Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)
May I say what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook? You have long experience in diplomacy and foreign affairs and I am sure that you have enjoyed this debate as much as I have. It has been a good debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Colin Burgon on securing the debate, which I am answering on behalf of our noble Friend Lord Triesman, who has responsibility for Latin America in the Foreign Office. I welcome the opportunity to discuss Venezuela and the points raised in today's debate. Venezuela is an important country, and I shall try to explain why we believe that. We have heard some of the reasons already. Venezuela is important regionally and globally, which is reflected in the importance we attach to our bilateral relationship with it. That is why the debate is important. It gives us the opportunity to put that on the record. I will come to the points raised by my hon. Friend in a moment, but we have heard a great number of interesting points.
Daniel Kawczynski stressed the importance of the fight against drugs, which I shall deal with in the body of my reply. He is quite right. My hon. Friend Jon Trickett spoke, and I am glad he did, about the eyeball-swivelling right-wingers on the fringes of American politics who assume that they have a divine right to decide how people should vote and that it is possible to react in any way they want to the decision of the democratic expression of the people in south America and Latin America.
Mark Pritchard warned us about the scale of the task facing the Venezuelan Government in tackling the dreadful poverty that is evident in the country. It was a good warning. My hon. Friend John McDonnell, who has gone now, paid tribute to the women of Venezuela—quite properly, in my view—and listed some of the achievements of the Government in tackling poverty and its social consequences, especially as they affect women. It was important to put that on the record.
My hon. Friend David Taylor reminded us how important co-operation with Venezuela is, especially in the field of drugs. It is a huge problem. I will try to expand on the subject in a moment. His question about a wider debate about American foreign policy is for another occasion and another venue. I seem to spend half my life dealing with that question, but that is for another place.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn gave us an enlightening speech on the historical context, and sketched out some of the reasons why, despite the fact that oil has been around in Venezuela for a long time, it remains a poor country when it ought to be one of the richest in the world, not just in south America. That has ramifications elsewhere as well. My hon. Friend hinted at many reasons why that should be so. He mentioned one that, I think, is the most important. The capacity to govern ought to flow naturally from a democratic election and the decision of the people. If we try to undermine that for partisan reasons, whether they are political, economic or anything else, that is dangerous. That is one of the reasons why Venezuela has for so long had a reputation for instability, when it had democratic elections back in 1947. Since 1958, it has been a reasonably stable democracy by south American standards, although there have been some intervals when that has not been the case. I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that point.
My hon. Friend Tony Lloyd has great experience in these matters. He boiled the importance of the changes that President Chavez and his Government are attempting to implement down to the specific example of a young woman who he met in Venezuela. It is important that we remind ourselves that we are talking not about abstract, high-political notions, but about people and the changes that ought to be happening in such countries. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend do that.
Mr. Keetch has visited Venezuela and seen it for himself. I cannot see any sign that our business relations with Venezuela have cooled as a consequence of statements that have been made over the past few weeks. I am glad to say that. As I will try to argue, it is an important country for us and for the world.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted some important worries about human rights in Venezuela. It is not pro-American to say that one is worried about human rights in any country. It shows a concern about human rights and about how we promote and protect them. No matter which country we look at, that concern ought to be at the heart of foreign policy in any democracy. That is the case in this country, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the subject. It is very encouraging that there is a free press in Venezuela as well as vibrant news media that are not afraid to reflect the concerns of people from all parts of society. We must rejoice in that and do our best to protect it.
I was very glad that Mr. Clifton-Brown made the speech that he did. I have always been a believer in Gramsci's dictum—I never get it right but I think it is about optimism of the spirit and pessimism of the intellect. It is right that we should cast a sceptical eye across any country when we attempt to analyse where it is likely to move. Of course there are problems in Venezuela, as in many other places. The hon. Gentleman expressed a different view from that of some of my hon. Friends about how those issues, including poverty, might best be addressed, but I respect the fact that he has cast a sceptical eye over the question. I know that he feels passionately that Venezuela and its democratic system should be helped whenever that is possible.
The relationship between the United Kingdom and Venezuela is an active one. We work effectively together in several fields, including crime, counter-narcotics and energy. We have an important commercial relationship, as hon. Members have explained. Indeed, UK companies hold large investments in Venezuela. It is the third biggest market for the United Kingdom in Latin America, and it accounts for almost 10 per cent. of our exports in that area of the world—a figure surpassed, I believe, only by Brazil and Mexico.
We work with the Venezuelan authorities in tackling crime and corruption, which are a major impediment to social and economic development throughout Latin America. Recently we sponsored a conference in Venezuela on the role of the police in Latin America and 14 countries from across the region were represented. The event provided a useful space for debate and for the sharing of experiences from the region on transformation and the restructuring of the police.
Our embassy in Caracas is currently running a project aimed at helping Venezuela to develop its national capacity in the energy sector. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire reminded us that there is a world beyond the most immediate of concerns. One thing that worries me as a former Education Minister is that we do not do enough to export the marvellous skills and abilities of this country's further education sector and universities. They do sterling work that is of relevance in this context. I think that the hon. Member for Cotswold raised the point, and the hon. Member for Hereford certainly did, that the economy could be doing better.
Probably, upskilling—to use that awful term—is the most immediate way to achieve an improvement in that regard. We want the Venezuelan economy to improve. It will help if we can work closely with Venezuela on that: it will promote the transfer of knowledge and skills in several key areas. We have close links with the state oil company in Venezuela and with Venezuelan universities and the appropriate Ministries, as well as other public and private organisations that are involved in providing, supporting and developing education and training to the energy sector in Venezuela. Shell, BP and the Wood group are also making efforts to share their expertise to the benefit of Venezuela, as a reflection of their policies of social responsibility, so that they can work as partners in the development of the country's main natural resources.
Those resources are very extensive. We have heard about only one of them today: oil. However, in fact there are extensive and large deposits of other minerals, such as coal, iron ore, bauxite and gold. The country has remarkable natural resources. It is to be hoped that those resources will help to transform the life of the young woman about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central spoke. If the economy could be tailored to make real use of those minerals, that should and could happen.
I do not know whether we need reminding, but in a world of rapidly depleting resources, Venezuela is a great natural resource for the whole world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North hinted, it is also a very fertile country. It should have much stronger agriculture, to feed itself and its neighbours, and to enable it to export around the world. My hon. Friend is right to point out that issue. I have talked about the potential for mining precious minerals—coal is a precious mineral these days—but we need to be careful; many agricultural economies have been destroyed by a sudden rush for mineral wealth. We should be able to help the Venezuelans with that issue, and we ought to do it.
As for the vexed question of drugs, under our EU presidency and in co-operation with the Venezuelan authorities—it was good co-operation—we ran the first meeting of drugs observatories of Latin America and the Caribbean and the EU in Caracas. The meeting reaffirmed the principle of shared responsibility, as well as the role that drugs observatories can play in informing the formulation of policies to carry out effective drug strategies.
I shall not have time to expand on that matter as I wanted to, but as we have had greater success against the go-fast boats in the Caribbean that take cocaine to America and the Caribbean islands the drug traffickers have switched their attention. Venezuela is suffering as a consequence of the transhipping of drugs across Venezuela towards Guyana and down to Brazil. The drugs go to the ports in those countries, where they are shipped to west Africa. They then come up through west Africa and into Europe. The people involved are endlessly resourceful. They are well financed. They are having a tremendously corrosive effect in the northern part of south America, and we must work closely with the Venezuelans on that.