I am most grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for granting this debate on Britain's relations with Latin America. This is the eighth successive annual debate on Latin America and it is the only such debate that this House holds on regions of the world.
The debate brings together members of the all-party British and Latin American parliamentary group. We have here our chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), many colleagues on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), to stress this morning the importance of the region.
Latin America, stretching from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, contains 8 per cent. of the world's population. It has outstanding potential, abundant natural resources, skilled work forces and few of the extremes of poverty with which we are so familiar in Africa and in Asia. Above all, Latin America has a close cultural identification and rapport with Europe.
I sometimes think that we in this country overlook the considerable weight of the region and its component countries. How often do we remember that the region as a whole economically outweighs Africa, the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia all put together? Furthermore, the individual republics are powerful economies in their own right. How many of us realise that Mexico alone has a greater gross domestic product than those of Sweden, Hong Kong and Nigeria put together?
The economies of the neighbouring republics of Venezuela and Colombia are, together, almost as large as that of South Africa, a country that occupies this House greatly. Chile alone almost equates to either Malaysia or Singapore. Brazil, on the other hand, has an economy equal to that of Spain and its Sao Paulo state alone has a similar GDP to that of Belgium. Not to be outdone, Argentina, with its GDP of $250 billion, is rapidly catching up with Australia. So we are not talking this morning about lightweights or about the backwoods.
Britain has long taken a leading role in this region. In every debate over the past eight years, I have highlighted how, in the House of Commons on 12 December 1826, the then Foreign Secretary, George Canning, referred to
Britain's role in the independence struggle in Latin America, declaring that Britain had—I quote from Hansard—
called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.
It is, therefore, with pleasure that we noted the stress on the transatlantic free trade area in the speech to the Conservative party conference last week by the current Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the similar point made by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the same conference. Indeed, the Prime Minister is the first serving Prime Minister of this country to have visited Latin America. His visits to Colombia and Brazil for the earth summit were very popular. I hope that they will be the first among many visits he makes to this important region.
It gives a perspective to look at our first regional debate on Latin America in 1988, which I also had the honour of opening. At that time, we covered the general agreement on tariffs and trade, British trade, the Falklands crisis and the teaching of the Spanish language in Britain. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) lauded Nicaragua and condemned Chile. How things have moved on! Today, democracy has broken out all over Latin America, with the depressing exception of Cuba. Privatisation and sound finances are the objective and frequently the achievement of so many of the republics. I sometimes think that our debates have become dull, even if most worthy, with the departure of the ideological battles that used so to excite the House when discussing Latin America. Both Chile and Nicaragua are proud democracies with directly elected presidents, and our debates are dominated by economic management, investment, trade and cultural relations.
The affairs of the Falkland Islands remain a concern of particular interest to the House. We have made considerable progress over the 13 years since the south Atlantic conflict—a tragic conflict, and so unnecessary, pitting friend against friend. This country remains committed to the principle of self-determination, and the Falklanders clearly remain committed to self-government under the Crown.
Before 1982 a position leading to a constitutional link with Argentina might have been possible, but as a result of the conflict such a link is impossible, certainly for the present generation of islanders. The Argentines have only themselves to blame, if only for allowing their military rulers to commit such irresponsible folly.
Argentina must understand that our commitment to self-determination precludes any of their ambitions concerning sovereignty. We have no hang-ups over relinquishing sovereignty; our loss of sovereignty over the real estate of Ottawa, Sydney or New Delhi are proof of that. But we stand firm over the legitimate holding of sovereignty and its transfer only in response to democratic will. Any misunderstanding of the view of the House, and in particular the view of those of its Members who are genuine friends of Latin America, would serve only to repeat the tragedy.
Nevertheless, we are admirers of the profound good sense of President Menem in setting the sovereignty dispute to one side and developing the rapidly strengthening bilateral relations. Over the past year alone we have had the presence in the House of both the Foreign Minister, Guido di Tella, and Eduardo Menem, the President of the Senate. Their visits, and the warm reception that they received from colleagues on both sides of the House are a testimony to the excellent relations that are developing.
There are many other examples of the growing relationship between Argentina and Britain. The fourth Argentine-British conference was held in Keble college, Oxford last month, bringing together politicians, business men and journalists not only from Britain and Argentina but from the islands. At such conferences it is moving to see the way in which the wounds inflicted 13 years ago have been overcome, and two great nations are being brought back together.
We must press ahead with the co-operation between Britain and Argentina. That is why I welcome the working agreement on fisheries, and the recent agreement on oil exploration. There are wonderful prospects for co-operation between the islands and Argentina in developing oil production. Clearly Argentina can contribute greatly to, and benefit from, the support infrastructure that the oil business will require. It seems to me that that would be best located on the mainland of Argentina; the challenge for the islanders is to obtain the financial benefits of the oil industry without sacrificing either their outstanding environment or their unique way of life.
In the time available it is not possible to cover the events of the past year in each of the republics. Suffice it to say that considerable progress is being made. Both Brazil and Argentina have made great strides in throttling inflation. That has been accompanied by significant social costs, but the forecast of 5 per cent. growth in Brazil puts the matter into context.
The courage shown by the Government of Colombia in dealing with the scourge of the drug trade is most welcome, and I am delighted by the discreet and effective support given by Her Majesty's Government in that fight. The maturity of the Latin American nations today is best exemplified by the way in which they have helped Peru and Ecuador settle their frontier dispute.
Bolivia's economic and privatisation progress is commendable. We wish Chile success in carrying through peaceful constitutional reforms that will build further on its remarkable economic record. In Peru progress continues to be made with the economy and in the battle against the perennial challenge posed by the Sendero Luminoso, a terrorist movement, and its heirs.
Both Venezuela and Ecuador suffer from instability, and I hope that by next year's debate, if you are kind enough to grant one, Madam Speaker, we shall have seen considerable progress in those two republics.
In recent years much has been said in the House concerning the tragic situations that developed over a long period in central America, and it is probably a blessing that we no longer see that region on our television screens. That seems to suggest that quiet progress is now being made.
Cuba remains, having still to make the great leap into the new Latin American era of proper democratic elections. Nevertheless, progress is being made on the basis of liberalisation and trade, even if the legacy of communist restrictions and controls inhibits faster progress in the island.
The key issue of the year for Latin America holds an uncanny echo of events in Europe. The continent is groping forwards to a new era of trading blocs. Mexico has enveloped itself in the North American Free Trade Agreement, with dramatic consequences. Other nations, notably Chile, are toying with the idea of joining.
Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay have joined together in Mercosur, which is making significant progress. Established as recently as January this year, the organisation covers 200 million people and a GDP of $700 billion. Progressively eliminating internal barriers, it presents remarkable opportunities, especially for British investors and traders.
Last month Mercosur concluded a successful negotiation with the European Union, providing for an agreement that will lead to a free trade treaty. I welcome that, and look forward to ratification at the summit of European Union and Mercosur leaders in Madrid on 15 December.
That raises early echoes, perhaps parallel echoes, of the Foreign Secretary's references to a transatlantic trading community. The most significant aspect of my right hon. and learned Friend's scene-setting both at Chatham house and subsequently at the Conservative party conference was his vision of a close transatlantic free trade area between NAFTA and the EU, in which Britain can play a great part. He will know, of course, that a more accurate and ample vision is that of an association between Europe and all the Americas, covering an area that shares a common cultural and economic heritage. I hope that the debate will do much to stress the fact that not only North America and Europe alone but all the Americas and Europe should be the basis of that new and exciting development in British foreign policy.
We bring to that vision of a transatlantic free trade area a powerful political, economic and cultural inheritance, involving not only the United States but Latin America. Britain can play a vital part in those developments, drawing on our strengths. With the inheritance of George Canning, of the Legion Britanica, which served with Bolivar, of Admiral Cochrane in Brazil and Chile, and of decades of investment in the public services, industry, trade and commerce, we are well placed to play a pivotal role in the developments in transatlantic policies now arising.
Canning house, the outstanding Latin American centre in London, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and it plays a significant role in developing trade, investment and cultural links between Latin America and Britain. London is in so many ways the first port of call for Latin Americans to Europe, and it is vital that those relationships, both commercial and with the city, are developed and strengthened by every means and every assistance that the Government can provide.
Ministerial visits in both directions have increased phenomenally in recent years. I hope that there will be many more such visits, and that President Cardoso of Brazil will make an official visit to Britain next year. I look forward to a year of success and further development of our relations with Latin America, and the House will wish my hon. Friend the Minister of State well in his new role as Minister responsible for Latin America.
Latin America shares with the Pacific rim the prospect of being the focus of the 21st century. I hope that this debate will add impetus to Britain's participation in that great potential.