[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
We now come to an important debate about the political situation in Venezuela. The debate can last one hour, and lots of people are seeking to contribute. I encourage those who wish to make a speech not to intervene, because that would be having two bites of the cherry. I want to ensure that everybody can make a contribution. I call Graham Jones.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.
I thank the House staff, you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing the debate, and all colleagues who have come to speak about a country that many have followed and taken an interest in for a considerable time.
Since the last debate on Venezuela was held in Parliament two years ago, much has happened. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Venezuela I have chaired many debates and discussions in this place with good attendance and participation by the diaspora, with speakers from Venezuela and Canning House, and other academics. Unfortunately, there has been little positive news from the country. For those who care about others, it has been depressing to see such enormous distress in Venezuela. The authoritarian Government have only strengthened their power via the usurper and illegitimate President Nicolás Maduro, and the usurper legislature, with the establishment of a rival and illegitimate Parliament, the Constituent Assembly, created to delegitimise and dismantle the democratically legitimate Parliament, the National Assembly.
The economy, living standards and overall security have significantly deteriorated. In recent days, inflation has run at more than 1,000,000%, rubber bullets and live ammunition have been used to kill protestors—I believe the total number of fatalities stands at 26 people—and the population has lost on average 10 kg per person through hunger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) on securing an urgent question yesterday. I am delighted to quote what he said:
“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that there are 4.1 million people with malnutrition in Venezuela. The Catholic charity Caritas says that 41% of Venezuelans are now feeding on waste in markets. There is a shortage of medicines, including vital antibiotics for children, and blood banks are collapsing. Two thirds of buses in Caracas are out of action because there are no spare parts. An estimated 1 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring Colombia.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 482.]
That is in a country with an abundance of its own assets.
In recent days, Juan Guaidó from the National Assembly has been sworn in as interim President, and that appears to be the first fragile glimmer of hope for the country. The tragic political, social and economic situation in Venezuela has been caused by a failed Marxist revolution, now 20 years old, which was evoked in the name of one of the founding fathers of Venezuela, Simón Bolívar.
I would like to make some progress, please.
Bolívar’s revolution in the 1820s gave Venezuela a legacy of freedom and self-determination. Chávez and Maduro’s Bolivarian revolution in the 21st century plagued Venezuelans with destitution and dictatorship. There is no worthy comparison between the two. Some in the UK claim that Maduro’s cause is a rightful one, and the British left is aligned to that. They are wrong, and those who think that Venezuela is now subject to some right-wing coup are wrong. One is an economy of bankrupt Marxist ideas, and the Opposition represent democratic socialism.
Juan Guaidó, and his left-leaning Opposition, needs our party’s support. His party, Popular Will, is, in fact, a member of one of Labour’s sister parties in Venezuela, and a member of Socialist International, like the Labour party. It is worth stating too that the bankrupt Marxists who have ruined Venezuela over the last 20 years are not members of Socialist International and are, in my opinion, anything but socialist. They, and their fellow Marxist travellers who propagandise about foreign interference, are wholly responsible for a bankrupt economic policy.
It is ironic that those Marxists should reject unwelcome foreign interference. Perhaps they could include their list of friends who seem to be interfering in Venezuela: Iran, Russia and Turkey, who are propping up the illegitimate, authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. It would carry more weight if they knew what they were talking about. The United States, our long term ally, has so far resisted economic sanctions, instead targeting the extreme wealth of the Chavismo politicians, some with links to drugs cartels. The US has also targeted currencies that facilitate the syphoning of Venezuela’s assets into private bank accounts.
The truth is that the “Boligarchs” of Venezuela have ensured that Venezuela’s problems will never affect their luxurious lifestyles. According to the Venezuelan news website Noticias Centro,
“the late-president’s family owns 17 country estates, totalling more than 100,000 acres, in addition to liquid assets of $550 million…stored in various international bank accounts”.
The Marxist hypocrisy is astonishing. Hugo Chávez said:
“Being rich is bad, it’s inhumane. This is what I say and I condemn the rich”.
He also said that
“capitalism leads us straight to hell”
“we must confront the privileged elite who have destroyed a large part of the world”.
Meanwhile, his daughter, María Gabriela Chávez, is reported to be one of the richest people in Venezuela, with a net worth of $4.2 billion. I would like to know where she got that money from.
Finally, it is worth pointing out how the US has so far resisted economic sanctions and continues to allow US companies to purchase 21% of Venezuelan crude oil, which provides the Venezuelan Government with vital overseas currency. It is a regime that is increasingly despised by a majority of its citizens, that routinely arrests, imprisons and tortures its opponents, that mismanages the economy and that profits from narco-trafficking with the cartels, with much of the result finding its way on to the streets of English towns and cities such as mine.
It is not a functioning Government in the name of the people. Speaker after speaker at the APPG has relayed their and their families’ stories of just how bad the situation is, from hunger to property theft, gun crime and the “colectivo”—the Chavismo motorbike gangs that terrorise ordinary citizens on behalf of Maduro. The rest of the international community has a duty to support the values of liberty, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and to support the Venezuelan people at this time, not an oppressive dictatorship that ignores those values.
In the last partially free and fair elections in November 2015, the majority of the Venezuelan people voted in droves for the Opposition, and three years later those people are out on the streets protesting en masse. The biggest priority for the international community is to address a devastating consequence of Maduro’s Marxist regime: the migrant crisis—the exodus of almost 4 million people since 2014.
The Minister said yesterday that
“those who have left Venezuela are in staggering numbers: well over 1 million have gone to Colombia; well over 1 million to Peru; nearly half a million each to Ecuador, Argentina and Chile; and 180,000 to Brazil. This is the biggest movement of population we have ever seen in Latin America”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 485.]
I would like to make progress, thank you.
That is a direct result of an economic meltdown, a huge spike in violent crime and a climate of fear towards the authorities, who routinely kidnap and torture those who dare to speak up against the regime. Human rights groups say that Maduro’s forces have arrested more than 12,800 people for speaking up against his regime since taking power in 2013.
The Amnesty report says that the Venezuelan Government are guilty of
“one of the worst human rights crisis in its history.”
It says that there have been 8,292 extrajudicial executions between 2015 and 2017—an absolute totalitarian disgrace. As a result, the Organisation of American States and the Lima Group referred the Venezuelan Government to the International Criminal Court last September for crimes against humanity, citing 8,000 extrajudicial killings, 12,000 arbitrary arrests and the detention of 13,000 political prisoners. It is the first case in which an entire state has been referred to the ICC. President Macri of Argentina said in an interview with CNN:
“For me, there is no doubt: in Venezuela, human rights are systemically violated by steamrolling the opposition and everyone. There is a growing sense that we need to take more forceful action.”
The UN Human Rights Commissioner stated:
“The UN Human Rights Office understands that at least 280 individuals who had been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty for their political opinions, for exercising their human rights, or because they were perceived as a threat to the Government, remain in detention in dreadful conditions.”
Given the scale of the problems, the response has been pitiful. Words have not matched actions, and refugees are suffering in horrendous circumstances. There seems to be reluctance to classify the situation as a full-on refugee crisis, perhaps because that comes with more responsibilities to act than a migrant crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has referred to a “mixed flow” of migrants and refugees pouring out of the country.
I appreciate that the Minister is here today as a representative of the Foreign Office, but I say to him that more needs to be done by the Government to address the human cost of the political crisis that manifests itself not just in Venezuela, but in neighbouring countries and right across Latin America—a point I raised with him in the urgent question yesterday.
From Ministers’ recent answers to questions on aid to Venezuela, we can see that not enough is being done. From the Minister’s responses to parliamentary questions from me, it appears that the UK spends just £10.2 million on aid through various agencies. I note that he told the United Nations last weekend:
“People are starving, children are malnourished, essential items are absent from the bare shelves of bankrupt stores. And from this wretchedness, millions have fled to seek refuge in neighbouring countries where they have been rescued by an outpouring of human generosity.”
I doubt that last point. He went on to say:
“This inexcusable and wholly avoidable wasteland…is entirely the creation of one man and his cronies.”
That contrasts sharply with a lack of commitment in his speech. At no point did the UK Government show any leadership on the refugee crisis or suggest the allocation of further resources. To put it in perspective, the UK Government give £1.6 billion to the Syrian refugee crisis, which makes £10.2 million seem insignificant. According to the National Audit Office, only five applications have been accepted from the 79 Venezuelans who have sought political asylum in the UK since Maduro took power in 2013. We must do more and recognise the crisis for what it is.
Last year, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy went to the border between Venezuela and Colombia to report the experiences of the thousands of people who attempt to cross it every day. The conditions he found were terrible: rivers were crossed on foot, armed gangs constantly patrolled the streets, and the Colombian army was at the border. The area is littered with narcos; the UK Government advice is not to go to those areas. The huddled masses in his film were not optimistic migrants packing up their old life and moving to another country for a job; they were scared, malnourished and resorted to walking hundreds of miles to flee daily life in their home country, which had become unbearable. It is suggested that half the refugees are children, and Colombia cannot cope. One boy cried for his mummy, and another said that the basic meal Channel 4 bought him was worth a month’s wages. Young girls are turning to prostitution.
Who suffers the most? It is the voiceless in society, particularly children. Venezuela’s Ministry of Health published damning figures in 2015. The death rate among babies less than a month old increased more than a hundredfold in public hospitals run by the Ministry. According to the Government report provided by lawmakers, the figure has increased from 0.02% to 2% since 2012. Maternal mortality has increased nearly fivefold in the same period, and 11,446 children under the age of one have died since 2016—a 30% increase in one year—as the economic crisis has accelerated.
In Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s documentary, he met a woman with a small, gravely ill child in her arms. Her daughter has kidney disease and was previously treated at the children’s hospital in Caracas until it ran out of drugs and equipment to help her due to hyperinflation and lack of resources. The only option to save the child was to leave everything and walk to Colombia. In tears, the mother pleaded with the Colombian soldiers to let her in for the sake of her child, whose life would surely have ended had she not received the medical attention she desperately needed. In this instance, the mother and her daughter were granted passage to Colombia. This is just one of the millions of stories of Venezuelans fighting to survive.
I have had the immense privilege of meeting many members of the Venezuelan National Assembly in the past couple of years. They come to London to learn about the Westminster system, and to learn about government. Some of them have risked their own safety and that of their allies by leaving the country and re-entering it when they return. Their bravery is a testament to their belief that, one day, freedom and democracy will rule once again in their country.
As I mentioned, this debate comes after the unconstitutional presidential election in Venezuela last year. The election process was rightly criticised by every country with a functioning democracy. Polling stations in areas of high opposition were closed, and food coupons were given away at others. There were counting irregularities, and people were intimidated in the streets by Maduro and his supporters. It is no wonder that many countries, including the UK, did not recognise the Maduro victory as legitimate. Let us not forget the British company Smartmatic, which provided the software that was used in the 2017 Constituent Assembly election. When it came back to the UK, Smartmatic said that the elections results had been “tampered with”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, stated that the election
“does not in any way fulfil minimal conditions for free and credible elections.”
It is important to thank Members of all parties who have turned up today to engage in this debate, and I look forward to listening to their contributions. There is consensus among almost everyone, but sadly there are malign individuals for whom the Venezuelan people are no consideration. As I said yesterday in the House, it is vital that the UK Government, who have yet to step up to the plate and do what Britain does best—caring for those in need—begin to put together an international response that meets the scale of the crisis. This is foremost a human catastrophe: human beings, particularly children, are experiencing inordinate suffering. If there is one closing thought, let it be of the children of this or any other refugee crisis, who are suffering tonight and going forward.
I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than eight minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP and for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Mr Graham Jones then gets two minutes to sum up the debate at the end. Seven Back-Benchers seek to contribute within 18 minutes, so there has to be a two-and-a-half-minute limit. I call Mark Menzies.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is with great pleasure, but with some sadness, that I rise to support the words of my friend, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones). As chair of the APPG on Venezuela, he knows only too well the issues that the people of Venezuela face. He has covered much territory and time is short, so I will keep my words focused on the impact on the people of Venezuela, as a side-effect of the economic crisis and political corruption there.
I speak in my capacity as chairman of the APPG on Latin America and not in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Colombia, Argentina or Peru, or any other governmental role. I mention those roles because, by going to Colombia, I have seen at first hand the misery of hundreds of thousands of people who have had their normal lives, dignity, and good prospects torn from them, by no fault of their own.
There is no sight more heart-breaking than the one I saw when I went to Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Easter last year. I saw women with children begging by the roadside, in the morning, to be taken by men, in order to get money to see them through the day. No greater humiliation can befall any individual. I saw professionals washing car windows. On the whole, those people are not there to beg, but to survive. They will do whatever they can, and they are the lucky ones.
The unlucky ones are those who are still in Venezuela and who have no medicine. Forget complex cases; if someone is diabetic or HIV-positive, at the moment, they are simply counting down the days to their death because they cannot access treatment or basic healthcare in hospitals. Some 90% of urgent care in Venezuelan hospitals has gone. At the end of last year, Channel 4 produced a documentary, Unreported World, which was one of the most powerful pieces that I have seen.
In the time I have left, I urge the Minister to work with the Lima Group. Let us ensure that we capacity-build for the Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, and that we work with Colombia to look after those people, because by goodness, they deserve better than what they are getting at the moment.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) on securing it. This is an issue on which I have been vocal. It is incomprehensible that democracy is so vaunted but much of the world remains silent. Yet again, I am thankful that this House—the home and foundation of democracy—has not remained silent, and neither has the Minister. He too has been vocal—well done to him, as I said yesterday and say again today.
The Venezuelan Government decided to go ahead with presidential elections without instigating any of the reforms of the electoral system that the Opposition had requested. The Opposition candidates did not participate and claimed that there was widespread fraud, for which there is evidence. The UK, along with the EU, the US and the 14 members of the Lima Group to which the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) referred, has refused to recognise the result as legitimate, and with good reason. I was very shocked to read in the news on Sunday night that a teacher’s salary in Venezuela will currently buy only 12 eggs. What does she have to offer to her family and friends? There must be a swift resolution, and it is past time that we in the UN stopped hand-wringing and began to take action to help the people of Venezuela.
More specifically, the army is believed to be targeting political opponents, and the everyday person lives in fear. That is the kind of regime to which we are diametrically opposed, and the causes of democracy and freedom scream out that we put action behind words and do all that is possible to help in this scenario. The army has killed, injured, beaten, tortured and raped. I believe that it must be held accountable for its actions.
There are supposed champions of human rights whose brand of human rights murders on one hand but battles against supposed slights to human rights on the other. As usual, I will not follow the myopic trail of Sinn Féin, who are attempting to support someone who can only be called a despot, and were one of the first political parties in the United Kingdom to do so. We must do what we know to be right and support the calls for intervention.
Our intention is to do what we should for those who cannot stand alone. If we believe that there must be an interim President, will we offer advice and support? I hope that we will. If we believe that the currency issue must be rectified, will we offer advice and help? Do we have aid to help those who are working, yet are literally starving day by day as the world watches? This Government, this House and the people of this country will not stand idly by. We will do all we can to help. I ask the Minister to let us do everything that we can to help democracy and freedom.
I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing the debate. I speak as vice-chair of the APPG on Venezuela. I have been following the escalation of events closely for some time and have a deep personal interest in them.
In December last year, I sent letters to the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging them to be more transparent on the $500 million of gold belonging to the Venezuelan people that is held by the Bank of England. In my letters, I sought reassurance over reports that the Venezuelan Minister of Finance, Simón Zerpa, who had been sanctioned by the US Treasury, and Calixto Sánchez, the illegitimate president of the Venezuelan central bank, had met Bank of England officials and were seeking to take the gold away. Unfortunately, the reply I received from the Bank of England hid behind references to “individual customer relationships” and “customer confidentiality”, rather than directly addressing my concerns.
Two weeks ago, I met the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to express my concerns about the situation in Venezuela, the illegitimate nature of the Government and the importance of ensuring that the dictatorship does not get custody of the gold—we all know what it would do with it. He undertook to repeat my concerns to the Bank of England. I thank him and Foreign Office Ministers for their reassurances as the situation has moved on. I understand that the Bank has independence from Government, but it is a pillar of the state and it is 100% owned by the state, so it is reasonable to expect a high standard from it.
For a while, protests in Venezuela had died down, as a consequence of the sheer exhaustion of the country’s hungry and abused citizens. Juan Guaidó has managed to resurrect democratic voices, gather a strong Opposition—left and right—to Maduro’s autocratic criminal Government, and offer a real chance of change. Maduro has been financially rewarding the military for its loyalty, making it harder for his regime to be overthrown.
As the UK has declared its support for Guaidó, I urge the Government to continue to be forthright with the Bank of England and not allow it to misuse its independence or to cite “customer confidentiality” in an inappropriate fashion. The hon. Member for Hyndburn expressed the bigger picture brilliantly and bravely. Although I understand the political situation for him does not make that particularly welcome, I still think he needs to be congratulated.
In September 2017, I had a heart-breaking meeting with the Venezuelan community in my constituency. I subsequently came to this Chamber to raise the desperate realities faced by their friends and families. Eighteen months on, the economic and humanitarian crisis that they face has soared to unprecedented and simply frightening levels.
I will communicate to the House just two cases that I have been contacted about today. I was contacted by my constituent Erika, who is struggling to support her family back in Venezuela. Sadly, Erika’s sister was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, but has been unable to receive any treatment for the last two years because of the cost and the lack of medicine. I will quote from Erika’s incredibly upsetting email. She said:
“We are not talking about trivial stuff. We are talking about life or death situations. When you need to decide which one of your family members is the one who is going to eat today. If my parents get ill at the same time, my sister may be in the position of choosing which one is going to survive.”
I also heard from local resident Militza. Her brother is a doctor with over 20 years’ experience and a private practice. The Venezuelan economy is in such disarray, however, that he cannot charge more than $1 per patient visit. That solitary dollar gets paid three months later by an insurance company, with an inflation rate of over 1,000,000%. By the time it reaches him, it is almost worthless. His clinic has been robbed twice; his staff held at gunpoint; and his machinery stolen. Over 80% of his patients have lost a minimum of 8 kg since their previous visit, and can no longer afford to attend their regular check-ups.
This House and this country can no longer ignore the situation facing Venezuela. Democracy was breached by the illegitimate Constituent Assembly, and Nicolás Maduro is clearly not the legitimate leader of Venezuela. This is a regime that must be condemned loud and clear.
This is an important debate to me. Yesterday, I was not able to make the main Chamber for the urgent question from the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), so I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) not only for making a superb and comprehensive speech, every part of which I agreed with and which warrants all our congratulations, but for giving me the chance to say what I was not able to say yesterday.
I come to the debate from three different perspectives: as a citizen of the world, with a lot of us seeing this appalling tragedy, one of the biggest in the world and with the potential to become much worse, as hugely worrying; as a citizen of the UK, which has a good international aid reputation, although South America perhaps does not attract quite the international aid focus that it warrants; and in the interests of Colombia, because of family connections and my work with the all-party group, which is particularly important. The scale of the crisis is shocking.
For three weeks in August, during the summer holidays, I visited Colombia. It was shocking to see Venezuelans, with all their possessions, just walking from Venezuela to Bogotá or even Boyacá, where I spent several weeks. They came in twos and threes, on the backs of lorries with all their possessions. It was incredibly sad.
I have one or two important points to make in the short time I have available. One is that we should recognise the way in which Colombia and other countries have behaved towards the refugees. It is a lesson to the world. Colombia has accepted 1.1 million refugees, registering them and allowing them to get jobs. It is an absolutely brilliant way for a country to deal with refugees. We should be incredibly proud of them for that.
In fact, I will leave it at that. I will have to look for another opportunity to say all the things that I would like to say.
There is undoubtedly a crisis in Venezuela, but I am afraid that what we have heard today has been something of a caricature of the situation there. Clearly, the severe crisis affecting the people of Venezuela has been exacerbated by sanctions imposed by the United States of America—[Interruption]—from Barack Obama in 2015 onwards. That has led to the very real shortages to which hon. Members have referred, in spare parts, medical supplies, food and so on, exacerbated by economic sabotage by elites in Venezuela—[Interruption.]
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am afraid not; we do not have the time.
The rapporteur said that the US was waging “economic warfare” against the people of Venezuela. It is also important to challenge on the record the assertion about the election being rigged. I have spoken to election observers who were there, and they said that although the election process was not perfect, it was not rigged—it is impossible to stuff ballot boxes with ballot papers because each vote is twinned with the voter ID and fingerprint of each elector who votes in a Venezuelan election. A Member of this House, the hon. Member for South Down (Chris Hazzard), has said that it was complete rubbish to suggest that the Opposition were not allowed to campaign, because he saw them doing so openly during the election process.
We have seen this all before, have we not? Manufactured shortages and the intervention of the United States—we saw that in Chile, and we have seen similar influences in Honduras and other Latin American countries. It never ends well. Surely what the UK should be doing, rather than acting as Donald Trump’s poodle, is calling on the United States and the world community to urge the Venezuelan Opposition and Government to get together around the table, to meet and to reach a mutually acceptable solution. There is no place for external intervention by foreign powers.
It is rather impressive to follow an assault on the facts as heroic as the one that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) just presented to us. One only has to look at the whole situation of Venezuela, and to see what has happened to it and the enormous wealth with which it is endowed, to draw the appropriate conclusion about the management of the country and its economy.
I do not intend to add to the evidence adduced by my hon. Friends. In the two minutes left to me, I simply want to ask what the Government will do now. Will they identify all funds belonging to the Venezuelan Government in the United Kingdom and freeze them? Will they place those funds at the disposal of Juan Guaidó when, inevitably, it comes to recognising him on Mr Maduro’s refusal of a new election process? Will the Government provide direct funding to the Juan Guaidó Government through development assistance? Will they start a major crackdown on the stolen and laundered Venezuelan funds that are in the United Kingdom or have passed through it? Will the Government take action against individuals and institutions in the United Kingdom that have facilitated the corruption of the Maduro regime?
Over preceding years, that state has been looted systematically by its leadership, not least the military. I understand Juan Guaidó’s offer of an amnesty, but I am not sure that the United Kingdom needs to be party to that on foreign moneys. Those people need to be held accountable for what they have done to their country.
Will the Government facilitate the immediate transfer of the Venezuelan embassy in London to officials appointed by the interim President? Will the Government withdraw the visas of, and declare persona non grata, those appointed by the Maduro regime to London, inviting them to return to Venezuela? That is a list of concrete steps that one would expect the Government to take. I assume that some of that will be in anticipation of there being no response to the Government and the EU’s collective position on the need for a new electoral mandate for the President.
I also want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) about the gold held by the Bank of England. My right hon. Friend the Minister got rather a good write-up in the Telegraph today, but I have to say that I do not think that it was entirely deserved, because I think he should have been significantly tougher with the signal he sent the Bank of England about the position of the Government on that gold.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing an important, timely and incredibly factual debate.
As we have heard, the political and economic crisis in Venezuela is spiralling into an economic and humanitarian disaster. Schools are being closed, and hunger is killing Venezuelan children at an alarming rate as stores have run out of food. The country’s hospitals are collapsing under chronic shortages of antibiotics, food and other supplies, and diseases such as malaria and diphtheria have re-emerged. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 3 million citizens—a tenth of Venezuela’s population—have fled since 2015. Almost 90% of those who remain live in poverty. In recent days, the desperate conditions have led to thousands protesting on the capital’s streets in a bid to topple President Nicolás Maduro. Amnesty International has reported that more than a dozen people have been killed in the protests in the past week alone.
Maduro and his Government have overseen Venezuela’s collapse, and yet have maintained a tight grip on power. Last year, Maduro won a widely criticized re-election, with reports of coercion, fraud and electoral rigging. The roots of the crisis lie in the country’s political corruption and economic mismanagement, and a complex combination of short and long-term factors. Venezuela holds the world’s largest supply of crude oil, which has been an essential part of its economy. However, plummeting oil prices in 2016 triggered an economic implosion, and the oil-dependent country lapsed into political turmoil and economic misery.
The economic crisis has been decades in the making, but Maduro has presided over its acceleration. There can be no excuse made for him and his Government. Now, as the parliamentary chief Juan Guaidó has declared himself the interim President, Venezuelans find themselves with two declared leaders, unrest in the streets and foreign powers divided about who to recognise as the legitimate President. What comes next? I fully understand that there will be a range of views across the Chamber, and among those watching this speech, on whether Maduro should stay or go, but it is clear that Venezuela cannot recover while Maduro is in charge.
Research has suggested that most Venezuelans want a negotiated settlement and fresh elections. Previous attempts at talks between Venezuela’s political players failed, due largely to bad faith on the Government’s side. International engagement must take the form of considered action to support Venezuelans inside and outside the country, not crude and dangerous interventions such as we saw today when the US announced sanctions that will only worsen the situation for ordinary Venezuelans. Therefore, can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with his US counterpart about the crisis in Venezuela and the US policy towards the country?
Last Thursday, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy head, said in a statement that the voice of Venezuelans calling for democracy “cannot be ignored.” Constitutional order must be followed. So will the Minister confirm that the UK Government support EU calls for the immediate commencement of the political process that can lead to legitimate free and fair elections?
I turn my attention to the humanitarian crisis that has gripped the country. Venezuelan refugees need access to shelter, medical care, social programmes and employment opportunities in order to mitigate any risk of their becoming vulnerable to recruitment by armed criminal groups active along the border. Therefore, will the Minister tell us what support the UK Government are providing to border countries hosting refugees, particularly Colombia, to improve access to those services? The SNP firmly believes that any approach to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela must address the regional aspect, as the suffering in Venezuela is increasingly felt in the neighbouring nations of Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with EU and UN counterparts on providing humanitarian relief to Venezuelans?
The safety and rights of all Venezuelans must be upheld, and the UK must support a return to democracy and the rule of law. Ultimately, the Venezuelan people must choose their own political future. In the meantime, the UK Government must uphold the rule of law and promote strong democratic institutions, while doing whatever possible to help those suffering during this political upheaval.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair this afternoon, Mr Hollobone.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones); he has uncanny timing in securing the debate on Venezuela. He set out very well the humanitarian crisis overtaking the country. There is malnutrition, and refugees in their millions are leaving the country. More than 1 million have gone to Colombia, which puts at risk their peace process. There are shortages of medicines and there are now more than half a million cases of malaria.
Between 2012 and 2016, the oil price collapsed. That was a problem, but mismanagement by the Government compounded it, leading to massive inflation and the collapse of the currency. None of that excuses the Maduro Government’s abysmal human rights and political failings. Amnesty reports excessive use of force against demonstrators and torture of detainees. I believe the May 2018 elections were rigged by the Government and, following serious intimidation, boycotted by the Opposition. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were not recognised by the Lima Group of neighbouring states.
The Venezuelan people should not be a battleground for other countries’ ideological differences. Their welfare and well-being should be at the forefront of our minds. Free and fair elections are the priority. Dialogue and respect for human rights, rather than violence, are essential. Humanitarian support for refugees is needed, rather than the further sanctions announced by the Trump Administration overnight.
Given the rising death toll from the latest protests, does the Minister agree that the Maduro Government must respect the rule of law and move to elections? I note his carefully chosen words in the Chamber yesterday:
“Juan Guaidó is the right man to take Venezuela forward and that we will recognise him as constitutional interim President if new elections are not announced within eight days.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 481.]
That will be 3 February. Usual practice is to recognise whoever is in charge in a country, rather than who we would like to be in charge. The Lima Group is just as concerned as the EU; it has called for elections but has not issued an ultimatum. If Nicolás Maduro does not announce elections, and is still sitting in the presidential palace, supported by the army, on 3 February, what will the UK and EU Governments do? How does the Minister see this situation unfolding?
As Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said yesterday that the history of US intervention in Latin America is “tragic and troubled”. We all heard Donald Trump last week say that all options are on the table. Indeed, the Minister used similar language in October. John Bolton tweeted a note that said, “5,000 troops to Colombia”. The Colombian Government have not been consulted about that; their Foreign Affairs Minister issued a statement saying that an invasion from Colombia is absolutely out of the question.
Will the Minister give us some clarity? Do the UK and the President of the United States include in their list of all options the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela? Have the British Government discussed that with the American Government, and has the UK promised support in the event that the US takes action? Her Majesty’s Opposition would like military intervention to be ruled out.
We all appreciate the huge challenges for neighbouring countries of dealing with the influx of refugees from Venezuela, especially in Colombia, so will the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to ensure that those refugees receive the humanitarian support they need? Will he answer the questions on asylum that my hon. Friends have asked?
Yesterday, the Father of the House said that we should not impose further economic sanctions; overnight, the Trump Administration did just that. Instead, will the Minister use the Magnitsky powers that we gave him several months ago, and impose targeted sanctions against those who are abusing human rights?
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing this debate. I thank him and his many colleagues for their continued interest in and support for Venezuela. I congratulate him on his re-appointment in October as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. However, I very much regret that I am unable to use such a welcoming tone for the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). He has become a defender of the indefensible, a champion of someone who has impoverished his people, and a supporter of someone who has smashed the rule of law and usurped the constitution. I rather sense that he wants to make himself the most hated man in Venezuela. It is perhaps a race between whether he becomes so there, and whether he establishes that reputation in this House first.
Let me make no bones about it: Venezuela is a failing state in the midst of the deepest man-made economic and humanitarian crisis in modern Latin American history.
I will make some progress, but if I have time, I will give way later.
When I spoke about Venezuela at Chatham House in October, I described the demise of a once vibrant nation, charting, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Derby North, the many decisions that had been taken to prove that this was a Chavista-made crisis and not a US one. Since then we have seen no improvement; in fact, the situation has gone from bad to worse. The social implications are astonishing: four-fifths of Venezuelans are living in poverty. They are vulnerable to malnutrition and disease because of shortages of food and medicines. The poor are not just poorer—they are destitute. More than 3 million people have been driven to leave the country—10% of the population. In the UK, that would equate to almost the entire population of London. That massive exodus puts enormous pressure on neighbouring states, particularly Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. We applaud the remarkable generosity towards Venezuelan migrants of those countries, and that of Brazil and other countries in the region.
As well as punishing his own people, Maduro has damaged Venezuela’s reputation and relations in the region and the wider international community. Instead of diplomacy, he has chosen confrontation. He has deliberately sought confrontation through reckless border incursions by the Venezuelan security forces. He has cut off any means of diplomatic engagement, including by announcing Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Organisation of American States in 2017, and his conduct inexcusably threatens the peace process in neighbouring Colombia.
Under the Maduro regime Venezuela’s democratic institutions, including the judiciary, the national electoral authorities and local government, have been systematically undermined, while political repression and electoral malpractice have increased. The creation of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly in August 2017 was clearly a deliberate attempt to neutralise the democratically elected National Assembly. Over the past two years, election after election has been manipulated, culminating in a presidential election in May 2018 that few apart from the Government themselves considered free and fair. At Saturday’s United Nations Security Council meeting, which I attended, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza waved a copy of, and spoke passionately about, the constitution, yet it is Maduro who has trashed that constitution and Juan Guaidó who has upheld it.
The political Opposition have been suppressed and intimidated, their leaders have fled or been imprisoned, and we will never forget that the Opposition activist Fernando Albán was detained and then found dead beneath the windows of the national intelligence facility. Some leading Opposition leaders have been imprisoned, forced into exile or banned from holding public office. Maduro has cynically used his control of supposedly independent institutions such as the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council to cement his position. There was global criticism of the May 2018 presidential elections, with allegations of electoral malpractice and the banning of Opposition parties.
Those actions, along with the recent brutal suppression of demonstrations in Venezuela, are symptoms of an increasingly intolerant Government turning to repression simply to cling on to power. Ironically, Maduro’s re-inauguration on 10 January might just have been a catalyst for change, but a clumsy attempt to intimidate the new president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, by temporarily detaining him backfired spectacularly.
We know what has happened recently. During an Opposition protest on 23 January, Guaidó declared the May 2018 presidential elections fraudulent—and they were. Citing article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, he declared himself interim President of Venezuela, and he was swiftly recognised by the United States and 12 Lima Group countries. As of this moment, 22 countries have recognised him as the interim President.
If we get Juan Guaidó as the full, proper President, he will still need to reconstruct the economy, which has been wasted by the Maduro regime. Will the Minister look again at my suggestion yesterday that we need a Marshall plan to get Venezuela’s resources up and running as quickly as possible so that it can, like post-war Europe, sustain itself?
One of the blessings of Venezuela is that it has resources; its tragedy is that they have been exploited and destroyed by Maduro and his cronies. The right hon. Gentleman is right. We will look at anything to try to get those resources serving the needs of Venezuelans, who I hope will be able to return in their hundreds of thousands, if not their millions, to the country they have fled.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in Washington on 24 January, the UK believes that Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela, and that Guaidó is the right person to take Venezuela forward. As I said at the UN Security Council meeting on Saturday, we will recognise Guaidó as constitutional interim President if new elections are not announced within eight days of that meeting. The sorts of actions called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) will be addressed then, as we assess what needs to be done after the world comes together, as I hope it does, to point out and act on the fact that Maduro is not the legitimate President of Venezuela.
The Minister mentioned that he accepts that Venezuela is in a state of crisis. If that is the case and that is the Government’s position, why are they wasting taxpayers’ money on trying repeatedly to appeal the asylum claim of my 73-year-old constituent Nelly Gelves, which was approved by a tribunal? Is it their intention to send her back to Venezuela while it is in that state of crisis?
As the hon. Lady will well appreciate, asylum is a semi-judicial process that is handled by the Home Office. I regret that I am unfamiliar with that case and she did not notify me of it in advance of the debate, so I did not ask the appropriate questions in advance.
In addition to what I have described, the UK stands with Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands in demanding the announcement of urgent free and fair elections within six days, and in calling for a legitimate Government to be established. We stand with the Organisation of American States and the Lima Group, whose members last September referred the Venezuelan Government to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in saying that the National Assembly and its president, Juan Guaidó, are best placed to lead Venezuela to the restoration of its democracy, its economy and its freedom.
I have no more time, I am afraid. I have to leave the hon. Member for Hyndburn a couple of minutes at the end.
Today, we should all stand together against the tyranny of Nicolás Maduro and in support of the legitimate democratic forces in Venezuela. Venezuela can and must recover from the depths of its current despair. To do so, it needs an end to tyranny, an end to corruption and an urgent return to freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
This has been a very worthwhile debate, and the contributions by nearly all Members were exceedingly valid. I hope the Minister reflects on the questions that Members asked and provides some sort of response to them. I think that would prove worthwhile. This issue appears not to be going away. In fact, it may deteriorate somewhat; we ought to be mindful that the crisis may become even bigger in the coming days, weeks and months.
We must think immediately about the people who are suffering. Yes, there is a political question—yes, there is a bankrupt Marxist Administration running the country down—but right now, as the vice-chair of the APPG on Venezuela, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), said, there is a humanitarian catastrophe. We simply are not putting enough resources in. I am not backing away from attacking the failed Marxist regime, but the people who are suffering should be paramount in our thoughts tonight, this week and next week. We should all take away the experiences that the hon. Gentleman recounted as our lasting memory of this debate. I say in summary that the contribution from the UK Government needs to increase dramatically.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.