government’s refusal to co-operate with the ongoing UN-led investigation into human rights abuses, will the Government suspend any further arms sales until those concerns are resolved?
Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned, will the Minister tell us how the Government are supporting UK nationals affected by the crisis in Venezuela? How many requests for consular assistance has the Foreign Office received? What assistance has the embassy in Caracas been able to provide? What fees have been charged to individuals for that assistance?
Fourthly, as I am sure the Minister will spell out, what initiatives are the Government supporting to put pressure on the Maduro Government and bring about peace in Venezuela, including the mediation offered by the Vatican? On the issue of sanctions, a good case has been made by some hon. Members for individual, targeted sanctions against those involved in serious and organised crime and drug trafficking, but what assessment have the Government made of the American Secretary of State’s proposals to implement all sanctions? Is the Minister not slightly concerned about possible conflicts of interest in the American Administration, given that the Secretary of State, before he took up his post, received a payment of $180 million on leaving Exxon? Will the Minister explain whether he believes that further reducing Venezuelans’ export earnings would be helpful? Will he also make it clear that one plan the UK will definitely not support—and that we will actively oppose should it be put on the international table—is Donald Trump’s threat of military action against Venezuela?
In closing, I have one more important point to make. When we face a situation such as that in Venezuela, with demands for an immediate end to bloodshed and hardship, and the full restoration of human rights, it does this House proud that we are united in such calls, as we have been today. It is also important that we are consistent, and that we avoid anything that could be construed as double standards. If we are prepared to speak out with one voice on the issue of Venezuela—rightly—then, by contrast, people will not understand any equivocation about other countries with serious human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We must not allow anyone to claim that this House discovers its conscience and its voice only when there is an argument to be had in domestic politics. We must be consistent. I hope that the Minister will give us the assurance that the Government are wholehearted in their condemnation and addressing of the human rights problems in Venezuela, as across the globe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) for initiating the debate, and I congratulate him on becoming chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group for Venezuela. I was, however, rather disappointed by his recent letter to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which accused the Government of silence on Venezuela. I will therefore take the opportunity to prove that that accusation is totally unfounded, as I will explain in a moment. It is indeed high time that this entire place spoke up on the situation in Venezuela, and it is vital that we do so with a single, united parliamentary voice, without making any excuses for the Government there.
Let me go straight in to answer some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Hyndburn, despite his letter to the Foreign Office understandably focusing on all the political developments in Venezuela—that, too, is what I will primarily develop my thinking on in the debate—focused on cocaine. Most of the cocaine on the UK’s streets, however, is produced in Peru and Colombia, although that is aided and abetted by the nature of the Government in Venezuela. There is a lack of effective government control in porous border areas, in particular on the border with Colombia, where Venezuela both suffers from and colludes with illegal armed and criminal groups involved in drug production and trafficking, kidnap and extortion.
That is exactly why the Government have added Venezuela to our long-running serious and organised crime programme, which already covers Colombia and Peru. The NCA and its predecessor worked with Venezuela on counter-narcotics for 15 years and that work continues. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, however, drug policy is primarily the responsibility of the Home Office, rather than the Foreign Office, so detailed questions should be addressed to that Department.
On consular matters, our travel advice is reviewed and updated regularly. Currently, we advise against all but essential travel to Venezuela. We have received no requests for consular assistance from British nationals in Venezuela, but were we to do so we would follow them up in the usual way, with the diligence and assiduous attention that I like to think we always offer to someone abroad who asks for our assistance. We did however take dependants out of our embassy when the Constituent Assembly vote was taking place, because we were concerned about reprisals against our diplomatic staff. The situation has been alleviated since then, but at the time we took that sensible precaution.
The UK does not have its own domestic sanctions regime. We will have once we have left the European Union and passed a sanctions Act, in preparation for which something will come before the House soon. In the meantime, we are working with the international community and international organisations to implement EU sanctions. We will continue to work with EU member states and, crucially, regional powers to consider a wide range of options, including sanctions and the freezing of assets in respect of Venezuela, should a consensus emerge.
On export controls, therefore, we assure the House that the Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust defence export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine every application case by case against consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.
To be clear and to get to the fundamental point of the debate, the problem is that democracy is being dismantled piece by piece. Human rights and the rule of law are being systematically flouted. People are struggling to get hold of even the most basic essentials in what should be one of the most prosperous countries of the region. A local think-tank reports that a basket of basic food for a family of five costs more than the minimum wages for 14 people. That economic disaster would have implications for regional stability if it were to become a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands have already fled to neighbouring countries, and those flows are continuing.
It is clear what has caused that appalling situation. It is the result of a catalogue of deliberate attempts to undermine democracy, culminating in a highly dubious election in July to create a Constituent Assembly that is designed to usurp established democratic authority. That body has created something that it calls a truth commission, supposedly, as it says itself, to “resolve violence”. It has already removed powers from the democratically elected National Assembly—it is like having a Parliament above this Parliament to neuter it—and stripped an MP of his parliamentary immunity, thus setting a very dangerous precedent.
As well as undermining democracy, the Venezuelan Government are failing to respect and defend human rights. Venezuela was identified in 2016 as one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 30 human rights priority countries. Opposition politicians have been arrested, protesters have been tried in military courts and demonstrators have been subjected to heavy- handed treatment by security forces, leading to more than 120 deaths since protests began in March. I am sure that everyone in this House considers that totally unacceptable. Baroness Anelay expressed our serious concern when she met members of the Venezuelan Government in Caracas in May. She urged all her interlocutors to respect the human rights of all Venezuelan citizens.
Since the start of the crisis, the UK has made its views very clear to both the Venezuelan Government and the opposition. We condemned the violence earlier this year and called on all sides to resolve their differences through dialogue. The Foreign Secretary issued a statement criticising the imposition of the Constituent Assembly, which does not represent the wishes of the Venezuelan people, and called on the Venezuelan Government to reduce tensions.
We have spoken in support of the integrity and autonomy of the National Assembly to both the Venezuelan Government and members of the Assembly itself, many of whom I met in March, and we condemned the dismissal of the independent prosecutor general. We made it clear that those steps constituted a direct attack on Venezuela’s democracy and its legitimate democratic institutions. I say to the hon. Member for Hyndburn that, far from doing nothing, I have been personally criticised by the Venezuelan Government for having been critical of them.
We believe strongly that the only solution to the crisis is for the Venezuelan Government to restart talks with the opposition. We encourage them to do that without causing further suffering to ordinary Venezuelans. We are working with our EU partners on a tangible response to encourage the two sides to find a solution that respects the will of all Venezuelans.
On Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will discuss the UK’s approach with Julio Borges, the President of the National Assembly, at a meeting in Downing Street. We had hoped also to meet Lilian Tintori, who is a human rights activist and the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who is currently under house arrest. However, she has been prevented from leaving Venezuela, which is yet another example of how democracy and human rights are being so heinously undermined in that country.
One helpful development is the strong regional response. That is crucial, because any solution must come from the region. The Lima Group, a new gathering of a dozen or so countries from across the Americas that, as the name suggests, is led by Peru, strongly condemned
“the rupture of the democratic order”
“the systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, violence, repression and political persecution”.
Importantly, it refused to recognise the Constituent Assembly. The condemnation of the Constituent Assembly by that regional gathering of neighbouring countries is a crucial development. I have worked closely with Peru’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Luna. Indeed, I last spoke to him on 18 August, at length, to acknowledge and support Peru’s regional leadership and to offer UK backing.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail, but I believe that I am right in saying that the Venezuelan Government have declined to accept any assistance of that sort, which once again illustrates the total lack of concern that they have for their own people—a people whose need is growing. The poorest are always hurt hardest. The politicians in Latin America who talk most about the poor are often the ones who do them most harm.
The US has imposed sanctions on several Venezuelan Government officials, including high-ranking military officers and the managers of the state oil company, and it recently announced new sanctions targeting Venezuela’s financial sector and the issuing of debt. The Constituent Assembly’s determination to prosecute for treason people who support US sanctions is indicative of its total disregard for the rule of law.
As the Foreign Secretary said in his July statement, Venezuela stands on the brink of disaster. The Venezuelan Government must pull it back from the brink. They must engage in good faith with the opposition, restore democracy to the country and respect the human rights of all its citizens. Together with our international partners, we will continue to press the Government to do all those things and to restore the security and stability that all Venezuelans so desperately need.
I thank everyone who attended the debate, which has been helpful and is timely, given the situation that developed over the summer and the events that led up to it. As I mentioned, it is important, not just for the global interest but for our constituents, that the United Kingdom takes a greater interest in Latin America.
I asked the Minister about the drugs epidemic on our streets, including in my constituency. I reiterate my question: what are the Government doing to tackle that issue? The purity of drugs has reached alarming new levels. I asked him about the UK’s input into the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and whether it would be possible for his office to facilitate dialogue between parliamentarians and that UN office.
Turning to the economic and political situation, condemnation is not enough. It is simply unacceptable for us just to sit by and condemn while people suffer. Many Members spoke about the suffering and hardship in Venezuela. I do not think that the situation has been exaggerated; it is probably far more dire than it has been painted in this debate. I urge the Government to move from condemnation to action. The United States is taking action. Although large parts of our policy reside with the European Union, it is for the United Kingdom, while we are a member of the European Union, to advocate sanctions. It is for the United Kingdom to be the lead nation in the EU in showing the world that we stand up against human rights abuses and for democracy and the rule of law. We should not simply be on the sidelines condemning the Maduro Government.
I urge the Minister to look at what actions he can take to address the questions that he was asked during the debate, and to respond to those questions. We have oligarchs and an authoritarian communist regime that do not want to give up power. The idea that simple dialogue will bring about a transition to a peaceful Venezuela seems a long way off. Those people are making huge amounts. They are also concerned about what would happen in a transition. Would they be arrested? Would they be taken to the United States to face charges for various acts that they have committed? Where would they stand legally? They have entrenched to protect their position, which seems secure as long as Venezuela is a militaristic state.
I ask the Minister to make more effort to bring about action on Venezuela and, as he suggested, to work with the countries that are opposed to the current regime in Venezuela and with our partners around the globe to improve the situation for all Venezuelans and for the rest of the world.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).