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.