The House will now be familiar with the plight of Venezuela. It is suffering from economic devastation, starvation and malnutrition. The flight of more than 3 million Venezuelans to neighbouring countries is the largest migration crisis in Latin American history. The systematic dismantling of freedom, liberty and justice by the kleptocratic regime of Nicolás Maduro has marked it out as a country where people’s rights have been stolen.
In the past few weeks, the overwhelming majority of us in this House have condemned the political repression and electoral malpractice of a regime that is increasingly desperate to cling on to power. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced that the UK will now recognise Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, as the constitutional interim President of Venezuela. The UK is one of 19 EU member states to have done so after the deadline for new elections to be called passed on Sunday.
It is worth reminding ourselves how events have rapidly changed the situation in Venezuela and have led the UK and our international partners to take action. Last May, Nicolás Maduro claimed a victory in a presidential election that was widely considered to have been deeply flawed. In January, a day after his so-called presidential inauguration, which was boycotted by the international community, the Venezuelan National Assembly declared Maduro’s tenure illegitimate. The Venezuelan people have shown their discontent in massive protests across the country. They have been demonstrating against the continued trashing of their country by the grossly incompetent, criminal and corrupt governance caused by Maduro’s warped version of socialism.
For our part, the UK worked closely with our EU partners shortly after Juan Guaidó’s announcement. On
The arrogance of Nicolás Maduro is such that those calls have not been answered. He has instead called for early new elections for the last remaining democratic institution, the National Assembly, supposedly so as to “bring peace”, which we can assume actually means to snuff out the remaining source of challenge to his grip on power, so this was a false promise. The National Assembly has already been duly elected and Maduro wants it to be overseen by the Constituent Assembly, which is his imposter alternative and which has no equivalent legitimacy.
The international community has taken significant steps in response to these events. As I said, I represented the United Kingdom at the UN Security Council when I set out the UK’s call for elections and made clear the responsibility of Council members to demonstrate the UN’s leadership on this issue. We look forward to further discussions there. On Monday, I went to Ottawa at the invitation of the Canadian Foreign Minister to join the meeting of the Lima Group countries, where I discussed the situation with Foreign Ministers from across the region. We also discussed the importance of getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela and also to the neighbouring countries which are bearing the brunt of receiving over 3 million migrants. It was during my trip to Ottawa on Monday that the Foreign Secretary formally announced that the UK recognises Juan Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela, in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution. The UK was one of 19 EU member states, including France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, to take similar simultaneous action. So we are not alone in our views of the Maduro regime. We continue to work in concert with the Organisation of American States, the Lima Group, the United States and like-minded European and international partners.
Our thoughts now turn to the next steps. First, we remain clear that Maduro is illegitimate and that we now recognise the National Assembly president Juan Guaidó as constitutional interim President of Venezuela until credible, free and fair elections are held. We are providing support to multilateral organisations such as the UN, the EU and the Red Cross Movement through our existing contributions. Last year, the UK was the largest donor to the UN’s central emergency response fund, which has allocated $26 million to the region, including $9 million for emergency health and nutrition support.
We must also keep up the pressure on Maduro with one united voice. The UK has taken a lead in the EU by calling for a tougher response to the regime in the light of the failure to call new elections. This may include further targeted sanctions, in co-ordination with recent steps taken by the United States. The UK also stands closely alongside our Lima Group partners. Outside Venezuela, they have borne the brunt of this crisis, and earlier this week their Ministers made clear to me in no uncertain terms the severity of the situation for them.
In speaking with one voice, I sincerely hope that this House proves united in expressing its condemnation of Nicolas Maduro and in asserting its support for the Lima Group’s determination to design a better future for Venezuela by working with Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.
I hope that the Minister will today rule out the prospect of military intervention or some other form of outside interference, whether from the United States or anyone else, in Venezuela. I agree with him that the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is all the more unacceptable because it has been so utterly avoidable. The United States has enforced devastating economic sanctions on the country and has constantly intervened to support opposition forces. The former UN rapporteur Alfred-Maurice de Zayas called these sanctions “crimes against humanity”.
None of this means blind support for the Maduro Government. It is true that between 2012 and 2016, the oil price collapsed. That was clearly a problem. Mis- management by the Government has totally compounded it, leading to hyperinflation, the collapse of the currency and desperate shortages of food, medicine and other essentials. As a result, there is malnutrition and more than half a million cases of malaria, and refugees in their millions are leaving the country—more than 1 million have gone to Colombia, which puts at risk that country’s peace process.
If the Maduro Government’s response to all that was to work tirelessly to resolve the problems with assistance from the international community, they might have our sympathy and support, but instead their response has been to answer rising public anger at the crisis with increased repression, violence and abuse of human rights. Amnesty reports the widespread excessive use of force against demonstrators and the torture of detainees.
So, it seems clear to us on this side that the essential starting points in resolving the crisis in Venezuela, and in restoring peace, democracy and stability, must be: first, for all parties to engage in dialogue to overcome the crisis; secondly, in the interim, for all parties to respect the rule of law, human rights and democratic processes; and ultimately, in due course, to allow the Venezuelan people themselves to decide the way forward through free and fair elections. As I have said, the way forward for Venezuela must not be military intervention or some other form of outside interference, whether from the United States or anyone else. The future of Venezuela must be a matter for Venezuelans.
We have all heard Donald Trump say repeatedly that all options are on the table when it comes to Venezuela. Indeed, the Minister of State used similar language himself in October, so can he give us some clarity today? Do the UK and the President of the United States include in their list of all options the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela? Has that been discussed with the Trump Administration, and has the UK promised any support in the event that the US takes action? I hope and trust that the answer will be no, but it would be useful to hear that directly from the Minister of State.
May I ask four further questions? First, we all appreciate the huge challenges for neighbouring countries in dealing with the influx of refugees from Venezuela, especially in Colombia, so will the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to ensure that those refugees receive the humanitarian support they need? Secondly, can he tell us what plans he has to use the Magnitsky powers that we gave him several months ago and impose targeted sanctions against those who are abusing human rights in Venezuela? Thirdly, in our recent proceedings on an urgent question about Venezuela, the Minister of State gave a somewhat blithe answer to the question from my right hon. Friend John Spellar about the need for a Marshall plan for Venezuela in any post-Maduro era. The Minister said it would not be necessary because Venezuela is sitting on such large oil reserves, but does he accept that it is not oil it need reserves of, but foreign currency, which has been the main cause of the food shortages and hyperinflation that has left the Venezuelan economy so crippled? If he, as he says in his statement, wants to see a new Government in place in Caracas, can he say again what economic and humanitarian support there would be from the international community to help to resolve the current crisis? [Interruption.] I am glad James Cartlidge finds this so amusing.
Finally, it was also interesting when we considered the recent urgent question that the shadow Foreign Secretary asked the Minister of State why he was speaking out against human rights abuses, rigged elections and repression of political protests in Venezuela, but had absolutely nothing to say about exactly the same issues in Honduras, where the British Government are selling arms and surveillance equipment to the Honduran Government and sending them trade delegations. The Minister failed to answer the shadow Foreign Secretary’s question then, so may I ask him now to explain that double-standard between Venezuela and Honduras? Why are the Government not consistent, as we are on this side of the House, in condemning all Governments that abuse human rights?
I can only say to the hon. Lady that when she sits down and reads the record of the response that she has just offered the House, she will look upon it with a high degree of embarrassment. She has been given the words to speak by her party, but those words are, to a large extent, not shared by most Members of her party. Let me just go through what she said and answer her comments.
First, the hon. Lady said, in a rather weak turn of phrase, that this was not just avoidable. No, it was avoidable; but, more than that, it was actually created by one man and his cronies who have destroyed the prosperity and wellbeing of an entire country and its people.
Secondly, let me turn to the question of sanctions. The hon. Lady may wish to be aware that, as a former oil trader, I do know a little bit about oil. Anyone who does not will know enough to know that what she has been saying this morning simply does not hold together. US sanctions on oil cannot be held to account for destroying the country when they have only just been announced, so blaming the collapse of Venezuela on US sanctions is absurd and wrong. The person to blame for the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry is Nicolás Maduro himself. He has destroyed the greatest foreign currency- earning resource, which the country could be benefiting from had he not completely destroyed it.
Yesterday, the shadow Foreign Secretary endeavoured to make a wide-ranging speech about her party’s approach to foreign policy generally, within which she said that she was a great believer in sanctions. Yet, not only does the shadow Minister seem to disagree with that, but the Leader of the Opposition also seems to disagree with that policy statement.
This is not about outside influence, although the supportive pressure from the Lima Group is welcomed by all Venezuelans. This is about empowering the legitimacy of Venezuelans themselves inside Venezuela. We want to empower Venezuelans, not tell them what to do from outside. Help, yes—instruction, no.
I am also rather perturbed that the hon. Lady appeared very weak and feeble in her support for the Lima Group. This group of neighbouring countries, led by the previous and current Foreign Ministers of Peru, have been very courageous and thoughtful in designing their support collectively for the legitimate forces of Venezuela. We should give them our full support, and that is what the United Kingdom has been doing in the United Nations and in Ottawa on Monday.
There are many countries around, including the United Kingdom, who are doing their utmost to supply humanitarian aid into Venezuela. But what could be more disgusting than what we saw yesterday—pictures of the Maduro regime having blockaded the way into Venezuela, and streets within it, in order to stop humanitarian aid getting into the country? That man is in denial about aid even being needed, even though he has driven that country to total destitution.
On the question of the Marshall plan, I fully understand the concept behind the idea. Very honestly, it is too early to say whether that is appropriate for the country or able to be pieced together. I was part of many pledging conferences for Yemen and for Syria when I was the Minister for International Development, and I have no doubt that there will be a high degree of international support for Venezuela. But one of the great advantages of Venezuela compared with the other two countries that I have mentioned is that those millions who have fled will want and, we hope, be able to go back. The country also has the largest oil reserves in the world, which—if they are properly organised and managed—can give a massive inflow of the foreign exchange and resources that the country so desperately needs.
Some of us will remember a Venezuelan MP at November’s Women MPs of the World conference who spoke in this very Chamber about her battle for her country, and specifically for the rights of women and transgender people there. Her words are very much in my mind as I ask my right hon. Friend this question. Will he give us his view on the prospects for a peaceful transition to a new democratically legitimate and economically literate regime in Venezuela?
Perhaps I can answer my hon. Friend with the words used by a female Venezuelan politician, María Corina Machado, this morning on BBC Radio 4. She said:
“On behalf of the Venezuelan people, I ask and demand every single democrat around the world to understand that this chaos and tragedy we are living in in Venezuela stopped being an ideological discussion between left and right a long time ago. It’s between life and death. It’s between a criminal state and justice. It’s between oppression and freedom. Being indifferent amounts to being part of the regime that wants to impose silence, death and violence in Venezuela.”
With those words in our minds, I totally agree with my hon. Friend that we want to see the return of legitimate government, and women are going to play a very important part in taking Venezuela on that new journey.
I thank the Minister for providing an advance copy of his statement.
The situation is deeply concerning, and I want to make it clear that we condemn the violence and the regime that is carrying out the violence. The political and economic crisis gripping the country is spiralling into a regional humanitarian disaster, and we are at risk of allowing a lost generation of Venezuelans. I am pleased that the Minister discussed the importance of getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela and the neighbouring countries when he was in Ottawa. Will he please give us some more information around the specific measures that are in place to ensure that the aid does reach the right places? As he says, 3 million people have had to flee, and many of them have had to flee on foot—over 1 million to Colombia, for example. It would be helpful if he could give us some more information on that.
The right to self-determination is one owed to people in every country in the world. In the end, it will be for the Venezuelan people to choose their own political future, and there is a need for there to be free and fair elections in that regard. Will the Minister tell us what steps he has taken to support the Venezuelan people in strengthening their democratic institutions, so that they can have a democracy that is actually a democracy in reality, not just in name?
I am very happy to say that I agree with the hon. Lady in all respects. On humanitarian aid, while I was in Ottawa I spoke at some length to my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for International Development, and I will be meeting her again next week. We are discussing how we can anticipate the way in which aid might be delivered once the country is, as we hope, again opened up. We are planning to try to work with multilateral organisations for when Venezuela can be properly assisted. I rather think that, although we know there is a humanitarian problem, when we lift the lid and look more deeply into what has been wrought upon the Venezuelan people, we are likely to find out that it is far more severe than we even contemplate at the moment. We need to be ready for that eventuality, and I know that the International Development Secretary and the whole Department for International Development apparatus are now looking at this very deeply.
On the question of helping Venezuela to get up and running in a legitimate way, I would make one simple point, which is that the country does have a constitution. The problem is not the constitution, but that Maduro has not upheld the constitution. He holds up the little book and then bends all the rules that are written inside it. All we need is to uphold the proper process and principles of that constitution. That is exactly what Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly are doing, and they are now the foundation for reasserting the proper workings of the constitution through free, fair and effective legitimate elections.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his statement, which is extremely welcome. It stands in stark contrast to the contribution by Liz McInnes, which was regrettably, I am afraid, ill-judged in both its tone and content. Will he assure me that we are doing everything we can to condemn the persecution and intimidation being meted out by this socialist regime to opposition activists?
In particular, can we also ensure that we are doing everything we can to secure the safety of journalists, who need to have the freedom to report what is happening there safely and securely?
I am sure the House will hope that I do not get into a semantic argument about the use of the words “Marxist”, “socialist”, “Leninist” or “Trotskyist”. I am not as great an expert on such words as some Opposition Members are. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The freedom of journalists who are getting in is absolutely essential. We will do our utmost to uphold human rights there, but also to bring to account those who have abused them.
Let me say two things. First, on the use of the Magnitsky clause, I apologise to Liz McInnes for not answering her question about that, but let me do so now. We would like to be able to do this now, but the process of getting the application of the Magnitsky clause workable within the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 will take a few more stages of parliamentary approval. It needs to go through certain statutory instruments and things like that, so it is not yet up and running, but we would like it to be. We would obviously like to do that as soon as we can, within the broader snowstorm of Brexit SIs.
Secondly, the Lima Group countries have referred Venezuela—the state and not just individuals within in it—to the International Criminal Court, citing some 18,000 extra-judicial killings and many other such instances that they believe create a very strong case against Maduro and his entire regime under the rules of the ICC.
I very much welcome the Minister’s and the UK Government’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela. I think that the response by the shadow Minister was frankly astonishing in almost seeking to absolve the Maduro regime of the responsibility that it should have for this crisis in the country that is causing misery to millions.
Will the Minister tell the House a little more about how further sanctions might be invoked, both in making sure that they are so finely targeted as not to have a negative impact on the people who are already suffering, and in using them to put pressure on individuals, particularly senior members of the military, to stop their backing for the corrupt and illegitimate Maduro regime, as that is what is enabling it to maintain its stranglehold on the country?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s welcome, if I may put it that way. I am glad that so many in this House find themselves in agreement. She is absolutely right. If we can apply some more targeted sanctions against individuals at the top in a way that does not undermine the wellbeing, such as it is, of the people themselves, we will of course want to pursue that. At the moment, that still requires EU sanctions. We do not yet have our autonomous ability to impose sanctions in that way. I hope that we will discuss further EU sanctions. We are not quite there yet because there are one or two elements within the EU who are resisting such pressures, but I hope we can overcome that.
The other respect in which we might be able to be more effective is to try to make sure that the money dries up. At the moment, the ever more isolated Maduro regime is held together by the support, primarily, of the military. In order to maintain that, he needs the money with which to pay them. I hope that in the coming weeks we will see the gradual erosion of support within the military for this increasingly isolated President. I hope that they will peel off and that we can help them to do so by making sure that the money flows that allow him to buy their support disappear as quickly as possible.
The economic collapse in Venezuela has left 90% of its population in poverty. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those in this House who have actually praised the Venezuelan regime for conquering poverty?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This goes back a long way. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition was an enormous fan of Maduro’s predecessor, Mr Chávez. He went out of his way to praise him for his inspiring leadership and
“for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared.”
That sharing of wealth allowed Chávez to amass a fortune of over $1 billion while his people pretty well had to go and lick the streets in order to feed themselves. This allows me to point out, I hope very clearly, that anyone who says that Venezuela’s plight is down to the action of the Americans and their sanctions ought to read my Chatham House speech from last November, which maps out in great detail the steps that Chávez and Maduro took, over many years, that have led to the complete collapse of the Venezuelan economy, almost all of which had nothing whatsoever to do with the United States.
Does the Minister understand that the problem with those on the political extremes of the spectrum is that they tend, in an ideological way, to see the world in terms of black and white, oppressor and oppressed? There is a real problem in seeing Maduro and his regime as the victim of others—America or whoever it may be. The truth is that the direct cause of the mass starvation and the 3 million refugees is the Chávez-Maduro corrupt communism that has been pursued in that country. A better illustration we could not get than the picture of the blockaded bridge that is still leading to starvation in the country. The doctors, by the way, are not allowed to designate people who die from malnutrition as having done so because they are banned from putting that on the death certificates.
What can we do to influence and put pressure on the regime? Can we get the Russian Administration to do more, or the Chinese or the Cubans? Are there individuals who have a close relationship with Maduro, perhaps even the leader of the Labour party, who could at this stage pick up the telephone and implore him—beg him—to stop this appalling approach and to leave government immediately?
If that were to work, we would all absolutely welcome it. Any influence that can be brought to bear should be used, out of basic human decency. This is not an ideological conflict, although some who seem to be more inclined to support Maduro than the rest of the world have been accused of guilt on a number of counts—of supporting economic insanity, of indifference to intense human suffering, of a refusal to accept any measures to alleviate it, of an adherence to an ideology and a hatred for any leadership that is offered by the United States and the western world. Those attitudes have to be set aside. If there can be a practical course of action along the lines that the hon. Gentleman describes, we should encourage it. That is what is needed. We need this man to hand over power to the legitimate authorities in Venezuela so that his people can be rescued.
The Minister mentioned the fact that food aid is being blockaded. Are there any alternative plans to get the food aid through to the Venezuelan people? There is also the issue of Venezuela’s gold reserves in Turkey that has been mentioned in press reports. What is the position in relation to that?
I hope that pressure from neighbouring countries can have some effect in getting humanitarian aid in. Looking at the pictures we saw on our screens yesterday, I think it inevitable that there will be ever-deepening popular outrage in Venezuela itself that is likely to express itself increasingly strongly if Maduro remains in denial about humanitarian aid to the point of blocking it and forcing his people to starve in front of the world’s television cameras at the border.
On gold, there are gold reserves held by the Bank of England. It holds them under a contract; it is entirely down to the Bank, as an independent Bank of England. It is nothing to do with this Government. We are not empowered to, nor should we in any way attempt to, influence the decision of the Bank of England. I am sure that the Bank will be looking at unfolding events in Venezuela to work out who is legitimate and who is not.
I start by distancing myself from the remarks from the Labour Front Bench in relation to the blame for the crisis that Venezuela is suffering, which is destroying the fabric of the country. The responsibility for that does absolutely lie with Maduro and his predecessor, Chavez; most of us in this House are certain about that.
What worries me at the moment is the blockade on the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The people of Venezuela need that aid urgently, so what are the UK Government doing to bring pressure to bear to ensure that it can get through? Will the Minister convey a message from the vast majority of the Members of this House that we will not tolerate efforts by the Venezuelan regime to stop aid getting through to its people? It is deplorable.
I absolutely and totally agree with the hon. Lady, and totally share her decent human concern for the plight of Venezuelans, who are being denied the offer of desperately needed aid. May I make it absolutely clear that I, and I think all on the Government side of the House, are actually far less interested in pointing out the absurdity of some of the views held by those on Labour’s Front Bench than we are in wanting to find unity across the House in a way that can make the United Kingdom’s voice strong and loud in trying to help the people of Venezuela at this critical time. I therefore applaud what the hon. Lady and very many—indeed, the majority—of her colleagues have said, and are continuing to say, on this issue. When it comes to aid, we will do all we can. We have limited muscle, if you like, but the best way to do our best is to work with other countries, such as the Lima Group, which are there, as a strong neighbouring presence, to keep up the pressure on Maduro and Venezuela.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today to make a statement. This is the second time that the House has debated the issue in the last 10 days. Really, we are talking about two different things here. First, this is being used as a subject to beat the Leader of the Opposition with for his defence of a Marxist regime. Secondly, it is being used by the Government side to increase the Government’s influence on the world stage. The Leader of the Opposition is not here to defend his Marxist views, and that is fine, but I would like to hear what the Minister has to say—where does he really think the role of the United Kingdom is upon the international stage—because anything we say about dialogue, empowerment and recognition of opponents will have no tangible benefit for the people of Venezuela, who are genuinely suffering.
I do not wholly agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion that our influence and efforts amount to so little. I actually think that the UK has managed to establish itself as a very strong voice within the European Union, and as the head of the “EU pack”, on this. I have been working with the Lima Group since it was led by the previous Peruvian Foreign Minister; it is now led by new Foreign Minister Popolizio. I think that has helped to galvanise world opinion in a way that is making a difference. The one thing it may show itself to have done is to have given Juan Guaidó the confidence to make the stand that he has in asserting the workings of the constitution and declaring himself the interim President. If that then leads to elections, we will look back and say that it has made a difference.
I urge my hon. Friend to be a little more optimistic about how effective international diplomacy can be when it is wrestling with an issue such as this.
Is the Minister as concerned as I am about some of the displacement rhetoric and nonsense that has been put about on TV stations in the past few days? It is simply anti-American. Does that not cause us a more significant problem when we look at Maduro using that anti-American nonsense and rhetoric—sanctions that do not exist, military invasion that is not happening; there are no troops there—as an excuse to stop US aid going in across the Colombian border to help those poor Venezuelans? Does the Minister agree that that nonsense rhetoric is damaging the poor people of Venezuela, and that we should be concerned and should be welcoming the United States’ aid getting in to help those Venezuelan people? That should be our priority—not anti-western, anti-American bashing.
I echo the cries behind me and around the House of “Well said.” The hon. Gentleman speaks enormous sense because under the guise of anti- imperialism, those on the far left have made themselves useful for actual imperialists, as long as they are not American. They have used the spectre of western intervention to ignore or downplay real interventions on the part of other powerful imperial nations. “Displacement rhetoric”, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, is a good way of describing it, and it is culpable because it displaces the focus that we need to have on what positively can and must be done to rescue that poor beleaguered country.
I would certainly have hoped that Andrew Neil’s recent demolition of Ken Livingstone had put to bed any claims that there had been general sanctions on Venezuela, rather than targeted ones on regime individuals. So I welcome Britain’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as the lawful President of Venezuela, and I welcome the announcement of the current aid effort. My hon. Friend Liz McInnes kindly referred to my call for a Marshall plan for Venezuela, so may I again urge imaginative and detailed plans for the rapid subsequent reconstruction of Venezuela’s economy and infrastructure? Are the Minister’s Department and the Department for International Development getting on with that work, and if not, why not?
I fully acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s point. He is very wise to be thinking ahead in this way, because the inevitable need for rapid delivery of resources can suddenly become apparent, and it is important that the world is ready to leap straightaway into action. As I said earlier, I have seen this through pledging conferences in various countries, and I have no doubt that there will have to be extensive multilateral assistance to help Venezuela to rebuild, after which I think they will be able to rebuild themselves; but a bit of pump-priming and basic food and medicine and the addressing of disease and malnutrition needs to start as soon as possible. As I said, first that will be multilateral; there will need to be a lot of UN effort, to which we are a major contributor. I am due to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development next week, having spoken to her on Monday, and I will convey, as strongly as I possibly can, the views of the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that she is aware of the sort of plan that may be necessary.