It is my pleasure to lead this debate about Britain's relations with Latin America, a region with which we have long historic and sentimental ties with which all hon. Members will be familiar. We also have ties of interest involving economic, financial and trading links which to some extent developed around those historical ties. The historic ties give British exporters and traders a head start to develop those ties and links further. The economic links, in purely quantitative terms, are still very small in comparison with our links with other regions and countries, but they can be developed, especially if the debt problem can be resolved. No matter how small the links, the United Kingdom needs every profitable trading partner that it can get in the present economic circumstances.
I wish to refer to two countries in particular which I believe are the most exciting countries in Latin America at the moment—Chile and Nicaragua. The juxtaposition of those two countries may appear strange and even somewhat bizarre but anyone considering the political processes in those countries at the moment, given the troubled pasts which they have had to overcome in recent years—each in their separate ways—cannot fail to be excited at the prospects.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Chile for the first time and returned full of a greater confidence and hope for that country's future than I could have imagined before my visit. It appears to me that the political process towards democracy in Chile is still proceeding smoothly. I do not think that there is any reason at this stage, given the way in which the Chilean people have organised themselves to reach this point, to be pessimistic about the culmination of that process at the end of this year.
The temporarily troublesome constitutional reforms have been approved. They are not perfect or complete, but they provide a good basis on which to go forward. The opposition parties are united, and that is a key to the further development of democracy in that country. President Pinochet has been increasingly isolated since the referendum, and that is no small contributor to the progress towards democracy. Even the Right-wing elements who have not had to practise genuine politics in the past because they have been able to rely on a dictatorial regime are increasingly working within the system, organising themselves politically, and thinking about how to mobilise their point of view within a democratic framework. If matters proceed as smoothly as they appear to be at present, we can hope that in just a few years people will look back at the period of dictatorship as a horrible aberration in Chilean history which is shameful and embarrassing to the Chilean people.
Great strengths are underpinning progress. One is the relative economic growth of Chile compared with other Latin American countries, which gives a happier context for progress to democracy. I will say another word about the economic context in a short while as it may not be so sound as it might at first appear. Perhaps the greatest strength—much greater than economic forces—is the spirit of the people, who did not cease to demand and cry out for democracy during the dictatorship. Something which was new to me and which struck me quite forcefully in Chile was the history of the technocratic approach which imbues much of the professional classes, the middle classes to some extent, and the civil servants working within the political system. The technocratic or professional ethos has strong historical roots.
Despite all the acts of oppression for which the dictatorship was responsible during its rule, there was a remarkable absence of petty financial corruption which can reach quite large amounts in Latin American countries. That was most clear in the dying months of the regime when privatisation measures were rushed through before the introduction of democracy and the will of the people again began to be predominant in Chilean society. One might deplore any such measures being rushed through before the new democratic era can begin and before people can express their wishes through the ballot box, but no matter how much one might deplore the privatisation scramble, it does not seem to be marked by obvious corruption of the kind that one might expect in a Latin American country.
That great strength underlies and underpins the progress towards democracy, and it is most clear in the work of the electoral commission. I had the great pleasure of meeting the organiser of the recent referendum, who will also organise the next election. I was left in no doubt about the electoral commission's integrity and ability to conduct a democratic, fair and clean election in Chile, if it is allowed to do so.
Despite those strengths, there are also problems to which I believe that our Government should be paying attention. Some of the problems are internal—for example, the difficulty that a new democratic Government in Chile will face in reconciling the need for stability in the new political framework with the satisfaction of social demands. Unions have been oppressed and hounded to a disgraceful extent, but they will find their voice in the new democratic context and the Chilean Government will have to reconcile that with the need to maintain stability.
There will be the perceived problem concerning those responsible for human rights violations, but here again the distinctive character of Chilean political culture will come to the rescue. To some extent, the Pinochet regime in the past has been able to cover human rights abuses with a veil of legality and thus has exploited respect for the legal process which exists in Chile. It is that very respect for the legal process—that tradition of legality—which will be the undoing of those who were responsible for the abuses in the past as the legal system in Chile takes its course unhindered by those who wish to cover up past abuses.
There will be problems, too, in the new political framework after democracy. There are questions hanging over the readiness of those on the far Right, who have had a clear run for the past decade and a half, to reconcile themselves not just to the outcome of democracy in Chile, but to the full vigour of democracy in Chile.
The biggest problem will be one of economics, which all Latin American countries face. There has been talk of a Chilean miracle. I have already referred to the relative growth in Chile compared with other countries. We should not be led into thinking that somehow Chile has reached the same level of economic take-up as the tiger economies of south-east Asia. That clearly is not the case. Chile is still very much dependent on the world economy. Though it has benefited nationally as an economy in a period of relative world growth, it could just as easily suffer if there is a period of relative stagnation. That is why it is important for the prospects of democracy in Chile that steps be taken to solve the debt problem which, in common with every other Latin American country, Chile still faces.
The British Government's policy towards Chile in these times should be to encourage the progress that has already been made. They should applaud it, welcome it and discourage utterly any thoughts of regression or backsliding after the election. Unfortunately, however, we do not gain much encouragement from the Government's handling of other matters—for instance, their rapid embrace of China so shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen square. The Government's attitude sends out entirely the wrong message. I hope that the Chilean military, having witnessed the British Government's spineless response to China, will receive a message from this debate that the same will not he tolerated in Chile after the elections.
The biggest problem facing Chile, like all Latin American countries, is its debt problem. It is no use pretending that the solution to the problem will not cost the western economies money. The debt problem is common among Latin American countries. Brazil has perhaps the most severe debt problem, amounting to £110 billion, and in terms of its gross national product is expected to pay back three times as much as Germany after the first world war. That is intolerable and unfair.
Nicaragua, too, has severe economic problems, although its achievements since the revolution have been truly momentous, as anyone who has visited it can attest. Its most notable achievements have been in the social realm, literacy, public health and democratic politics, which are sometimes not appreciated by the Governments here and in Washington. One has only to compare Nicaraguan society with other central American states to realise how open and democratic it is. Some people like to tell stories of newspapers being closed temporarily and of people being imprisoned temporarily, but we must remember that Nicaragua is or has been at war with a foreign invader. When Britain faced a similar military threat in the last war, we locked up our Oswald Mosleys. Such occurrences must be understood, if not always applauded.
The British Government's attitude to Nicaragua has been truly miserable and grudging, and it is a further example of their deplorable overseas aid record. Their grudging attitude was exemplified by the humiliating reception that President Ortega was given at Downing street. Perhaps "humiliating" is too strong—it would be more accurate to say that the reception was intended to be humiliating. The fact that the Nicaraguan revolution had survived the United States' attacks for years and that its president was received by the United States' foremost ally showed that President Ortega and the Nicaraguan people had triumphed.
Travelling in Latin America, one finds that almost everyone of every political shade is disaffected with the British Government's attitude to the region. Whether Right-wing or Left-wing, they all feel that the United Kingdom is throwing away a heritage of good will which could be put to good use. If we listened to our interests and best instincts rather than to Washington, we could develop a policy towards that region which would be more rational and humane.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on joining us at this late hour to talk about the important subject of foreign affairs in general and Latin America in particular. I hope that it will be a pleasure for him, as it is for us. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on giving us the opportunity for this debate.
This is our second debate on the subject and it is becoming something of an annual fixture. As the chairman of the all-party Latin America committee, I greatly welcome that, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who is its excellent secretary. It gives some of us the opportunity, whatever the hour, once a year to recognise the important historical, cultural, trading and political links which have existed between the United Kingdom and Latin America for two centuries. We all recognise that in recent decades those links have fallen away. We particularly lament the decline in trade and applaud the efforts of the Latin American Trade Advisory Group, Canning house and individual firms. We hope that British industry will come increasingly to understand that Latin America is by no means entirely as the media portray it. Those of us with knowledge of Latin America lament the wholly woeful and misleading image created by the extremely small handful of British journalists who concentrate on the region. I could give several recent examples, but in view of the time and the encouraging number of hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall forbear.
Latin America has serious problems. The hon. Member for Western Isles referred to the debt problem. I hope that the Brady plan, which has been given another impetus recently, will lead to progress, but it will not be easy. The problem is of a different order and character from, for example, the debt problems of sub-Saharan Africa, on which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken such an impressive and encouraging initiative. We cannot take a similar initiative in Latin America because the context is different. We need to collaborate on the debt problem and I hope that the Brady plan will show us the way forward.
We are collaborating on drugs. It is a two-way problem—the supply and demand of a market. We in the western world must recognise our heavy responsibility for creating the demand. If there were no demand in our societies, the problems associated with drug trafficking in the region would be greatly diminished or even removed. We need international co-operation, and I am glad that the Government are showing the way forward.
Sadly, too, we share problems of violence and terrorism. A number of countries in Latin America have struggled, on the whole successfully, to develop and promote democracy against a background of violence unknown to us even in Northern Ireland.
Another area in which increasing collaboration between us and Latin America is important is in respect of ecology and the rain forests. My right hon. Friend who has been elevated to the position of Secretary of State for the Environment pointed the way in his most successful and last overseas visit as Minister for Overseas Development, with his agreement with Brazil making progress in that area.
Those are the problems, but the successes in Latin America should also be recognised, especially the development and progress of democracy. Argentina has recently had elections and for the first time in 60 years one democratically elected Government handed over to another. In December there will be elections in Chile, and the hon. Member for Western Isles spoke of his impression of the evolution of the democratic process in Chile. There will be elections in Peru in July. President Stroessner has departed the scene in Paraguay. Uruguay has recovered its traditional stability, and even in Mexico the PRI—the Partido Revolucionario Institucional—which has for long in effect been the country's one party is now having to yield and allow alternatives in some of the provinces.
Those are important changes, but the change on which I wish to concentrate is that which is occurring in Argentina, in view of the important effect on this country. Mr. Carlos Menem frightened many people, including many Argentinians, in his election campaign. He is a Peronist and as yet nobody knows what his utterances mean in terms of political reality. Some of his campaign rhetoric, including his talk of shedding blood to recover the Falkland Islands, created the worst fears in many of us who wish to see a stable and prosperous Argentina. As things have turned out so far, however—I accept that only a brief time has elapsed—the prospects look different. He has announced courageous policies to tackle the extraordinarily difficult economic problems that he inherited and has made appointments which have surprised everyone and appear to augur well. Sadly, he suffered the sudden death of Senor Roig, the Finance Minister, only days after he was appointed, but another executive has been appointed who seems determined to carry out the kind of policies of which Conservative Members would approve—policies which have demonstrated their efficacy wherever in the world they have been applied. The prospects in Argentina domestically, against a hugely threatening backdrop, are far more encouraging than one would have dared hope before the change of presidency.
Another area of change which affects us deeply and directly is the apparent change of policy of President Menem, his Foreign Minister and his Government in regard to the Falkland Islands, and I hope that in his reply the Minister will give an idea of the reaction of the British Government to the developments because, as I say, in the election campaign Mr. Menem spoke of recovering the islands, if necessary, "by blood and fire."
Since then the change of tone has been absolute. The Foreign Minister, Domingo Cavallo, has said in an interview:
Our objective is the re-establishment of full relations. The idea is to find a formula so that each side can preserve the rights it has—or believes it has—in the islands. In that way the advantages that are gained from the re-establishment of relations do not prejudice either of the two countries in their rights over the islands.
Other statements in the same vein have been made by the Argentina Foreign Minister and by the Argentine President. Indeed, the President's response to the message of good will from our Prime Minister was also positive. The House will recall that it was in significant contrast to the response of President Alfonsin at the time of his inauguration in December 1983, which verged on the churlish. President Menem has shown a different tone, so the spotlight returns to us and to our response.
We are talking about practical improvements. I accept that the British Government's record is good. They have made a series of forward gestures in opening trade and being easier about visas, but there is now a distinct and new atmosphere which we must seize and of which we must take full advantage. I understand the concerns that such statements cause in the Falkland Islands, but the long-term interests of the islanders can be guaranteed only by a different set of relationships from those obtaining at present. The people of this country will come to expect a positive move forward.
Six months after the 1982 war, I was fortunate enough—if that is the appropriate word—to be invited to a foundry in my constituency where the war memorial to be erected in Port Stanley was being cast. It was to list the names of the 250 of our men who fell in the Falkland Islands conflict. Over that weekend, I had the privilege of meeting about 25 per cent. of the next of kin of those who lost their lives in the war. If there was one sentiment common to all those families—to the widows, the mothers and the fathers to whom I spoke—it was, "I recognise that my son died in a just cause and that he was doing his duty as a member of the regular forces, but I look to you, as politicians, so to change the position that no others need to die in that cause—there must be another way."
I believe that there is such a way, and we must not miss the opportunity that is opening up, although I recognise that we must be cautious. My hon. Friend the Minister's predecessor and the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who usually speaks on Latin America for the Opposition, have produced reactions that were on the cool and even negative side. New thinking is needed.
I close with what used to be a fairly well-known Shakespearian quotation but one which is less heard these days:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shadows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
This is such a venture. The re-establishment of a sensible relationship with Argentina on the Falkland Islands to preserve the interests of the islanders is an opportunity that we must not lose.
I shall be as brief as I can as this debate can last for only one and a half hours and others wish to speak. Unfortunately, the subject is yet again being debated in the middle of the night, although there is something rather special about debating Latin America before 3 am as it usually comes up at around 5 am. The debate is valuable, if only to demonstrate that one of the problems with British policy towards Latin America is that there is no policy—just a series of decisions which may or may not be made on national or economic issues. There is very little overall strategy.
I do not wish to get involved in the discussion about the Falklands, but I must say that I opposed the Falklands war and I never want there to be another one. I suspect that Conservative Members may one day realise that the fortress Falklands policy, which has so far cost £3·5 billion and will cost us considerably more, maintains only a state of armed neutrality in the south Atlantic. They know that at some stage there will have to be a move towards real peace, if only to avoid spending such ridiculously large sums of money, which are designed to promote the image of the Prime Minister leading the country to a great national victory when in fact she did not take the opportunities for peace that were open to her at the time.
Destruction of the tropical rain forests, and the pollution that goes with it, is extremely serious because the world requires large areas of forest cover to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which sustains life. We all know that what happens to the Amazonian rain forest is crucial to the rest of the world. Any encouragement to countries in the Amazon basin to conserve the rain forest and to use it in a sustainable way so that it is a permanent resource for the world rather than something that is pillaged, as is currently happening, is greatly to be welcomed.
I recognise the deep sensitivities involved in other countries lecturing Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guyana and Suriname on the preservation of the rain forest. President Garcia of Peru asked, cleverly, how it is that western Europe, having destroyed all its own forests, is now lecturing them about conserving theirs. That is a fair point but, like others, he has also considered the economic circumstances which lead to rain forests being destroyed. The Governments and peoples of the countries in the area do not necessarily want to destroy the rain forests—it is simply a matter of economics. We have a great deal to answer for in that respect. Through European money, International Monetary Fund money and particularly World Bank money, much destruction has been financed to provide cheap minerals for multinational capital elsewhere.
There has to be a change of attitude and an understanding of the strong link between the economic policies pursued by the world's financial institutions and damage to the environment in grossly indebted countries. One cannot separate the two. I hope that there will be continuing pressure on the World Bank to adopt even better environmental policies and that support for the protection of the rain forests and the people who live in them will continue. The construction of the trans-Amazonian highway and railway and mining schemes involve the murder of Indian people in their thousands. We must do all that we can to ensure that our policies preserve the rain forest and make it a viable proposition for all time. At present, we are destroying plant and animal species by the hour, and thousands of acres of forest by the day. If this continues, it will be to the cost of all of us.
Only a short time ago the House debated the Antarctic Minerals Bill. Chile and Argentina both have substantial claims in the Antarctic. I hope that they do not ratify the convention on the regulation of Antarctic mineral resource activities, which will pave the way for the investigation and, I believe, exploitation of minerals in Antarctica. If we are serious about preserving the world's environment, we must look at equally sensitive ecosystems existing in an entirely different climate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) spoke at length about the growth of debt in Latin America. It is indeed frightening that around 1960 Latin America was not an indebted continent but 29 years later it is deep in debt—not because it is intrinsically infertile or over-populated, nor because it cannot produce food or does not contain many able and brilliant people, but as a result of a world economic system which seeks to take considerable resources out of the continent and to repatriate large profits from multinational capital. As a result, the poorest people in the poorest countries are suffering the effects of debt.
When Peru attempted to limit its debt repayments to no more than 10 per cent. of its gross national product, the world's banking institutions conspired to home in and prevent it from carrying out that policy, insisting that Peru accept IMF conditions which it may or may not negotiate in the future. Exactly the same conditions operate elsewhere—they are always linked with what is euphemistically called economic restructuring, but is in fact our good old friend Tory economic policy writ large, involving cuts in public expenditure, large-scale privatisation of industries and damage to the living standards of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries of the world.
If we are genuinely concerned about those people, we must come up with something better than either the Baker plan or the Brady plan and start talking in terms of improving commodity prices, limiting the repatriation of profits by multinational companies and writing off and rescheduling debt. Otherwise the eternal cycle of debt, poverty, further debt and further poverty will go on and on. The Brady plan is aimed at privatising countries out of debt, but it will not work because it merely transfers political control to those who have pushed that policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles mentioned Chile. Obviously, no one will be happier than I shall when democracy has returned to Chile, when there is genuine freedom of speech, when trade unions can operate openly and freely and the police do not have the power to gun down, tear-gas and arrest people for exercising their democratic rights. I also very much hope to see the end of General Pinochet. We should give the new constitution a cautious welcome, although it is not completely democratic. Inbuilt powers still exist for Pinochet and his successor and for the armed forces, and it cannot be called a democratic constitution according to the European model. We should also remember the thousands who lost their lives following the murder of President Allende in 1973, and those who sought refuge and asylum in other parts of the world. I hope that the nightmare in Chile is ending, but I suspect that in its death throes the military dictatorship will get up to all sorts of awful things in the next few months.
My final point on national matters in Latin America concerns El Salvador. I understand that soon the Government will welcome the ARENA president of El Salvador, President Cristiani, to Britain. I hope that when he arrives the Minister concerned will raise with him the matter of the proposed legislation which is designed to destroy popular movements in El Salvador and covers the military encirclement of trade union offices, the continuing growth of death squads, continuing violence, the disappearance of people who support human rights and democracy and the corruption, if that is the right word, of what remains of the land reform programme in El Salvador. Until there is social justice in El Salvador and in the rest of Latin America, there will never be real peace. I hope that the Government will address those problems when they welcome President Cristiani to this country.
I hope that the Government also recognise that the American approach to El Salvador is causing the problems. America pours in more military aid than it gives to any other country with the exception of Israel. El Salvador is impoverished, a fifth of its population consists of internal or external refugees, and most of its people live in the worst possible conditions. Yet despite those facts, all the American aid goes to support the country's armed forces. I want to see real peace and democracy in El Salvador, but the realisation of those hopes is not consistent with the amount of military aid being poured in by the United States. Until the social injustices are put right, there will never be real peace in El Salvador.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for initiating the debate. He and I represented the House in a delegation from the all-party British Latin American group which went to Chile in May. The hon. Gentleman played a significant and fair-minded part in that delegation. I welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury). I know that he will enjoy the traditional warm good will that Latin Americans show to Britain and I wish him all success in his task.
I hope that the debate, which follows the one held last year and which was the first for 38 years on the subject, demonstrates a growing revival of interest by the House in Latin America. Britain was the godmother of Latin American independence and many regard Canning, the Foreign Secretary of the day, as the godfather. Much of the infrastructure of Latin America's economies, its transport and banking systems and industrial heritage were put in place by Britain. We have a long history of co-operation rather than domination in the continent, which provides a good base for strengthening our relationships.
Perhaps the greatest problem in Latin America for us rests in Argentina. The scars of the Falklands crisis are still too vivid to be forgotten, and we are in the absurd situation in which otherwise normal relations between our two countries are in suspense, despite historic ties of blood, commerce and culture which go back more than two centuries. Argentina is again a democracy, and for the first time for many years we have seen one democratically elected president taking over from another.
Despite the many blood curdling aspects of his election campaign, Carlos Menem is showing good signs in the direction of a resolution of the problems which currently underlie relations between our two countries. We should take encouragement from President Menem's statement about the Falklands, in which he said:
Sovereignty is a subject which we, the Argentinians, are never going to renounce—and I do not think the United Kingdom will do so either.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) pointed out, Argentina's new Foreign Minister is already looking at ways in which a dialogue can be opened up rapidly between our two countries. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take full advantage of that window of opportunity to open up talks and achieve a normalisation of diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations.
When Latin Americans talk of Britain, they say that one of the principal contributions that we have made to the world is that of democratic institutions. They hold this place in the highest regard. Over the past few years, almost all the republics of Latin America have returned to democracy, some from subjugation by exceptionally brutal military regimes. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and others are struggling to foster responsible representative democracy against the background of horrendous economic difficulties.
One of the principal problems lies with the restoration of effective democratic parties following the destruction wreaked by military dictatorship. That is particularly true of Chile, where the Right-wing parties have suffered notably more than those of the Left. I wonder whether we, as representatives of the "mother of party democracy", are applying sufficient resources in this area in which we have such an impressive wealth of practical experience to contribute.
Many countries in the region deserve congratulation on their transition to democracy. The latest example has been Chile, which has astonished the world with its smooth process through constitutional referenda towards the presidential and congressional elections due to be held in December. Despite the reservations that we may have about their brutal record on human rights, President Pinochet and his regime deserve recognition for the determined way in which they have led the country back to democracy. Perhaps the greatest endowment that they will bestow on the restored democracy will be the relatively most healthy economy in Latin America. The test of that democracy will be whether its new policies can be compatible with continuing and growing economic prosperity. Argentina under Raul Alfonsin is a bitter warning to Latin American democrats of the penalties for irresponsible policies and failure to take the necessary decisions.
A number of Latin American countries have still to return to democracy. Nicaragua last voted in 1984, in elections which were delayed and then staged under conditions so open to poll rigging that the main opposition alliance boycotted them. The Government of Nicaragua are committed to elections next February, and the opposition have agreed to contest them, but will the Sandinistas, with their record of repression, political prisoners and censorship, give a fair wind to the elections? What democratic guarantees will be on offer? Independent oversight of the poll and the freedoms of campaigning and the press must be upheld.
We all know what happened as a result of the May election in Panama. Haiti has reverted to yet another military dictatorship. Paraguay has recently returned to democracy, but we must never forget that the recent election there was held under Stroessner's distorted electoral law and voters list. Nor should we forget that President Rodriguez was a close associate of his dictatorial predecessor. We must make it clear that we continue to have considerable reservations about all those countries.
A growing interest in Latin America is centred around the real threat to the rain forest in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazonia. We have a major part to play in view of our technical expertise, which is particularly manifested in the Oxford Forestry Institute and at Kew. Experts in tropical rain forests, such as John Hemmings and Ghillean Prance, have much to offer to enable an economically viable but ecologically preserved Amazonia to prosper. This is why we must welcome the recent agreement concluded with Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), which brings much of this expertise to bear in co-operation with the Brazilians. It is the first agreement of its sort and contrasts well with the rhetoric emanating from the United States and elsewhere which so inflames the Brazilian public and political opinion.
We should speak out also against the international desecrators of the rain forest. We rightly take an interest in British companies which perhaps inadvertently have Brazilian subsidiaries and affiliates which commit environmental excesses, and we should speak out against destructive exploiters of the rain forest. I think in particular of the Japanese exploiters of hardwood, who have already wreaked havoc in Burma and Borneo and are reported to be planning the rape of the Brazilian state of Acre along a transport route through Peru.
British trade with South America has had a sad record in recent decades. Even now, our share of Latin American imports has risen to only 3 per cent. I note the significant increase in British trade missions in recent years and the increasing number of Ministers making visits, but one visitor who would make a major impact is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Government's great successes in transforming the British economy, vastly increasing productivity and pioneering privatisation have excited the interest of Latin Americans. A visit by the architect of that transformation would focus interest on the potential for business with Britain. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will note that and consider enticing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with the prospect of a visit to São Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, to Colombia and Venezuela, and to Chile after the restoration of democracy.
We also need visits by many more business men to the region to foster British exports and investment. The great Latin American cities provide sophistication and comfort to rival any in Europe. It is not a discomfort prospect. Business men will need to gain a knowledge of the languages, which are Spanish and Portuguese, and although it is not the subject of the debate, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will emphasise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science the importance of those languages. Spanish, after all, is the most spoken international language after English.
The debate has necessarily been short. We spend little enough time in the House on foreign affairs, and most of that is on European affairs with a little on the Commonwealth, but we must never forget our friends in Latin America and the outstanding potential of a region whose GDP is greater than that of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia put together. The opportunities for us are immense if we do not neglect that continent.
I shall start by sketching a little history of Latin America. If time had permitted, I should have gone back to the Incas and perhaps even earlier. Unfortunately, time does not permit, so I will go back only about 200 years to the period when the great liberator, Simon Bolivar, was hard at work getting rid of the Spanish yoke. There was Bolivar in the north and San Martin in the south, and we should not forget the help that the British Government of the day gave those two liberators. It should not be forgotten that British troops fought beside the liberator. Nor should we forget the reverence in which Bolivar is still held. I remember well crossing a square in Caracas where there was a splendid equestrian statue of the liberator. A man was on duty, and if people attempted to carry parcels past the statue or to sit on the steps around its base, the man would advance blowing a whistle to drive them away. Could we find such an example of reverence for a great national figure of the past?
We have heard a great deal about Argentina. I have reservations about President Menem because I have strong reservations about Peronism, which seems to be rather an unpleasant creed. None the less, we must wish him well and every success with his beautiful country, which has the potential to be one of the most prosperous in the world. Let us hope that he gets it right.
I continue to skate northwards very rapidly, to Nicaragua. It is my belief that the United States Government got it wrong, and that the Somoza regime was particularly unpleasant and should not have been bolstered and kept going. America should have taken the longer-term view by getting rid of Somoza and encouraging Nicaragua to take the road to prosperity rather than repression.
Other hon. Members have touched on the Falklands. I have just received the latest issue of the Falkland Islands Newsletter, which mentions Peronism and the fact that it directs that
Argentine school children be taught from infancy that `The Malvinas' are theirs by right so that they actually believe it.
That is not the way forward. Good will is needed on both sides, not that sort of propaganda.
I spoke briefly of Britain's historical contacts with Latin America. Even to this day, the English are much liked in south America.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely correct, particularly bearing in mind that Admiral Cochrane was a Scot.
To this day, the British are well liked in south America. Twelve years ago, I spent six months travelling around south America, and as soon as the local people discovered that I was not "Americano" or "Yankee" but "Inglese", their attitude changed. There is a great fund of good will for the British in south America, and we should not throw it away but develop it.
By leave of the House, even at this late hour I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on securing the debate, and welcome the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
As other hon. Members have observed, Latin America is increasingly at the margin of British interest. The total value of our exports to Latin America in 1987 was less than that of those to Norway. In the past 30 years, Britain's share of Latin American imports has fallen by two thirds, and that country's share of British imports by four fifths. Britain makes a relatively insignificant contribution in terms of services to Latin America, whose total share of British aid is less than 3 per cent.
To most British people, Latin America is an unknown continent with a negative image of debt, rain forest destruction, poverty, drugs and dictatorship, but in the past decade there have been extensive moves to democracy in Latin America. One thinks of Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina—and this year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, to which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) properly referred.
Elected Governments in those countries are increasingly under pressure as democracy, sadly, fails to deliver in economic terms. A regrettable feature of centre Governments is that they are increasingly losing out to the extreme Left or extreme Right—and the end of that road may be a a return to military dictatorships, as people yearn for the stability offered by military Governments of the past.
We must constantly remind ourselves that democracy is not just a matter of constitutional structures but of human and social rights. A democracy that cannot deliver is a shaky democracy. In particular, one now sees problems in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina.
The debt problem has been mentioned. The net outflow of resources from Latin America last year was in excess of $28·9 billion and the flow of investment to Latin America was only $4·3 billion. There are no clear signs of growth and inflation is high. One asks whether democracy can find an easy route in such circumstances.
What role can Britain usefully play, given the decline in our influence and commitment to Latin America? The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), who has an extensive knowledge of the region, bewailed the few British journalists in the area. He might also have mentioned the decline in language studies, other than French, in Britain.
Save for the peculiar bilateral difficulties of the Falklands and Argentina, our policy towards Latin America will increasingly be seen in a European context, particularly because of the important historic and cultural links between the Iberian countries. I do not suggest that there should be an exclusive relationship, but that special relationship in the past will have to be addressed.
What, then, are the specific and general areas of impact on the United Kingdom which are worth recording? The debt problem was much stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). The foreign currency spent on servicing debt clearly reduces growth and the possibility of imports from the First world. Short-term emergency packages are insufficient. As the hon. Member for Wycombe stressed, the Baker plan did not work, but the Brady plan for debt reduction at least has some greater hope of working. Are the British Government planning any initiative to reach a lasting settlement? I see that not in the context of bailing out those banks—particularly the American banks, but not exclusively so—which in the 1960s and 1970s saw it as their job to lend. Certainly the structure and composition of the debt is different from the public debt which applies in Africa south of the Sahara.
The drugs problem has also been mentioned by several hon. Members. It is significant that 40 per cent. of the cocaine seized in Europe last year came from Colombia and 20 per cent. from Ecuador. What co-operation are the Government receiving from Latin American countries on the drugs problem and to what extent are the Government prepared to assist in measures such as crop substitution?
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned the destruction of the rain forests. The Opposition welcome the initiatives of the Secretary of State for the Environment in his previous incarnation as Minister for Overseas Development and we hope that he will carry that same commitment to his wider responsibilities in his new Department. In particular, we note his pressure on British companies which operate in the area, such as Shell in Brazil, following allegations of their supplying fuel to mineral prospectors in Bua Vista in the north of Brazil and elsewhere.
It is in human rights that the Government have had the greatest failure in the past decade, in particular in their non-intervention when so many Latin American Governments tolerated death squads and vigilantes who co-operated with the security forces. I recall that in 1983, in the port of Valparaiso in Chile, on the 11th anniversary of the bombing of the Moneda palace the British ambassador was handing over a warship to the Chileans, while, in contrast, the French ambassador had completely immersed himself in human rights problems, co-operating with others. Britain had resumed diplomatic relations with Chile ostensibly to make representations on human rights after the torture and maltreatment of Dr. Sheila Cassidy and the death of William Beausire, a British subject, but despite the purported reasons for establishing diplomatic relations it was clear that trade was the main motive.
And military co-operation, as my hon. Friend says. To add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles has already said about Chile, we rejoice that Chile now seems firmly on the road to democracy, although that is no thanks to the British Government who seemed happy and at home with dictators.
The hon. Member for Wycombe referred to the Falklands and Argentina. Clearly, circumstances have changed since the election of President Menem, who has given many signals that he wishes to enter into a dialogue with Britain. In that regard, may I ask the Minister whether it is true that the Argentine Government have offered to meet the British Government in Brasilia—as Brazil acts as agent on our behalf—and, if so, what has been the response?
After the war we had established the principle of no change by military intervention and held, and could have acted from, the high ground. Unfortunately, there has been a substantial slippage since then because of the failure of both Governments to respond to the situation. It is wrong that countries which have had such a long history of friendship should fail to move, but at least the way now seems open for some positive development. As the hon. Member for Wycombe will know, a high-powered delegation of congressmen from Argentina will be here for the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in September, which may afford an opportunity for discussions.
Back in Chile, the dark night of Pinochet is almost over. The consensus agreement on constitutional changes agreed between the Chilean Government and Opposition last month suggests that progress towards democracy is now almost unstoppable. I hope that the British Government will help in the process, as the elections promise to be fair and there is every expectation of an Opposition victory. I hope that the British Government will in no way welcome Pinochet to this country in view of his background and in particular his treatment of British subjects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned our major concerns about El Salvador. Our real concern is that the Government will seek to encourage ARENA and make it respectable. Clearly, the United States was mightily embarrassed by the rigged elections in Salvador. By their past attitudes and by the death squads, those in ARENA have proved themselves to be a bunch of murderers, although it is fair to say that President Cristiani has been the respectable face of a very unrespectable group. Is it true that the Government propose to invite President Cristiani to visit Britain in the autumn, and if the visit goes ahead, will he be accompanied by Mr. d'Aubuisson? It would be a disgraceful blot on the British record if d'Aubuisson, who is the real power behind the throne, were welcome at either No. 10 or the Palace, or both.
The Government now appear to be seeking in every way to make ARENA, which has always been linked with the death squads, acceptable. They should surely draw the line at welcoming d'Aubuisson, who a previous American ambassador described as "a pathological killer". Are we making representations to El Salvador about the increasing human rights abuses and the newly published programme for changes in the penal law mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North?
Nicaragua has been perhaps the greatest victim of Thatcherite ideology over the years. Is it not now time, after 10 years of blockade and isolation, to help restore peace and to rebuild Nicaragua's shattered economy and resume direct British aid to that country?
Sadly, to a large extent Latin America is marginalised in comparison with the grand role that our people played in the area in the last century. If that role is currently marginal, it is potentially very important. I have referred to the impact of debt and drugs. I hope that our foreign policy towards the region as a whole will be less ideological in future and more oriented towards human rights and development. I hope that it is less based on the Reagan-Thatcher axis which has done so much harm to the area's development potential and particularly to that of central America. The time is now set for the tone of our policy to change in response to the signals from that continent.
The Foreign Office is not noted as a Department that frequently brings legislation before the House. It can fairly be said that it is not a Department whose responsibilities frequently feature as subjects for debate. Therefore, I am more than somewhat surprised to find that before my second day—or more accurately, my third night—in my new post, I have not only taken a Bill through all its stages in the House, but I find myself replying to a debate. I welcome these opportunities. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) for the kind welcome that they extended to me on my new responsibility——
Despite of or because of, I am not choosy. When my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham initiated a debate on our relations with Latin America this time last year—almost to the day—he remarked that it was the first time for 38 years that the House had debated the subject. I am certainly pleased that we have returned to it after a briefer interval on this occasion, although the hour is rather similar. In view of my relatively short time in post, I hope that the House will understand if I necessarily speak with some diffidence on the subject.
However, I can confirm that a lot has changed since last year's debate, much of that change being for the better. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), in her previous position as the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke of the continent's return to democracy. That welcome trend has continued and has gathered momentum. A series of presidential elections is in prospect in the region. It is easy to forget that 10 years ago most Latin American countries were dictatorships while most are now democracies. Even in those countries in which democracy is not yet fully established, notably Chile, there have been clear moves in the right direction. I know that the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) recently visited Chile and I welcomed what he said as a result of the impressions that he gathered during his visit.
Our relationships with the region are full of potential, as many hon. Members have said, but they have also moved forward. When he addressed Canning house in December last year, referring to relations with Latin America my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, the then Foreign Secretary, said:
now we can say, without any fear of contradiction, that the period of neglect is over.
Events since have borne him out. Quietly but continuously we have developed our relations with the region. British investment, always a major component of that relationship, has continued at high levels. We are a significant investor in Brazil. In 1988, investment flows from the United Kingdom made us the second largest foreign investor that year both in Venezuela and in Colombia. The region remains an important trading partner for us, even if, as hon. Members have said, our share of the market remains far lower than it should be.
The degree of interest shown by the United Kingdom companies that attended the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-organised seminar on trade and investment in Latin America last May heartened all of us. More than ever, our message to the United Kingdom companies that have not yet discovered Latin America is to go and look. The opportunities are there, as has been stressed in the debate, and United Kingdom companies trading in Latin America are doing well. The Foreign Office, the Department of Trade and Industry in London and our posts abroad stand ready to offer every assistance to those that do go and look. I accept that we could and should do better, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has said.
In other matters, too, our relationship has thickened. Hon. Members will be aware of the recent very successful visit to Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Our co-operation with Latin American countries to combat the worldwide scourges of narcotics and terrorism has continued and intensified. I shall say more on those themes in a moment.
Not surprisingly, Chile has frequently featured in this debate. The hon. Member for Western Isles referred to it as one of the most exciting countries in the region. I note the concerns that have been expressed, but Chile has a long history of democracy, and the British Government want to see that status fully restored. We have been encouraged by the progress that is now being made to that end and by the great sense of responsibility being demonstrated on all sides during this important political transition, and we wish it well. We will continue to give every encouragement to all those in Chile who aspire to democracy. Together with our partners in the Twelve, we look forward to working with a democratically elected Government, expected to assume office in March next year, following the general and presidential elections to be held in December this year.
The success of the Chilean economy in recent years has been particularly notable. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham referred to that. It is certainly true that there has been sustained growth since 1983 of over 5 per cent. per year, substantial debt reduction, and an impressive diversification of exports. All the major political parties and presidential candidates are pledged not to alter the basic economic framework put in place by the present Chilean Government. Candidates' differing ideas on the social policy that a democratic Government should follow will be put to the vote in December, and it will be for the Chilean people themselves to decide. There will be plenty of scope for economic co-operation by Britain with the new Government when they are in place. The unified European Community market in 1992 will offer plenty of opportunities for trade which we would expect not only Chile but other Latin American countries to grasp.
Let me now say a word about human rights in Chile, which have been referred to rather too often, one might think. Sadly, they continue to be abused in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, Latin America is no exception. The British Government's views on this matter are very clear, and we make no bones about putting our views squarely to the Governments concerned, including the Chilean Government, which we do frequently, as we do to the Colombian Government about the different problems in that country. We and our European Community partners have frequently made it plain that we are concerned about continuing abuses, not only in Chile, but wherever they occur, and we are not afraid to take a clear public stand, including in the United Nations. [Interruption.] I emphasise to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that we must also be ready to recognise real improvements. By doing that, we encourage the further improvements that we all want to see.
I shall now cross the Andes to Argentina, which has also been mentioned by most of the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
Hon. Members will have seen reports in the press of "a new approach" by the new Argentine Government on the Falklands. We have been struck by the new tone of official Argentine statements since the inauguration of President Menem. We certainly welcome the constitutional transfer of power through elections, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly pointed out was for the first time in 60 years. We wish that new Government well. The full nature of the Argentine position is not yet clear. There have been numerous statements, not all entirely consistent with each other. But their approach seems designed to restore a more normal relationship with us, while putting the difficult issue of sovereignty on one side, which we welcome.
We have consistently expressed our willingness to work for more normal relations by making progress on practical issues of potential benefit to both sides. I have in mind the removal of trade and financial restrictions and the restoration of air links and the establishment of contacts on fisheries, where we have important common interests in the conservation of fish stocks.
I hope that we can look forward to a period of tangible achievement in our relations with Argentina. That is certainly our aim, and I hope that it is shared by the new Argentine Government.
A number of hon. Members have asked about the reports of contacts with Argentina. I hope that they will understand that this is a very delicate matter and that they will not expect me to go into details at this stage. I cannot comment on the press reports, but hon. Members may rest assured that we will respond positively to any proposals, consistent with our commitment to the Falkland Islands.
The debt problem has been generally recognised as very worrying, but, of course, it is not all gloom. On a more positive note, after lengthy negotiations, Mexico has reached an agreement with its commercial creditors, which we warmly welcome. We hope that that will make a major contribution to economic recovery in Mexico and to the successful implementation of the Brady plan.
The Government are very concerned about the difficulties faced by many Latin American countries as a result of their heavy debt burdens, but it is important to remember that the majority of Latin America's debt is owed to the commercial banks, and arrangements for dealing with that debt must be primarily a matter for debtors and banks to negotiate between them.
However, in Latin America, creditor Governments have made a substantial contribution towards debtors' external financing needs. That has been through both new lending from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and by rescheduling official debt in the Paris club, where countries are prepared to undertake the often difficult task of economic reform.
Furthermore, the Government appreciate the importance of commercial debt reduction, and recognise that international financial institutions can play a useful facilitating role. We support the strengthened debt strategy for the highly indebted middle-income countries, known as the Brady plan. We endorsed it at the economic summit in Paris.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and the hon. Member for Islington, North raised the important matter of the rain forests and the environment. That has been fully debated twice this year in the House, but I recognise that there is an extraordinary degree of public interest in the issue at the moment. I mentioned earlier the successful trip to Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in his previous post as Minister for Overseas Development. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that as a concrete demonstration of the importance with which we view environmental problems in the region and of our interest in doing something effective to help. Perhaps less prominent have been the continuing difficulties of urban pollution in Latin
American cities, which my right hon. Friend also looked at during his visit. Not surprisingly, there is great sensitivity in certain Latin American countries at anything that smacks of foreign interference in those affairs. My right hon. Friend said during his visit, and I repeat here, that
there is no intention whatsoever of interfering in sovereignty",
Brazilian or other. We wish to help Latin American Governments to tackle those very difficult problems, and are glad to be able to put at their disposal our considerable expertise in the forestry sector. My right hon. Friend signed a memorandum of understanding with the Brazilian Government during his visit, opening the way to just that sort of sensible, practical co-operation. Overseas Development Administration officials are now looking at specific ways in which we can help. We are in no doubt that this is a much more responsible approach to important issues than any calls for pressure to be put on Latin American Governments.
Hon. Members mentioned the important subject of drugs. The hon. Member for Swansea, East asked about the co-operation that we receive. We have developed increasingly effective programmes of co-operation with Governments in the common struggle against drugs, including direct links between our police forces and Customs services. For obvious reasons, I would prefer not to give details of those links. We have provided radio equipment to police forces in several countries. At present we are negotiating anti-drugs agreements with Mexico, and my predecessor signed one in Brazil last November. We plan to host a conference on this most important subject next year.
All hon. Members who contributed to the excellent debate mentioned the difficulties that Latin America faces. No one is more aware of those difficulties than the Government. We know that there is much work to be done in solving the problem of the region's external debt, and that democracy requires consolidation. It would be wrong to look only at the darker side of the region as a whole or our relations with Latin America.
Latin America is almost unique in the world outside Europe in its widespread return to democracy, and its attachment to western values. I am hopeful that the region's economic difficulties will prove temporary. I have often heard that nobody who has been there can fail to be impressed by the region's potential and by the capabilities of its people. I am new to this job, but I am much looking forward to seeing for myself before too long the problems and opportunities that we have been discussing tonight.
We mean it when we say that we value our relations with Latin America. Over past years, particularly over the past 12 months, we have established a particular momentum in those relations. We intend to continue to expand and to strengthen our links with a continent so close to our own in its culture and history.