Colin Burgon (Elmet, Labour)
Mr. Cook, I hear your wise words about the coming warm weather and about the length of our speeches. Bearing that in mind, I shall take no interventions during my speech, in the hope that hon. Members will be able to speak later.
The debate is about the changes in Latin America. In this country, we talk about Africa and AIDS, about the middle east and about the growth of economic power in India and China, but Latin America is the one continent that seems to have disappeared from our radar. In talking about Latin America, the word that we should use is change, and that is the central issue of the debate. I am pleased to say that that change reflects a move to the left; Opposition Members might not share my feelings, but there we are. That left movement has many variants in countries such as Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and, of course, Venezuela. Indeed, I was delighted to hear the President of Brazil speak to us this morning. The content of his speech was brilliant, and I shall try to deal with it later.
Latin America is a huge continent, which has always been considered to be part of the United States' backyard, and it is important that the United Kingdom does not neglect it. If we look at American history, we come across the practice of the Monroe doctrine and the idea of manifest destiny. Prior to the civil war, the southern states tried to expand the slave empire into the Caribbean and Latin America to perpetuate slavery. I am pleased to say that Lincoln and the Republicans opposed that, although Lincoln would turn in his grave if he could see his party's performance in the current context.
My desire to highlight the changes in Latin America and to seek a positive response recently motivated me to ask the Prime Minister for his perspective on events in Latin America, but my diplomatic response to his answer is that I found it somewhat disappointing. Indeed, some people in Latin America found it more than disappointing, and it created a minor political tsunami. I am told that, as a result of my question, I am more famous in Latin America than in Leeds. However, like you, Mr. Cook, I am an eternal optimist and I requested this debate to enable the Government to clarify their policy towards Venezuela and clear up any confusion. That is especially relevant given what can only be described as the excruciatingly embarrassing remarks by a junior Foreign Office Minister in the columns of The Times on
In a general sense, it is worth asking why we should welcome good relations with Venezuela; indeed, that is the question that we are asking today. For those who like to inhabit the world of realpolitik, there is a straightforward answer. Venezuela has the largest proven conventional oil reserves in south America and the sixth largest in the world, at about 77 billion barrels. Only Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iran have larger proven reserves. Even in the simplistic sense of having good relations with people who have something that we need, we should encourage the relationship with Venezuela.
Venezuela also possesses huge reserves of heavy crude oil. During the second half of the 1990s, it was the fifth largest oil producer in the world, behind Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and the US. It is also a significant producer of gas and has about 3 per cent. of the world's total reserves. Interestingly, those sizeable offshore reserves are being exploited at the moment, and licences are being given to foreign companies. Contrary to the situation with oil companies, the law permits 100 per cent. foreign ownership of projects to exploit non-associated natural gas, so there is an interesting opening for people who are interested in gas, and I am sure that there are a few in this room.
Venezuela is also a significant trading partner for the UK. It is our third largest export market in south America and was worth £187 million in 2004. In the same year, the UK imported £213 million of goods from Venezuela. Several leading British companies have investments in the Venezuelan energy sector, and in tourism, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and finance. My second question to the Minister, therefore, is, bearing all that in mind, can he outline the Government's strategy for enhancing British commercial interests in Venezuela, particularly given the strength of competition from countries such as China in the Venezuelan and wider regional market?
I would argue, however, that a Labour Government's foreign policy should be driven not just by considerations of economic self-interest, but by a shared system of political values. As I am sure you would agree, Mr. Cook, the Labour party has a long and honourable record of supporting progressive Governments around the world and of siding with movements that seek to govern in the interests of the majority and to involve the masses of people who, historically, have been ignored. Interestingly, Venezuela was the first country in Latin America to begin the process of rejecting the domination of what we call neo-liberal ideas and the Washington consensus and to experiment with ideas of anti-globalisation. Some historians take the view that the upsurge of discontent in Caracas in February 1989, which resulted in the death of roughly 1,000 people, was as important for Latin America as the fall of the Berlin wall in the same year was for Europe.
Whatever the international significance of those events in Caracas, there can be no doubt that they marked the beginning of a domestic political process that eventually led to the victory of Hugo Chavez in December 1998 and catapulted Venezuela into the limelight in Latin America. That was a novel place for Venezuela, because it had previously attracted little interest in terms of its history or politics, other than as the birthplace of Simon Bolivar, although that is fairly important. According to people to whom I spoke at the Foreign Office, Venezuela was never considered an attractive diplomatic posting. The usual take was that Venezuela was an oil-rich country run by a white, Americanised elite, with nearly 70 per cent. of its 24 million people living on the edge of hunger and poverty.
What was the platform on which Chavez came to power and which has caused such ructions on the continent? Given Opposition and US claims about Chavez's democratic legitimacy, it is interesting to note that he had faced the electorate eight times in six years by the end of 2004—a record that has been matched nowhere else in Latin America and which none of us would like to match. The three central themes of his programme were, first, a radical reform of the economy and, surprisingly, an emphasis on following a third way that was inspired by a certain Tony Blair. That approach was based on what Chavez called a middle road between savage neo-liberalism and failed communism. The second plank was the need to overhaul the country's institutions politically and constitutionally. The third element was the importance of diversifying trading relations away from the dependence on the United States that inevitably and unduly shaped Venezuela's development.
The domestic impact of Chavez's politics is clear. After the dramatic rise in oil prices in 2002 following the failed coup, the Venezuelan Government invested more than $3 billion in social policy reforms in 2005. A series of social investment programmes called missions cover such matters as pre-school education, primary education and literacy, secondary education, vocational worker training, primary health care in the most deprived neighbourhoods and a food distribution programme that covers 60 per cent. of the population. It is estimated that just over 1 million people have acquired literacy skills as a result of those programmes. The poorest in that country have access to medical assistance for the first time ever, thanks partly to the 17,000 medics provided by Cuba.
At international level, President Chavez has attempted to build and broaden links with other countries on the continent. The oil wealth of Venezuela has enabled him to develop regional energy accords with his Caribbean and Latin American neighbours to help with debt problems facing countries such as Argentina and Ecuador, and thereby reduce the influence of the International Monetary Fund in the region. He has even been able to fund regional social programmes such as mission miracle, which enables poor Latin Americans to receive free eye treatment in Venezuela and Cuba.
Venezuela's increasingly active role has met with outright hostility on the part of the right-wing Republican Administration in Washington. As recently as
"working with responsible governments, even responsible governments of the left, like the Brazilian government or the Chilean government, to try and counter these"—
Fortunately, both those Governments have strongly rebutted Ms Rice's statements.
There is great danger in the American attempt to isolate Venezuela. The issue that is playing on America's mind at the moment is links with Iran. There is no future in links with a fundamentalist Islamic regime such as Iran. It is up to the UK to use its position to argue for secular politics that unites us all. It would be bad news if Venezuela was influenced by Islamic fundamentalism coming out of Tehran, just as it would be if it was influenced by Christian fundamentalism coming out of Washington.
Central to the debate is the question of who determines our foreign policy on that huge and changing continent. Can the Minister reassure me that our policy is not being subcontracted out to right-wing elements in the US, and will he show me evidence of how our policy is clearly different in this respect? Does he share my view and that of almost 100 of my parliamentary colleagues—I refer to early-day motion 1644—that all elected Governments in the region should be treated with equal respect and that the US right-wing fundamentalists should desist from efforts to destabilise the democratically elected Chavez Government?
Having listened to President Lula of Brazil this morning, I believe it is clear that fundamental and welcome change is under way in Latin America. Venezuela is at the forefront of that process. How we determine our policy towards that nation will say much about this country. I hope that friendship, solidarity and mutual respect will mark that relationship.