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Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In view of the references to the tense and delicate political situation in the recently changed travel advice about Bolivia from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, what support they are offering to the Government of Bolivia.

My Lords, we stand ready to assist all sides in reaching a consensual solution to the current worrying situation in Bolivia. While this is an internal political matter for Bolivia, we and our EU partners have offered assistance in helping to rebuild confidence between the parties. The EU, with UK support, has issued a statement calling for unity and consensus. In meetings with the President of Bolivia and other leaders from across the political spectrum, EU ambassadors have urged all actors to resolve their differences peacefully, through dialogue. We have also been talking with international institutions about possible ways forward to help resolve the crisis.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and particularly for the emphasis that he placed on the importance of dialogue. Is he aware that South American regional opinion is that it would be extremely bad for the region if there were any sort of Balkanisation or polarisation in Bolivia? He will be aware of efforts such as the east-west highway, which should bring much-needed development to the area and which has just been announced. What other steps can the UK take to underpin efforts towards democracy in the country and strengthen that dialogue?

My Lords, I should at this stage acknowledge that I used to be an adviser to a former President of Bolivia.

The Constitutional Assembly was an important effort to try to get both sides to arrive at a comprehensive solution to the country's political problems, which are very real and which revolve, as the noble Baroness knows, around marginalised Indian populations who have felt excluded for a long time. However, including them in a country that had a strong pre-existing democracy but which also had strong vested economic interests has proved extremely difficult. There are legitimate questions on both sides, which can be resolved only through dialogue. EU ambassadors plan to meet this week the political actors on both sides to see if we can facilitate such a dialogue.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in the difficult situation of Bolivia, the enlightened policy of the Government could be strengthened still further if there were emphasis on building a strong civil society with a commitment to human rights? Is it not essential to avoid at all costs the misguided type of manipulation and intervention that has been so characteristic of the painful history of Latin America?

My Lords, the noble Lord is completely correct. Given that history, I am well aware of the sensitivities in Bolivia about outside interference, but it is also a country that has been racked by repeated violent protests and by the overthrow of several Presidents as a result of those protests. Building a mature civil society that respects human rights but which also respects democracy and the rule of law is a critical bulwark against the perennial instability in that country.

My Lords, there is not much that we can do directly as regards the internal situation in Bolivia, which is now getting very tense and dangerous. But does the noble Lord agree that this is an area where there is a need for our country to increase—indeed, restore—our past influence in the interests of our own trade and prosperity? This is one of the potentially dynamic areas of the world; would it not therefore be a good idea if this Parliament and this Government sent a clear message to President Evo Morales that he should desist from measures that will plunge the whole country into anarchy, bloodshed and break-up, which many people are, unfortunately, currently predicting?

My Lords, I am extremely relieved at least to be able to say to the noble Lord that, fortunately, this is not a country that has been subjected to a closed embassy, so in that regard we are still represented in the country and well engaged there. We certainly need to send messages to both sides to desist from violence and to find a negotiated solution because I think the fault is on both sides; but there is no doubt that the President needs to pull back and find ways to talk to his opponents.

My Lords, has the noble Lord noted that in the Foreign Office statement the places where disorders have been fomented are Santa Cruz, Trinidad and Cochabamba, which are centres of opposition to the majority Government of Evo Morales, who were, after all, elected by a majority that was greater than any enjoyed by a Government in the United Kingdom since the war? Will the Government support the efforts by President Morales to bring equality to the indigenous people, which they have always lacked over the 500 years of their history?

My Lords, the noble Lord will have noted my insistence that there was fault on both sides and that violence was instigated from both sides. It is absolutely correct that the cities he mentions are, indeed, cities where the opposition are principally in control. That is why appeal has been made to both sides to find a negotiated solution to these problems, which will allow the country a healthier, more stable, more inclusive political future than that of the past 500 years.

My Lords, speaking as chairman of the All-Party Group on Bolivia, I welcome the report of the initiative by the EU ambassadors. Does my noble friend agree that the international investment community has no future in Bolivia if it gives any tacit encouragement to what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to as Balkanisation? To put it the other way round, the territorial integrity of Bolivia is very important. Does he agree that this Parliament keeps, and wishes to continue to keep, very closely in touch with all our parliamentary friends in Bolivia, with whom we have a friendship group?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. I do not think that any of the foreign investors in Bolivia, British or otherwise, need to be reminded of the danger of involving themselves in the politics of that country. Foreign investments, both in the mining sector and in the water privatisation area, have been critical factors in the recent political confrontations in that country. It is incumbent on all investors to stay out of politics at this time.

My Lords, in the light of the Foreign Office advice to visitors to Bolivia, can the Minister give us any information about advice given to British citizens resident in and living in Bolivia?

My Lords, the ambassador has written to all registered British citizens, warning them of the changes to the travel advice, but reassuring them that at this stage there is no evidence of any immediate emergency, deterioration or immediate threat to their safety.