Baroness Rawlings (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Conservative)
My Lords, I too would like to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, on securing this very interesting debate. I agree with my noble friends Lord Walker and Lady Hooper that it is grand to see him back in the House and championing Latin American causes so eloquently.
This debate coincides today with Bolivia's talks with Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, in Argentina, to discuss its move to extend state control over its natural gas assets. As many of your Lordships have highlighted today, the recent electoral victories are seen as forming part of a seamless web of leftism spreading throughout the southern and central American countries.
While the new leaders' policies vary in terms of political ideology, on the whole they are all linked to a strong populism tradition, one major common thread being that of nationalism. This has been aptly demonstrated by Bolivia's 100-day old president, Evo Morales, who ordered the military to seize the natural gas fields controlled by foreign investors over the weekend. This follows in the wake of similar moves by Venezuela's government, led by President Hugo Chavez in early April. It is of significant importance in the context of today's fragile energy climate. As we heard, Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in the region. We forget at our peril that energy demands and economic development go hand in hand with political stability. This was stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons.
The Bolivian leader has said that private energy companies will have to review their contracts, selling their controlling stakes in energy to his government. During that time, the government say they will carry out audits of each company to determine how much they should pay for a stake of at least 51 per cent in each. It may not have alarmed several of your Lordships who have spoken here today, but the move has definitely alarmed Brazil and other key foreign investors. With Brazil relying on Bolivia for half of its gas, stakes will be high when they meet—especially as its state-owned energy company Petrobras is the biggest investor in Bolivia's gas fields.
Speaking recently, Bolivia's Left-wing president, Mr Morales, said:
"The pillage of our natural resources by foreign companies is over".
He also said that the gas fields were,
"just the beginning, because tomorrow it will be the mines, the forest resources and the land".
That is heady rhetoric, bearing in mind that the fate of Bolivia's gas reserves was at the heart of protests which saw two previous presidents thrown out of office.
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the argument made by the noble Lords, Lord Brennan and Lord Rea, in favour of nationalisation. Today is not the place or time to pursue it, but I look forward to another occasion when we can discuss it. Can the Minister inform the House what assessment the Government have made of the evolving situation in Bolivia and how that may affect regionalism moves in the easternmost provinces? What steps have Her Majesty's Government taken to try to promote good governance in both Bolivia and the region as a whole?
There is further concern that arises from the events at the weekend, namely the growing influence that President Chavez appears to have over the new Bolivian president who, among other things, is against open trade and regional integration. Such principles go against the very core of what Mercosur is trying to achieve in the creation of a common market and customs union between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and now Venezuela. What assessment have the Government made of the effect of the new "people's trade bloc" agreement between Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia? How do they think this will work with regard to the aims of Mercosur?
I would also be interested to hear the Minister's comments on Venezuela's nuclear ambition a year on, considering recent events. Following the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, can the Minister update us on the current meetings of the recent WTO that started this week, following reports in the press on Monday that ambassadors from the WTO member countries are increasingly concerned that talks are headed for failure?
During my noble friend Lady Hooper's debate last year I reiterated comments from the BBC that Brazil was,
"a gentle giant awakening, despite its continuing problems".—[Hansard, 26/5/05; col. 639.]
There can be no doubt that President Lula has made an impact. Following his predecessor's policies with regard to IMF targets and fiscal discipline, he has not just worked on slow and steady economic stability but also on social progress, inequality and poverty alleviation.
I hope that the Minister can inform the House how the Government can maintain a balance of keeping the pressure on Brazil to tackle its remaining problems while supporting its move to play a greater international role through its dynamic economy and its position as a weighty power, not only within the region but in the world.
It would be impossible to have this debate without mentioning the importance of Mexico and its influence on the group of countries who are balanced on an interdependent knife-edge where lawlessness, particularly drug-related crime, national debt, poverty and social inequality in one can easily overspill into another. There are vitally important presidential elections on
I have had time to pick out but a few of the countries discussed today, although the issues, both positive and negative, flow throughout the continent. Central and South America are a part of the world that we must keep high on the agenda. I support the theme of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that educational links are so important. I am proud that we have a very active Latin American department at King's College London. I suggest that we have another debate in six months' time, when the result of the important elections will have been declared. It is imperative that we are more active in this region and work towards maintaining good relations with these exciting, dynamic powers.