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rose to call attention to recent developments in Latin America; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I was pleased to hear the very good news last Thursday that I had been successful in the ballot for this debate on developments in Latin America. Having waited patiently for all of last year for my luck to change, I was not prepared to say no when my chance came. Nevertheless, with the State Opening having taken place only last week and the break-up for the Whitsun Recess being today, time has been short, which has meant that a number of people who could have made significant contributions have sent me their apologies instead.
I shall name but a few: my noble and learned friend Lord Howe, the former Foreign Secretary, who always speaks with knowledge and authority; the noble Lord, Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's special envoy to Latin America; the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, who is even now speaking at a seminar in Madrid on this very subject as a vice-president of Canning House; and my noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lord Ashcroft, who have considerable first-hand knowledge of Cuba in particular. In spite of the short notice, I am absolutely delighted that your Lordships' House has not failed to produce a list of distinguished speakers and I am most grateful to all of them.
Today is also the first day on which we have our major timed debates at the end of the week's Business rather than on a Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps it is appropriate that a debate on the New World should be the one to test these new procedures. We shall be testing also our new Foreign Office Minister in the Lords. The bright spot in all this is that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, as the Minister who is now responsible for Latin American relations, will be able to let us know his initial reactions and underline his priorities. I am most grateful to him for deciding to forgo attending the EU-Rio Group meeting in Luxembourg, important as that is, in order to respond to this debate in your Lordships' House.
I have spoken previously, on numerous occasions, about Latin America as a regional power and in relation to individual countries. I do so again because I consider Latin America to be a vitally important part of the world. Not only is it important for us on a bilateral trade basis, but it is emerging as a global player in world trade and world institutional terms.
The main object of today's debate is to ensure that the United Kingdom is aware of this fact at a political level, even if the region is no longer on the Foreign Office's priority list. As long as I remain in a position to do so, further reforms of the House of Lords permitting, I shall continue to remind Her Majesty's Government—of whatever political complexion—of these facts if they fail to take them into account.
Perhaps I may digress with a more general comment on how disappointed I was during the recent general election campaign that barely a mention of the United Kingdom's international role in the world was made by any of the political parties, other than with reference to Iraq and, now and again, to the European Union. I fear that we are becoming a very inward-looking country; that is, with the exception of the world of sport and football in particular.
However, if we are still a trading nation, we must focus on our best-possible trading partners and the ones we know best. To omit the Latin American countries would be a grave mistake. Even if self-interest is not at stake, one of the consequences of globalisation is that we must learn to work with other countries in a variety of ways. So it is not just about trade, but about peacekeeping, about the fight against terrorism, the fight against drugs and so on. To seek out new friends only to neglect old ones does not really get us anywhere.
I intend therefore to attempt to provide an overview of the region; to consider the implications of some recent developments; and then, if time permits, to touch on some issues that highlight the part played by Latin American countries in the global economy and global institutions. I feel confident that other speakers today, from their individual experiences and points of view, will add flavour and seasoning to the debate.
I am aware of the danger of generalising, even I inevitably regionalise. I do not forget that the 19 countries of Latin America, from Mexico in the north, through the Central American countries—not forgetting Cuba and the Dominican Republic—and down to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of Patagonia, are each very distinctive and sovereign nations.
However, together, they comprise one quarter of the world's population. They represent one third of the United Nations and they have six members on the UN Security Council. They also contain two of the most populated cities in the world—Mexico City at around 22 million people and Sao Paolo at around 19 million people. Brazil, Mexico and Chile are stars, in economic and many other ways, in anyone's terms.
The region has vast natural resources: oil and gas; water; precious stones and metals; human resources; and the agricultural products which form so much of the region's trade.
When I first went to Latin America as a post-graduate law student in Ecuador in the mid-1960s, military rule and populist economic polices had created instability and closed economies throughout the region. People used to joke that a golpe or coup d'état was a cheaper way of changing the government than holding a general election. What they would have thought of our debate on electoral reform a little earlier, I am not quite sure. At that time, oil wealth was only just on the horizon, and Venezuela, with its vast resources of oil as well as of water, gold and other commodities, was a rising star. Since that time, I have been to the region on many occasions as a Minister. I was not a Foreign Office Minister; I went as a health Minister. I have led trade missions there, and, as president of Canning House, I have organised, and spoken at, conferences throughout the region. I have also gone to the region for holidays to enjoy the wonders of the environment that Latin America offers such as Iguassu—the waterfalls between Argentina and Brazil—and the Galapagos Islands, not to mention the beauties of Latin America's cultural heritage.
Since that time, of course, things have changed. All Latin American countries now have democratically elected governments, most with strong presidencies, and there is undoubtedly more openness, transparency and freedom of expression, which in turn give rise to more accountability, if only through the media. Although, as in many parts of the world, confidence in institutions and the political class has fallen during the past decade, that is a result of economic underperformance, falling living standards and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. That has been the cause, for example, of the recent problems in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
In this context, the role of parliamentarians is very important. I wish to endorse the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in particular the United Kingdom branch, in welcoming delegations from Latin America and sending UK delegations out to enable exchanges of views and to explain different ways of doing things so that we understand each other. But the parliamentary role—or the congressional role—in many countries of Latin America is not as good as it should be. However, we look forward to the coming elections in Argentina, which are due to take place in October.
On the trade front, the region remains heavily dependent on primary commodity exports, which leave it vulnerable to fluctuation in the terms of trade. As far as foreign trade goes, however, the region has become much more open in the past decade, with exports rising from 15 per cent of GDP in the first half of the 1990s to more than 20 per cent since 2000.
The United States is the most important trading partner for Latin American countries. Proximity and communications are factors, although trade diversification has increased.
China is the current phenomenon; it is becoming an increasingly important market for the region's metal and soya producers. I hope to be able to return to the subject of China, as it is also involved in much direct investment in Latin America and is entering into trade agreements.
In the context of foreign trade, Mexico shines out because it accounts for around 50 per cent of the regional trade. At the same time, as part of all these changes, we have seen the rise of trade blocs such as Mercosur for the southern cone countries, the Andean Community for the mountainous regions of the south-west and the NAFTA agreement between Mexico and the other North American countries. We have also seen bilateral and multilateral agreements with the European Union and other international bodies and there are moves towards a free trade area of the Americas.
The trade situation looks good. In terms of growth forecasts, the OECD considers that Latin America has increased its growth above world levels, having enjoyed a few years of very robust export performance and improved terms of trade, against an OECD prediction of world growth that is revised to 2.9 per cent for this year. Brazil, for example, which grew by 4.5 per cent in 2004, is likely to grow by 3.5 per cent for this year. Indeed, Brazil has been the beneficiary of one of three country-specific OECD programmes, the others being China and Russia, and this has been highly successful. It looks very probable that Brazil will follow Mexico as a full member of the OECD.
I recognise that there is much more that I could and perhaps should say, but time does not permit. I also recognise that this is not just a government issue. We are fortunate in this country to have institutions such as bilateral chambers of commerce, cultural societies and Canning House, the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council. We also have the Economist Intelligence Unit, to which I am most grateful for some of my facts, and which provides a wonderfully comprehensive service. I refer also to the Institute for the Study of the Americas and, of course, the excellent group of Latin American ambassadors and our representatives in the region. Although diminishing in number, they are first class in quality.
As a former president of Canning House, I should like to refer to just a few of the programmes, seminars and information services that it has provided in the past few months. There was a conference on the opportunities in PPP in Mexico and one called "The Dominican Republic: Opportunities for Foreign Direct Investment". There was a seminar on "Politics & Poverty Reduction: DfID Experiences in Peru"—where, sadly, the programme has been closed down. There are also events covering growth sustainability in Latin America and, most importantly, one in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank, called "The Emergence of China: Opportunities and Challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean". That probably is a subject worthy of a completely separate debate, and I look forward to that possibility.
Apart from the size and potential of these countries for the future and the added reasons why investment in and collaboration with those countries is becoming more reliable, let us not forget in our approach to the so-called modernising of our relations with them the significant historic and traditional links dating back virtually to 1492. In the period of the first Elizabeth, a lot of the booty which was won by her sailors came from the Americas—Latin America, the new world.
Through George Canning, there was support for the liberation movements in the early part of the 19th century and recognition for the new nation states. In 1853, we were the first country in the world to recognise Paraguay as an independent country, yet one month ago, we closed the embassy there, which in fact operated at negligible cost. We have just celebrated the UK recognition of Colombia's independence 180 years ago. Again, we were the first country to do so. Last week on its Navy Day, the Chilean Navy recognised that Admiral Lord Corcoran was its founder.
In conclusion, I wish to contend, as forcefully as I can, that a policy of benign neglect in our relations with Latin American countries, which is what I believe we are seeing from the Government through the FCO and the DTI, is wasteful and ignores the facts. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, who has secured this debate so early in this Parliament. She has been consistently active both here and through Canning House; she has many bilateral contacts and has fostered good relations with the countries of Latin America. She and I will participate in meetings in August in Paraguay, where we have just closed down our embassy, and Bolivia, following up the important mission from the Bolivians at Westminster last October. I shall return to that later.
Latin America is generally thought of as being Uncle Sam's back yard. One never meets Latin Americans who quite like that idea, but, short of getting Costain to move it somewhere else, there is not much they can do about it. The populist strands that are part of the history of many Latin American countries are tinged with a touch of xenophobia based on that unbalanced relationship. It is, for similar reasons, a continent—just as much as Africa and Asia in different ways, but with different points of emphasis—where the need to attract foreign direct investment is complicated by that degree of schizophrenia and is part of the central political debate.
Where can we see that there might be some added value in our involvement? It is just as true in Latin America as it is in eastern Europe, central Asia or any other part of the world, that advocacy of democratic principles, both directly and in the pattern set by the European Union, cannot be underestimated. There have been positive developments in Latin America in recent years: far fewer countries are now guilty of showing a lack of respect for human rights. There is more political pluralism, and indigenous groups for many years excluded are in principle more included in the voting lists and so on. But there is still chronic inequality in most parts of the continent.
The World Bank has just produced a study, saying that the greater political purchase garnered by Indians and other indigenous peoples has not translated yet into an improvement in their lot. I am indebted to the Latin American Weekly Report for that information. That is partly to do with patterns of involvement. We have our own history in the NGOs and trade unions; they have to do their own job in their own way, in their own environment. Trade unionists, operating on the universal principles of the ILO, have said that the privations experienced by people in Colombia—as we sit here today—are almost inconceivable in the 21st century. They include assassinations, torture and all the rest. We salute our comrades in that environment.
During the Earth summit in Rio in 1992, I was privileged to chair the global meeting of trade unionists concerned with the environment and sustainable development. One cannot underestimate the dilemmas of workers confronted by the reality that logging may be their only possible way of staying alive. The same is true of cocoa growing. What would you say if you were in a group that was told that, in an area that was receiving $500 million a year from cocoa—which of course with a few other chemicals attached soon becomes cocaine—the growing must be closed down, when in effect nothing is there to replace it? That $500 million has just gone. What would you do if you were working in that environment? You would fight pretty hard to keep the cocoa growing.
The indigenous peoples still find time-lags in their involvement. That is why in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, there has been little or no reduction in inequality in income distribution. The quality of public services is much lower in indigenous areas; and direct influence over services such as schools is much less. Democracy and equality go together in Latin America, as they do in all parts of the world. That sort of pattern is another thread in the general trend towards populism in much of Latin America and in the appeal of President Chavez in Venezuela.
The informal or "black" economy is on average 50 per cent in all that territory. What does that mean? There are no rights for workers and, by definition, no framework for law and tax and so on. It is not easy, either, for the development agencies to get to grips with that, as it is all outside the measured economy. So there is often a pattern whereby the political class is seen to be living in a totally different world from the people.
Of course, that is not a new challenge. I do not know whether the following incident happened when my noble friend Lord Whitty was general secretary of the Labour Party, but our mutual friend Alex Kitson, who was then chairman of the international committee of the Labour Party used to go to visit Fidel Castro every year in Cuba. There they were, sitting on the veranda with the sun setting over the Caribbean, the palm trees waving, and each of them having a couple of drinks. At one point, Alex said to Castro, "Fidel, may I ask you a question?". Fidel said, "Alex, my friend, of course—what is your question?". Alex said, "Fidel, I've been coming here all these years, and you are always sitting here. You offer me a drink, and it is marvellous to see the sunset over the Caribbean. But before now you have always smoked a big cigar, and this year you are smoking a very small one. Is there any reason for that?". "Well spotted, Alex," says Fidel; "I am trying to get closer to the people".
What is the role of parliamentarians? Where do we fit in? Well, we fit in with difficulty. I say that with some experience of various contexts and of wearing different hats. One thing that I am clear about is the fact that there is no point in just having bland agendas which just say, "We love you, and you love us". That does not get you anywhere, when there are such big gulfs in understanding between the typical British multinational, the typical South American populist politician and their constituencies. Yet, we embrace our friends and comrades as part of the joint parliamentary groupings. Along with my Bolivian opposite number, who is a member of the senate, I am president of the Anglo-Bolivian parliamentary group. It is in that capacity that we are having our meetings in La Paz in August. We hope that we can help knock some heads together, because it is very important that we are able to address specific issues concretely.
There are other means of contact. Last week, I gave some hospitality to eight Bolivian mayors who came here under the auspices of the Local Government International Bureau. I believe that that was a first from Latin America; it was very commendable. For people like that to go home realising that we do not all have horns and a tail is important in helping to close the gulfs of misunderstanding. When we roll up our sleeves and get involved, we may make mistakes; but as long as people continue to trust our good will and credentials, we have to get stuck in—even by raising questions that are not immediately on the agenda.
Let us take the question of 50:50 participation equity stakes. There is lateral thinking from Gordon Brown and others about equity participation in housing in this country: what about a bit of lateral thinking about equity stakes in some of the multinational oil operations in Latin America and other parts of the world? After all, no one in Saudi Arabia gets more than 49 per cent from overseas, and that is not thought to be a country worth taking over because it is not a democracy. So we have to be objective about what is needed to get people to feel that we respect their patrimony in a world whose history includes a degree of paranoia about the rape of the preceding generations' minerals and land.
We are particularly keen, in the light of all that, to be involved in our meetings in La Paz with the British majors—BP, Shell and BG—and we have an agenda for discussion. Although a tough hydrocarbons law has just been adopted in Bolivia, the handling of the implementation stage must be considered. In the past year, the price of oil has gone up to the best part of $50 a barrel, and that cannot fail to affect energy economics. Energy economics are changing rapidly around the world at the moment, not least because of what is happening in Iraq and Iran.
We must contribute technical expertise in negotiation. You do not just take your ball home. The history of trade unions in this country over the past 200 years is that, if you take your ball home, you have achieved nothing. It is only when you have signed an agreement that states how you are going to operate that you have achieved advances for your members. We must diplomatically get people to appreciate that that means a negotiating technique with governments, the private sector and multinationals, which is quite complicated. It also means that when an agreement is signed, it must be delivered for the duration of that agreement. Bridge building is not assisted by the parties on either side of a bridge sticking gelignite under their end of it and saying that if they do not get what they want the bridge will be blown up. It may be thought to be a friendly prelude to discussion, but it is not the one that I would recommend.
In my contribution to the Queen's Speech debate a few days ago, I said that I was pleased that my noble friend Lord Triesman had shown an active interest in this matter and was very supportive of the round table approach and of getting down to brass tacks on the issues that divide the parties. Multinationals and British companies have major interests in Bolivian oil and gas, which are that country's major resource. The multinationals, we in Parliament, Whitehall and Ministers all have different responsibilities, but we can keep the agenda going forward if we work together. I am sure that my noble friend will think that I am trying to teach him to suck eggs, but the mission statements of government departments could be more finely honed on the subject of how we fit together. It is not just that somebody has the major responsibility and should be left to get on with it. There are issues of state here, as well as issues for private interests. I look forward to further contact with the Minister before our mission in Bolivia.
My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend was successful in the ballot because this is an important debate. I am much less delighted that it has been tabled for today. Only for such a good friend would I still be here on the last day before a break.
My experience in Latin America has come in a number of different ways. I have been on delegations to Cuba, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua with the IPU. Some of those trips were fascinating experiences, such as when I went to Nicaragua with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Our meal cost 250,000 of whatever the currency was and there was no note bigger than 1,000. The restaurant had to set up a table with two men to count the money before we could say we had paid the bill and depart. The two men were sitting next to a pool with a crocodile in it, and we felt it was very important that our money should be right.
Inflation was a major issue in Latin America. When I first visited Peru as a private individual, we were advised to pay for dinner by course because prices went up so fast that by the time you finished eating the meal would cost more. There were no stamps. You had to go to the post office to send anything. You joined the queue and the price of postage depended on the time you paid. I believe that Latin America has been through certain blips with its currencies but, on the whole, they are much more stable now and inflation is not at that level.
The second way that I have visited Latin America is as a tourist travelling for pleasure. I have been to Mexico, Peru and Brazil. I visited Manaus on the Amazon. I am concerned to read about deforestation there, and hope that the Amazon forest remains as the most marvellous forest in the world. A tropical forest of that type takes centuries, perhaps even millions of years, to grow. It cannot be easily replaced. I have also visited Argentina where I saw some of the most beautiful and elegant women in the world in Buenos Aires.
The third way that I have visited Latin America, and the way that I wish to speak about, is through my position as chairman of Plan International, which is an NGO working in a number of Latin American countries. Through Plan, I have been to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador and seen the work being done. At one time, Plan had to pull out of Peru. Shining Path was a force there and it became so dangerous that we could not allow people to continue working. That danger is over now, but I am concerned to see people in recent programmes on television saying that they would welcome the return of Shining Path. That alarms me. There was a recent programme in which people in Peru were saying that they were not happy with things as they are and that they felt that the government were not coping. I cannot comment, other than to repeat what I saw on television, but I would like to know what the position is and to be reassured that we are not going to have Shining Path back.
Until fairly recently, I was the UK chairman of Plan International and I was a member of the international Plan board for 12 years. Plan International is an international humanitarian child-centred development organisation, without religious, political or governmental affiliations. Child sponsorship is the foundation of the organisation and its child-centred community development. It works in partnership with other local organisations and with the participation of local people and communities at all levels. It works with local NGOs. Very often, grants are given—although I do not know whether that happens in Latin America—and the Department for International Development has been very good in supporting Plan.
As I said, we work with other charities. I particularly remember working in Bolivia with Pro Mujer, which means, "For Women". It is a body that operates a small rotating credit scheme. It is extraordinary how difficult it can be for women, particularly in really poor communities, to get a few dollars to start up a small business for themselves. I saw women who had been given as little as $10 or $20 and who had set up a market stall selling soup. They had made a great success of it. The women are very reliable. They handle the credit union themselves. They pay the money back and when they do so they often lend it to the group so that another woman can be financed. It makes a huge difference to the lives of those people. In microeconomics, NGOs can do a tremendous amount.
In Peru, I went to see a very small area—I do not know whether you could call it a village or a hamlet—called Rujero. When I visited other places in Peru where we were doing work in health clinics there were mayors, bands and lots of welcome and it was all very impressive. But Rujero was a much smaller place. For the 30 years that it had existed, every drop of water had had to be carried there by hand, or on the back of a donkey. Plan provided the expertise and money to run a pipeline the 30-odd kilometres to the nearest water supply, a natural spring. Right in the middle of the village there was one standpipe for water. It was so exciting to the people of the village that the headman had to turn the system off every so often because the children would dance around the tap with glee and turn the water on, delighting that water was there. We believe that all those amenities are there at the turn of a tap, and yet people have had to carry water all that distance for so many years. Again, it was only a small thing, but it had changed the lives of those people. The hours that had been spent going to get water could now be used more productively to prepare food or do other things.
I thank Lord Montgomery, who was such an expert on South America. Before my first visit to Ecuador, he said, "Do not let them put you on a plane between this place and that place; you must see for yourself what is happening there". I followed his advice, and it was excellent. I went to see Guayaquil, where people had settled in the middle of a swamp. Plan had co-operated to the extent that it was able to build up hardcore areas to walk on between the houses, which were built on stilts in the swamp. When we met the people over lunch, we asked them, "Why have you come to live here?". They answered, "For a better life". How bad must life have been for that to have been a better life? Now, years later, they no longer have a lorry bringing in the water—and they had to keep careful records of every drop anyone got; they now have a laid-on water supply that has turned it into a real village, and now people there do have a better life. Those people chose that way to settle and improve—I understand that it happens fairly often in Ecuador. They have seen the result of the effort and work that they had put in.
In Canar up in the mountains, I saw people making Panama hats. Everyone imagines Panama hats come from Panama, but they do not; Ecuador is the number one source of Panama hats. People spent days at work and in the end they got hardly anything for all that work. One of the people from Plan Germany went out there and brought a hat back to Germany. A fashion magazine asked if she had brought anything back, and she said, "I just brought this hat". It was put on the front page of a German fashion magazine, and the magazine said that the hats were for sale. They thought that they might have a few buyers; 20,000 hats were ordered instantly. That has changed those people's lives completely. They have reached the point now where they go to world trade fairs; and Plan no longer works there. That is our aim; to make people so self-sufficient and successful that they no longer need an NGO's help. That is what has happened there; those people do their own dealing and trading. Instead of going through so many people and getting virtually nothing for their work, they are getting a really good return for their money. Those things are important.
I fear that Chile and some of the other Latin American countries may pose a challenge to Australia in the wine industry, because they are getting a good reputation. Australia is so pleased to be doing best; most wine that comes into this country is from Australia. They have overtaken the French. Of course, the gemstones in Brazil are unbelievable and very beautiful.
If we intend to build up tourism and personal visits in those countries, personal safety is the one thing that tourists are looking for. That used to be the hazard in Rio; if you went to Rio you were lucky if your whole busload of people were not attacked; sometimes all 40 were attacked. I am hoping that things have improved. The debate today addresses "recent developments"; it would be interesting to know whether that has changed. If you go back to the old pre-war film, "Flying Down to Rio", Rio was the place to go from the United States. But people will now only go somewhere they feel safe. It is no good saying that it would be delightful and enjoyable, if you are worried every minute that someone is going to attack you. Personal safety is important.
There are so many things that you could talk about, and time is limited. When I was in Bolivia, I went to Alto Plano. It just so happened that I was there. I was asked to open what I was told was a greenhouse at a school. Noble Lords would almost have called it a chicken shed, as it had a few little windows at the top. In the Alto Plano everything freezes every night. The children were learning how to grow lettuce, which you could not possibly grow outdoors. They asked me officially to open the greenhouse—they had a big ribbon tied across it. I got a bit carried away when they said that I could either cut it with scissors or pull the ribbon. I thought that the scissors sounded great fun and impressive. I had forgotten that it was a primary school, so they had given them non-cutting-type scissors to be safe for the children. I sawed away with the scissors for quite a time, and in the end I had to resort to pulling the string.
You could go on and on with such examples. In Bolivia they formed cookers out of the local clay. They took the person's saucepans and moulded the oven-top around them when the clay set, so that instead of having to use a lot of wood to make a fire to make a small meal, it economised on the fuel, and you did not get the whole room jet black and sooty in the way that you used to when they cooked on an open fire. I remember those open fires in the country in Australia. It really was a pretty sooty way of cooking.
All those things can and will be done if there is goodwill and co-operation between NGOs and governments. There is a growing closeness between the various bodies that must benefit everyone. We see here all the time the exported mange-tout peas from Guatemala. That is an excellent export, because it is high value in relation to the weight of the crop; therefore, it is very profitable. Again, Plan has worked with people so that they understand. They must feel that they possess the project, not that someone is imposing it on them. I went to see a place where they were teaching people to grow broccoli, but unfortunately they had not visited again soon enough, and the broccoli were six feet tall. They said, "Do you think it is time to cut this crop?". You must really follow it up and show them. In that area in the past they had not known any vegetable except potatoes, so there was a degree of malnutrition due to the lack of green vegetables. All those exports are important, and the whole way of life is improving for people.
As my noble friend Lady Hooper said, Latin America is made up of 19 countries. It is a vast and fascinating subject. I make no excuses for just talking about NGOs, because an important part can be played by organisations other than direct government organisations. Perhaps the most important thing about today's debate is that it enables Members of this House to show how much we care about this very special part of the world and to remind others of the continuing importance of Latin America.
My Lords, I, too, begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and congratulating her on securing this debate. My knowledge and experience of Latin America is woefully incomplete. However, what little experience I have concerns a rather remarkable story that had dramatic beginnings.
As many noble Lords will know, the British Council has a strong presence in Peru. In 2000, it worked with the Peruvian Press Council to develop greater access to information in the country and thus also to secure greater transparency. Many of your Lordships may remember that in November 2000, at precisely the date of our three-day international conference, then-President Fujimori disappeared. As I stood up to speak, the conference hall suddenly emptied of journalists. There had been a rumour that President Fujimori was reclaiming his Japanese citizenship and had effectively fled Peru.
The rumour turned out to be true, and it created a wonderful opportunity to push for access to information in both law and practice. In Latin America in particular, access to public information is a big issue in that it is perceived as the essential component of transparency and the fight against corruption, inequality and authoritarianism. British Council policy, and its strength, is to work with civil society groups and to act as the interface between the people and the government. In that, it is highly successful.
The perspicacious process begun in that year has continued and developed into a regional movement towards transparency and democratic accountability that has far-reaching consequences. The process itself is interesting. Following the initial international meeting that agreed the Lima Principles on Access to Information, there followed many more meetings. Some were national discussions involving the armed forces on how to provide legislation narrow enough to avoid misinterpretation of the law, yet wide enough to protect legitimate interests such as national security. I remember in particular that a seminar held in the ancient university city of Arequipa reserved the front two rows for senior armed forces personnel, who sat there resplendent in their uniforms with glittering medals—not a usual sight for a human rights gathering.
Other meetings were at the more local level and concerned the implementation of laws into practices benefiting the rural population. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provided the British Council with a two-year grant to disseminate the right of access to information to the local authorities, the judiciary, civil society and public officials. An ombudsman was appointed. A hotline was set up to receive and deal with complaints from all over the country. The first ever access-to-information law was passed in Lima in August 2002.
A series of high-level meetings was held between the Peruvian Foreign Ministry and the permanent mission at the Organisation of American States, based in Washington DC. The result was the development of a co-ordinated policy to promote access to information throughout the Americas. In July 2003, the Peruvian delegation, working with the Peruvian Press Council, drafted an OAS resolution called Access to Information: strengthening democracy. The resolution was approved later that year.
The speed of that process is, in the nature of such matters, breathtaking. But the process continued, with ever more efforts to persuade other Latin American countries to adopt enabling legislation. In October this year, the OAS will call a special session to exchange ideas and experiences with civil society organisations in information access. A document summarising best practices in the region would then become the basis for the OAS guidelines on access to information. In turn, that would act as an incentive for other countries in the region to adopt similar laws and practice.
What is the point of this Peruvian story? At least two conclusions can be drawn. First, civil society organisations, which by definition occupy that space between the people and the government, are of vital importance in creating and maintaining democracy. In fact one might even go so far as to argue that, in the absence of a civil society community, transition from—let us say—authoritarian government towards democracy will be fraught and possibly fail. Civil society organisations tend to fill the vacuum that inevitably occurs during changes in political systems. What follows is that anything we can do to promote the strengthening of civil society—even in those countries where there is nothing approaching democracy—is a genuine democratic development. In the case of Peru, the synergistic forces of a new and open Foreign Ministry, and the Peruvian Press Council supported by the British Council, were impressive and effective.
A second conclusion is that, of all the fundamental rights that individuals have—whether implemented or not—freedom of expression and access to information seem to be crucial in enforcing a degree of accountability on the part of government, and in affording people the opportunity to influence policies that affect their lives and livelihoods. In that sense, free speech, an independent media and access to information act together as the cornerstone of democracy.
What makes the story stand out is the willingness of the Peruvian Government to work with civil society organisations, to adopt laws that would harness—and to some extent have harnessed—their own power, to make strong efforts to ensure proper implementation of laws and proper complaint mechanisms, and to promote transparency at the regional level. Those efforts have contributed—and will continue to contribute—to an ever-more democratic process at least in Peru, and possibly for the region more generally.
My Lords, in the first debate today, I declared an interest as an ex officio member of the board of the Conservative Party. It may be more relevant to make that declaration now as, shortly before the previous debate ended and this debate began, I was summoned to join a conference call of the board at two o'clock.
I was conscious of infringing the rubric of your Lordships' House by not being present when the opening speaker—my noble friend Lady Hooper—began the debate. I made my peace with her and gained some insight into what she would say. In those circumstances, I hope that the House will recall the definition in Blackstone's law dictionary of an act of God as an act that no reasonable man would expect God to commit, and forgive me for speaking in the debate not having been present at the beginning. I apologise especially to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, most of whose speech I also missed.
I congratulate my noble friend on winning the ballot and introducing the subject, which is eminently worth while. I heard the remarks of my noble friend Lady Gardner and the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, whose speech I much enjoyed. My background to speaking is more modest than theirs, but perhaps worth recounting in the spirit not only of this debate, but of Latin American affairs.
In 1964, I became engaged to my late first wife. When I announced it at breakfast, my brother—a lawyer and now a judge—said, "Ah yes; Brazil is one of the few countries where you can be married by proxy". It so happened that a proxy marriage was convenient, as my late first wife wished to leave the country on a Brazilian passport and travel thereafter on a British one; she was Anglo-Brazilian. We arranged that the civic ceremony, which is the critical one in Brazil, should take place on
In the week before
Our faith in the oscillation of Latin American affairs was wholly confirmed, because Goulart moved to either Paraguay or Uruguay on the Wednesday. We flew out on the Thursday night, and I arrived in Sao Paulo on the Friday. The streets were still lined with tanks, which made for a new interpretation of a shotgun wedding. The rest of my family arrived at the weekend. The stock exchange, which had been shut for the whole of Friday, reopened on Monday and rose vertically by 85 per cent in the course of the day. In the index of a stock exchange, 85 per cent is a considerable amount of money. That greatly enhanced the celebrations of our church wedding, which occurred at six o'clock that evening. We honeymooned in Brazil and Peru but I fear that, before my first wife's death, I went back to Brazil on only a couple of occasions. Therefore, my credentials for speaking at large in this debate are extremely modest.
On the other hand, in an international development debate in the last Session of the previous Parliament, I indicated that I had for 20 years chaired a British charity operating at 7,000 feet in the Andes in Peru. It started out as an archaeological charity working on Inca forts, and then became by way of the Inca canals a developmental charity as well. I shall not go over ground that I covered in that debate, however. After my wife's death, all three of my sons travelled widely in Latin America, wanting to know more about their mother's background; they were children or young people when she died. They travelled to at least two-thirds of the Latin American countries and, as a consequence, I acquired vicarious knowledge through them.
I think that I am right in saying that the first reference to "Latin America" occurred as late as 1836. That would be later than the Monroe doctrine or the death of Canning. Yet, it coincided with the liberation movements and my former constituency in Westminster is studded with blue plaques to the liberators of various Latin American countries and who briefly lived in London during that time. Admiral Lord Cochrane, a British liberator of several Latin American countries and a predecessor of mine as the Member of Parliament for Westminster, is buried in the central nave of Westminster Abbey.
It will be apparent from my modest credentials that I shall not make an exhaustive speech about every Latin American country. However, I shall mention a development that has been good, although it has not been accomplished without some vicissitude and controversy. I declare an interest as the pro chancellor of the University of London. Those who take an interest in Latin American affairs will be aware of The Americas published in 2003 by Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, which is a powerful polemic which argues that we should be looking at the affairs of Latin America and the United States together and that there is an overlap between them. That is why he called it The Americas, to provide a composite and portmanteau title. Given that neither of the Libraries in this Palace has a copy of that book, although they have copies of a number of books that he wrote in the 1990s, I have not been able to verify that one of his points to illustrate where we started from was that, of the 10 richest people in the United States, one was the beneficiary of "old" money, the others all made their fortunes in their own lifetimes. Whereas, in Latin America exactly the opposite was true. Nine were the beneficiaries of "old" money and one is an entrepreneur who made his money from his own resources.
Perhaps, in part, due to Professor Fernandez-Armesto's book, the University of London, which previously had within its School of Advanced Study an Institute of Latin American Studies and an Institute of United States Studies, decided at a council meeting in December 2003, over which I presided, that those two bodies would be merged into a single institute. Some of the American advisers to the original American institute had understandably felt that that was not right, but I am confident that it has been a thoroughly satisfactory development in terms of raising the profile of Latin America and Latin American studies in this country. In the first instance, it will be a three-year experiment and we shall have to see how it goes but, so far, the omens are good.
I am, due to sympathy with my late wife's provenance, from time to time embarrassed about how little some of us know about Latin America. Therefore, my noble friend's initiative on starting this debate has been admirable and I hope that the initiative in the University of London will play some part in increasing our knowledge.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for introducing this debate. Sadly, I disagree with her and my noble friend Lord Brooke, because one reason we in this country focus so seldom on that part of the world is that we use the all-embracing term "Latin America" and the even more all-embracing term, the "Americas". I always prefer to refer to the United States of America and Canada, when referring to north America and, when referring to points south, I prefer to say "central America" and "south America", because the focus is much more closely aligned to what one is talking about. However, I have great respect for their views.
Most of what I shall say in this short speech will be about Argentina. However, I also wish to say something about south America as a whole. It is quite extraordinary that in the debate last Thursday on the Queen's Speech concerning defence and international affairs it seemed that there was nowhere in the world beyond Europe, except for Africa. Sadly, many African countries appear to be poorly governed and many people live in poverty. We are extremely distressed about that. However, that is also the case in many parts of the world. Why can we not focus more on such matters in south-east Asia, the Indian sub-continent and south America?
There are several countries in South America where there is poverty—for instance, the favelas of Rio and the slums of Isla Marsial outside Buenos Aires. In the past, British investment has played an important part in the development of many South American countries—especially in railway systems, not least in the Argentine. There is enormous potential for future investment, in spite of some unsatisfactory economic regimes.
I set foot in Argentina for the first time 50 years ago. It was then suffering under the corrupt and oppressive dictatorship of General Peron. I was there when there was, first, an unsuccessful revolt and then later in that year, 1955, a successful revolution when he was removed from power. My experience of that country during that visit, which lasted for a year, ranged from Buenos Aires, in particular, the northern provinces of Santa Fe, Entre Rios, Corrientes and Formosa, and right down to Rio Gallegos in the south. My old company, Bovril, which was why I was in Argentina, had estancias and meat-packing factories, I learned much about cattle and how to put them in cans.
After that initial visit, I returned several times until the company was taken over in 1971. Sadly, I have not been back since but I have followed the fluctuating fortunes of Argentina ever since. Unfortunately, recent history has not changed the impression of economic instability that I first encountered in 1955, although from time to time things have appeared to be much improved, for short periods sadly, only to revert to hyper-inflation or other horrors.
For example, in 2002, Argentina went from a country widely held up as a model of successful free market reform to one that defaulted on its public debt of some $155 billion. Since then there has been an enormous restructuring of Argentina's debt, where creditors have had to accept a cut in principal, a lengthening of maturity and a reduction in payment of interest.
Despite that, Argentina's debt will still be more than $120 billion. Can the Minister say what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to ensure that the Argentine Government are encouraged to maintain fiscal stamina and to negotiate settlements with the large number of foreign firms that are owed so much? That might eventually attract the much-needed investment which would transform prospects for the Argentine economy in the middle and long term.
I turn to a completely different subject. Last Sunday, the Sunday Express carried an extensive report that there was increased tension in the Falkland Islands and that 2,000 extra troops were being sent to boost the garrison. As we know, Argentina has always laid claim to these islands, which it calls the Islas Malvinas, and we accept that while in no way agreeing. Perhaps the Minister will enlarge on that situation. Is there any truth in the report in the Sunday Express and, if so, what contingency plans are there in case it develops into a dangerous situation? Can he confirm that a frigate or destroyer is on station off the islands? Can he also confirm that recently there have been joint exercises off the island between Argentine and British naval forces?
Argentina is a great country of which I am very fond. It always seems to be able to pull out of its difficulties. It has great advantages. It is a most attractive and varied country ranging from the freezing and windy Tierra del Fuego in the south to the tropical forests of the north by way of some of the most productive countryside and farmland in the world. I can strongly recommend it to your Lordships if a visit is being considered.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for securing this debate. I appreciate that in doing so she has had to be patient. It is bad luck that it was listed for the Thursday before the Recess and there is a greater interest in this House than is suggested by the list of speakers.
Nevertheless, it has been an extremely interesting debate. I cannot match the length or breadth of experience of previous speakers. I have visited Latin America three or four times in the past few years, notably Ecuador and Mexico. I visited Mexico City as part of an IPU delegation. Besides the official part of the visit, which was most interesting, I was able to see some of the shantytown areas through my interest in Juconi, the charity which works with street children. The scale of problems with which many countries in the region must deal defies the imagination.
I was interested to hear about the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parks, in this region. By no means was the infrastructure in place in the city of Guayaquil, which I also visited with Juconi. I am pleased that the part she visited was so improved, but vast areas still lack any services. The issues relating to the street children, in which I took a particular interest during my visit, would merit a debate in themselves and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who for some time has requested a debate on that subject, will be successful in securing one.
I want to move to my second area of particular interest, fair trade, and then to take a more general look at the region. During my visit to Ecuador I took the opportunity to spend some time with a fair trade banana co-operative in El Guabo to see exactly what fair trade meant to them. It is reasonable to regard fair trade as the grown-up relation of free trade and after my visit, I felt very much that that was the case. The co- operative was founded in 1997 by some producers, all of whom have small landholdings, many fewer than 10 hectares. Once they get up into the mountains, they have fewer than two hectares and it is a challenge to make a living for yourself and your family on that amount of land. Furthermore, many employed workers.
They could understand that within the regime to which they were selling their bananas it was impossible to make a living and they decided to set up the co-operative. It was founded in 1997 and the benefits they have been able to provide include healthcare insurance, a machinery co-operative, a packing station which they built themselves, and a lorry to take the bananas to the port of Guayaquil. They have also provided all kinds of training in first aid and in farming methods. They have much reduced and in some cases eliminated pesticide use, with all the health and ecological benefits that brings. They provide food baskets for those who fall on hard times through illness and so on and they have a democratic system of governance in their co-operative. All of this and more comes at the price of 1p on a kilo of bananas wholesale. That is a wonderful example of what "trade not aid" means.
That model can be used by many other communities and producers. For example, in Ecuador, the flour producers are interested in moving towards such a model. In this country, it is incumbent on us to spend our money on fair trade produce and to promote the idea of fair trade. I commend supermarkets such as the Co-op which are trying to buy fair-trade produce and offer it to consumers.
I am sorry that I do not have more time today to address the issue in detail, but I want to look at a wider picture which has been mentioned by many noble Lords. Latin America is rarely on the political radar here in Parliament or in the British media with the honourable exception of the BBC World Service. Latin America is certainly not a priority on the Government's agenda. I realise that not everything can be a priority and that the Prime Minister has decided to make Africa a UK and soon a G8 priority. I am sure that there are sound reasons for that with which I would not argue. There seems to be an all or almost nothing approach to some regions of the world and Latin America has been earmarked for almost nothing in terms of attention, despite its undoubted importance. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, said, it is a global player and it is time it was recognised as such.
The lack of attention that is paid to Latin America is a great mistake in many ways. Its countries are classified as middle-income, but that masks a different reality. As mentioned today, 57 million people there still live in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day and I saw for myself what that means. Furthermore, 132 million live on less than $2 a day. They have no safety net of a health service and few services are on offer to them. The index which measures the difference between rich and poor indicates that that difference is growing.
These matters are of concern to DfID, whose future programme is laid out in its 2004 regional assistance plan. The plan starts with a long apology for the closure of so many Latin American offices. Not only has DfID withdrawn from many of the countries; the British Council and the Foreign Office have done so too. No doubt that is a Treasury-driven policy but it is regrettable. Relations become more distant not only with individual countries but also with the NGOs within them. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, indicated the importance of the NGO sector in her illustration.
The DfID paper is a good analysis of the situation in Latin America but it fails to draw sufficiently strong conclusions. I felt that DfID may have come to those conclusions but that they had been watered down during the ministerial approval process. I shall explain my criticism.
For example, the plan talks of negative environmental trends and severe environmental degradation. That is a very topical issue, as noble Lords will have noticed from the reports of extensive logging in the Amazon, which has been far greater than any of us realised. But there was no suggestion in the DfID report or, indeed, in press reports this week of how countries, which can better afford to do so, should deal with that situation. We cannot expect Brazil to deal with it on its own.
Brazil has already been recognised by the UK Government, the US Government and very widely within the world as a hub for change and development in Latin America. But Brazil has plenty of issues of its own—from extreme poverty and unemployment to antiquated red tape, which prevents foreign investment. The President is now trying to deal with that. He has made a fantastic start both at being an engine for change within the region and at getting his own country's house in order, but he is not a miracle worker.
That is why I say that we should treat the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest as critical to the future of the world's climate. Its destruction is a disaster. We should treat it in the same way as a war zone because environmentally and actually that is what it is. Indigenous people, other Brazilians and westerners have been murdered over the felling and logging that has taken place there. We, as the international community, should be offering to help with policing and not simply wringing our hands.
Another area in which both the Foreign Office and DfID need to be more explicit is in thinking about the identity of Latin America as a region. That is why I was particularly grateful for this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred to terminology. I believe that terminology is important, and perhaps his was better. Certainly, the Brazilian Minister for External Relations came out with a very interesting quote. Indeed, it was so interesting that I had to write it down for my own speech. Ambassador Celso Amorim said:
"In fact, the expression 'Free Trade Area of the Americas' rather makes one think of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, which, in the words of a certain nineteenth-century thinker, was in fact neither Germanic, nor holy, nor Roman, nor an empire".
He certainly does not see that the area of the Americas and the offer of free trade is all that is understood by the rest of the world.
In concluding my comments on Brazil, I recognise and applaud the contribution that that country has made in establishing an agreement between Mercosur and the EU and all the other initiatives that it is pursuing with the rest of the world.
Finally, I turn to DfID's comments on poverty reduction strategies. It made a tactful understatement when it said that there is some concern that poverty reduction strategies have been driven more by donor demands than by national priorities and that ownership and civil society participation is weak. For me, that goes to the crux of some of the things that have happened within certain countries in Latin America over the past few years. The external demands of the poverty reduction strategies have, indeed, played a fearsome role in fostering so much discontent in societies throughout Bolivia and Ecuador. I have not been to Peru but I should be surprised if that were not also the case there. Such has been the discontent fostered by the demands upon those countries by outside institutions that democratic government has been almost impossible to achieve. Governments there cannot respond to their own agenda or to the mandate for which they were elected because they have to dance to the donors' tune. It is time that donor countries and regions understood that point.
It is interesting that we are having this debate following the debate on democracy. If we as a country, together with the Foreign Office and DfID, are interested in promoting democracy in Latin America as a means to changing and underpinning development, then we must become an advocate for those countries and not allow the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to take precedence.
That was illustrated graphically during the recent problems experienced by Ecuador when it tried to create a social programme based on the difference between last year's and this year's oil prices. As noble Lords know, the price of oil has risen considerably as a result of the Iraq war. However, because of the terms laid down by the World Bank in 2003, it is not able to benefit from that windfall. It is not able to develop a social programme under those World Bank terms but must give back 70 per cent of the windfall to the bond holders. I believe that the arm lock in which the donors have placed these countries explains the political instability in some of them. The UK Government must make an effort to help the new President of Ecuador to move forward on the agenda that he has laid out.
I could go through the other issues that Bolivia is facing, but I can see that I shall not have time to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, underlined some of them. Therefore, I simply say that it is very important that we listen to what the Bolivian people want before we come to a conclusion about what is in the best interests of the UK.
With that, once again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, very much and hope that it will not be too long before we have another debate of this nature.
My Lords, it has been a most interesting and well informed discussion, including several fascinating personal travel experiences. I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Hooper on, yet again, securing a debate on Latin America.
With so many of Her Majesty's Government's resources targeted towards the problems in Africa, it is all too easy to forget that there are problems just as serious and as urgent in other parts of the world. It is essential, therefore, that your Lordships' House keeps the spotlight on the developments in Latin American shining brightly.
Some of your Lordships have chosen to highlight the problems of Colombia and Bolivia. There can be no doubt that, after 40 years of internal armed conflict and several unsuccessful attempts at negotiating peace, Colombia remains immersed in violence. The state remains pitted against irregular armed organisations that have become deeply involved in kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism. The FARC alone is thought to produce some 80 per cent of the world's cocaine, while the ELN is responsible for a large proportion of the 3,000 kidnappings carried out every year in Colombia.
Meanwhile, in Bolivia, much of the past two years has been dominated by radical groups from the western highlands doing their best to prevent locally based multinationals exporting gas, as well as other products. Those groups have been blocking roads in order to force foreign investors to bow to their demands or leave. As a result, to avoid the disruption, Santa Cruz, the prosperous easternmost province, wants to gain autonomy from the central government in La Paz. There are fears that, if that regionalism becomes separatism, other Andean countries could fray.
The Wall Street Journal this month warned that Bolivia was still the third biggest producer of cocaine. It stated that if the country's shaky government lost authority, it risked becoming an ungovernable narco-state. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will agree with me on the very important point that it is essential for Her Majesty's Government to make certain that the rule of law and freedom of movement are preserved in Bolivia and to press for CAP reform, so that agricultural products from Bolivia and other Latin American countries are not made uncompetitive by subsidies and other trade barriers.
I would also like to mention briefly a concern regarding Venezuela's announced plans to develop a civil nuclear programme, despite its enormous oil and orimulsion reserves, particularly in the light of Hugo Chavez's links with other regional leftists, including Colombia's Marxist narco-rebels. Will the Minister comment on the Government's assessment of that nuclear ambition, which could significantly affect the region?
It is clear that some countries in Latin America are on an interdependent knife edge with similar problems of lawlessness, national debt, poverty and social inequality. The fraction in one country could tumble into the others.
It is impossible in a debate on Latin America not to mention the importance of Mexico and its influence in the area. It has much in common with Brazil, to which I shall refer later. We must not forget that there are important presidential elections next year that could have serious knock-on effects on the country's successful economy and its position as a stable pillar of democracy in a troubled region.
Brazil is the largest and most dominant country in Latin America. The BBC World Service stated in an extremely interesting programme last Monday morning that Brazil,
"is a gentle giant awakening, despite its continuing problems" with, for example, the movement of landless rural workers.
We in the West are constantly concerned with the reports of the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest. However, we should be reluctant to criticise a country when we in the United Kingdom only a few centuries ago had many more vast forests than we have today. At the same time, I understand the country's need to develop its resources, be it in mining or agricultural development, like, for example, the renowned organic beef farming.
Political stability is working hand in hand with a growing economy, enabling the country to look outwards and to help anchor the continent as a whole. Last year saw a couple of symbolic significant steps: first, the provision of a small Brazilian force in Haiti as a UN peacekeeping force; and, secondly Brazil's role in organising developing countries in the Doha negotiations.
On the subject of trade, I shall comment briefly on the work of Mercosur, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Mercosur was created with the goal of creating a common market and customs union between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The transition stage for that aim was started in 1995 and is due to finish next year, 2006. What advice and support are Her Majesty's Government providing for the completion of that project?
I was so pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, spoke on Peru and the importance of a civil society. She spoke with great authority about a beautiful country, steeped in history, with no doubt another great future ahead of it.
I was fascinated to hear from my noble friend Lord Brooke a polemic from the University of London about joining south, central and north America together to raise Latin America's profile. I shall follow that with great interest.
My noble friend Lord Luke covered Argentina in his most eloquent speech. That is yet another country with great potential, and we ignore it at our peril.
I hope that Her Majesty's Government can maintain a balance of keeping the pressure on Brazil to tackle its problems of poverty, equality and environmental degradation while supporting its moves to play a greater international role through its dynamic economy and its position as a stabilising power in the region.
So where are south and central America going? In this technological era, the Internet is hastening development in the new world too. Those resources are improving people's education and understanding, from how to read to the importance of politics and human rights, such as the freedom of speech. We are witnessing a developing middle class with evolving views and knowledge that can be used in international terms, be it in trade or exchange in services.
I am sure that the Minister, in his usual charming way, is about to tell us that the Government attach great important to this area. When does the Prime Minister next plan to visit any country in Latin America? I have contacted the Downing Street press office, which was unable to help me on the ground of security. I just wonder why Her Majesty the Queen is able to announce in the gracious Speech her future visits abroad, but the Prime Minister's trips are embargoed.
I said that central and south America were a part of the world that we must keep high on the agenda at all times. It is vital that we maintain good relations with what will be an exciting and important power, regionally and on the international stage.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for giving the House the opportunity today to discuss Latin America. Her own experience and her commitment to the region since her studies in Ecuador are well known and admired. I know that she also, as she reminded us, spent some fruitful years as president of Canning House, a fine institution which is vital to our analytical efforts on Latin America. As I expected, she provided us, as have other noble Lords, with some new insights on this subject.
I respond immediately to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. While Her Majesty announces the intention to make state visits to various countries, it is the abiding custom not to announce the Prime Minister's visits in advance, for security reasons. That has been so across a number of governments. I guess at this stage it is important to do that. I can say that, in advance of Gleneagles, a number of leaders of countries in Latin America or their Foreign Ministers are visiting the United Kingdom. My own diary has a number of those visits.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I felt, although they were not here, the spirits of the noble Lords, Lord Howell, Lord Moynihan and Lord Ashcroft, and my noble friends Lord Brennan and Lord Levy. I probably should add the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whose record on human rights in Latin America is so impressive. We will soon be joined by Lord Foulkes, who as a Minister did a huge amount of work in the subcontinent as well.
I have been Minister for Latin America for just three weeks. It is a responsibility that I am delighted to have, but I also recognise the depth of knowledge in this House compared with the knowledge that I have. Perhaps I may start with a brief look backwards.
A number of noble Lords have referred to the long history of strong links between Latin America and the United Kingdom. I agree that there is a good deal to be proud of in the past three centuries. We have supported independence movements, headquartered as they were in Westminster at various times, as well as the economic development of several new states. In many ways that has left a remarkable legacy. We must now make full use of the links that were forged.
The world has changed since Simon Bolivar sought sanctuary and inspiration in London, and since Britain was able to dominate trade with Brazil and Argentina. It is perfectly fair, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, asks, for me to say what my priorities are. They include security—both internal and external—and the development of democracy to try to ensure security. We want there to be trade between the global community and those 19 countries whether they are giants or small economies, with a thought to how the smaller economies can be lifted to become more prosperous economies. Priority must also be accorded to drugs, the subject where there is often a confluence of security issues and illegal trade issues. There should also be a priority in looking after the United Kingdom's own interests, whether in the Security Council or elsewhere.
If there has been an emphasis on Africa, as both the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Luke, said, everyone knows that the Commission for Africa has a particular traction at this stage and in the run-up to Gleneagles and beyond. But that does not mean that Latin America will be neglected.
I turn to Latin America and to the recent developments that have been the focus of today's debate. I shall share some thoughts on what it all means for our Government's engagement with the region. The debate has highlighted a number of specific reasons why we should be concerned—because it is a dynamic region which changes a good deal internally. I shall deal with some of the countries, albeit briefly.
I begin with Bolivia, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lea and many others. It is an area of concern because of recent instability, a matter that has been raised effectively today. Bolivia faces many challenges and we recognise that the Bolivian Government have a heavy and complicated agenda in 2005. Recent developments on the hydrocarbons law, calls for autonomy and feelings of social exclusion have all contributed to growing social unrest. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, elaborated on those difficulties.
The Government believe that the development of Bolivia's oil and gas sectors could and should play a significant role in Bolivia's future economic growth and development. But potential can be unlocked only if the legislative framework does not endanger existing or future investor confidence. We hope that Bolivian plans to hold a constituent assembly and extend decentralisation will strengthen social integration within the country. We have encouraged President Mesa to deliver sustainable political and economic reform and to resolve those social issues.
Of course, we have our part to play, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, pointed out. We can hardly help people in their agricultural exports under the present CAP regime, so we shall work hard to ensure that it is fully reformed.
I welcome the visit of my noble friend Lord Lea, the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, to that country and wish them success.
Ecuador has also gone through a difficult period of instability, as noble Lords have mentioned. The former president's removal from office on
The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and others mentioned Colombia, which is also important to us. We have not seen the same kind of political instability in Colombia, but the situation there is one that needs constant attention. I have seen the Colombian ambassador this week to discuss some of those issues. Colombia has suffered from over 40 years of internal armed conflict and, more recently, from the evils of the drugs trade.
We support the Government of Alvaro Uribe and the efforts that he is making to tackle the inter-connected problems of armed conflict, illegal trade in drugs and human rights violations. We note that under his presidency a state presence has been restored to most areas of the country whereas, previously, large tracts were under the control of illegal armed groups.
However, we have made it plain that in tackling the country's severe problems, human rights and international humanitarian law must be respected. I can tell my noble friend Lord Lea that it was in that light that I raised questions with the ambassador, not only about trade union rights, which are very important, but about the rights of all other organisations in civil society.
Venezuela, too, continues to be in the news. It has the potential to be a very prosperous country. However, there are huge inequalities in Venezuelan society, as is found in many other Latin American countries. President Chávez is addressing this issue with social projects to help cover some of the problems.
There is also the issue of political polarisation in Venezuela and instability, which culminated in the presidential recall referendum in August 2004. It is in the interests of the entire region that the Venezuelan Government pursue policies that promote stability, and it is vital that all parties in Venezuela work together in the spirit of reconciliation. The Venezuelan Government must accept their lead role in promoting and defending democracy and human rights. I shall write in more detail about any nuclear aspirations, which are often overstated by people who have them. When considering a country with such a complex provision of and uses for energy sources, it is right to deal with that in more detail.
There has been a good deal of attention on Cuba in the past few days. I am glad to say that there is some sign of movement. The Cuban Government have allowed a meeting of 150 members of a peaceful organisation in Havana to go ahead—an event unprecedented since the revolution in 1959. However, several MEPs and journalists who attempted to attend the event were expelled from Cuba. That is unacceptable.
In January the EU agreed temporarily to suspend measures that it had introduced in response to a crackdown on dissidents by the Cuban Government in 2003. That policy is due for review in June.
We shall seek an outcome in the review which allows us to maintain a firm stance on human rights, and our embassy's active programme of contact with the peaceful opposition will continue. We also want to be in a position to have meaningful dialogue with the Cuban Government, not least because we want to raise human rights concerns. However, we also want to co-operate on matters of mutual interest such as child protection, drugs trafficking and money laundering.
Noble Lords raised questions about other countries. I shall deal briefly with the question of deforestation in the Amazon forest, which was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Rawlings. We keep in close touch with the Brazilians on the issues that are relevant to deforestation. The challenges and pressures are indeed very great. The Amazon is a huge area to police and economic activity—both legal and illegal— which impacts on conservation, is extensive. None the less, we are in active discussion on those questions.
On Peru, I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, that I have not seen the programme on the Shining Path militarists to which she referred. We certainly do not want to see their return. They caused incalculable misery to the Peruvian people. We accept that we must be on our guard and work in close contact with the democratic institutions to avoid further conflict.
I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, that we have supported a wide range of projects on human rights and civil society dialogue in Peru, including a national police reform project to support the new office of the police ombudsman and a national media project to strengthen national standards of professionalism and to tackle corruption. We hold regular discussions with Peruvian authorities on human rights issues and on the formation of an effective press council.
I turn very briefly to one or two comments made about Brazil by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. I was very grateful for his description of his nuptial arrangements. I can only say that I am thankful that mine were a good deal more sedate. From what he said, it was little short of a miracle that he got married. Even if it is very belated and I cannot congratulate his late wife, I congratulate him.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, raised some important questions about Argentina. There is no substance in the story in the Sunday Express. I say that unequivocally. Although it is common knowledge that the current Argentine Government have reduced the level of co-operation on the Falkland Islands, there is no reason to believe that there is an increase in the threat to the islands' security. There are no plans to increase the size of British forces in the Falkland Islands and the deployment of HMS "Portland" to the South Atlantic is routine. A constructive and positive relationship in the South Atlantic is in everyone's interest, not least because of the economic questions that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, himself raised. Economic stability is vital.
I recall last week reading chapter 4 of the International Monetary Fund discussions about the Argentine economy. We monitor that closely, encourage the Government there to pursue policies that will promote economic stability, and are committed to working with United Kingdom companies that have been affected by the current changes.
I have dealt with political instability; I have said a bit about crime, drugs and human rights concerns. I have also mentioned inequality, but it is very important to remind ourselves, as have several noble Lords, that the region still has a high level of severe poverty, with 132 million people living on less than $2 a day. As the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and others, reminded us, it is not only Africa that is in dire need because of poverty, although Africa as a whole is a continent that is going backwards, which is not the position overall in Latin America.
However, we think that Latin America is on course to meet most of the 2015 millennium development goals. On current trends, it will not meet all of the targets for reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day and the rate of maternal mortality, because inequality remains severe, fuelled by widespread socio-political and economic exclusion. However, overall, there is progress and we will work on it.
I fear, as I describe it, that I am falling into the trap of dealing only with bad news. As a consequence, I will probably get job offers as a journalist. I do not want that. As I said, Latin America is a dynamic region. It is rich in natural resources and in its people. It is hardly any surprise, then, that China takes such an interest in what can be done in trade and other terms. It has recognised its significant economic potential and several Latin American countries, especially Brazil and Mexico, are now playing a vital role on the world stage.
For those reasons, our priorities will be those that I have mentioned. But they will also include child protection—I make this point in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We have made it clear to governments in central America—bilaterally and with the EU—that we attach great importance to the respect for human rights that must extend to children. We monitor the progress being made by authorities in countries in central America. We are providing support for several local projects to help to protect children, as well as funding equipment and training for local police forces across central America. That is true in Guatemala; it is true in Honduras; that is very important work.
In that context, I turn very quickly to what I think the Government's agenda will mean for the region. First, I do not accept the notion advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, of benign neglect—I think I cite her properly—nor the proposition advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that it is an almost nothing area.
It is true that we have closed some posts in the region and there have been other cuts; it would be fruitless to disguise that. However, it goes without saying that, as the world changes, new priorities appear and new demands on our resources are made. I am sure that everyone will understand that events in the Middle East and Afghanistan, for example, have required a high level of resourcing in both a human and financial sense from our Government. The Foreign Office and other government departments have therefore had to make hard decisions. That is the context, for example, of the decision to have a non-resident ambassador to Paraguay, based in Buenos Aires.
The focus on priorities does not mean abandoning countries or that we are only a fair-weather friend. We focus our resources because we must. We have 15 embassies in the region, as well as consulates and other offices. That is because we value a constant dialogue with the region and have regular high-level political talks with several governments in the area. I look forward to being involved in them myself. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the meeting in Luxembourg—my noble friend Lady Royall kindly took my place—precisely because I do not want this House to believe that this debate is of any less significance than a debate on Africa or any other matter. The Prime Minister has invited two leaders from the region—President Lula of Brazil and President Fox of Mexico—to the global outreach session at Gleneagles. Others will of course be visiting on the margins. Their contributions on all economic subjects, not least on climate change, will be vital.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is completely right to emphasise the extent of trade in which Mexico is engaged, the growth—albeit slowing down—in Brazil and the role of the OECD in ensuring that we are very close to those economies. Our presidency of the EU will give us further opportunities to take a lead in some of Europe's business with Latin America. We will work closely with several other countries in multilateral bodies such as the UN and the World Trade Organisation—not having a dialogue just for the sake of it, but because in so many areas we share common objectives and a desire to make progress. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was absolutely right to emphasise the importance of the United States in such partnerships; I wholly agree with him.
Nor is our commitment focused only on common political interests on the global stage: we are committed to helping the region in its fight against drugs and crime; to work to promote stability and strengthen democracy, good governance and social cohesion; and to work to help to tackle poverty and exclusion. We are doing that in Colombia, with the regional drugs and crime initiative; we are doing that through the global conflict prevention pool, in which there is a great deal of effort. That is, thankfully, work that also helps some parts of Latin America stay free from conflict, which, as well as resolving conflict, must also be an objective.
However, there are still important conflict prevention and resolution questions. There are also important questions about indigenous peoples, to which we are attending. That is why the Government are providing £3.75 million in support of international efforts to resolve and avoid conflict for all peoples in Latin America and in security sector reform initiatives during 2004–07.
It would probably be to trespass on your Lordships' patience to go through the entire DfID programme, but our work in Latin America amounts to about £100 million of aid expenditure each year. The annual bilateral programme of £11 million complements that support, especially by helping the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. Those areas of aid were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, who also raised the question of water aid, which is a part of that aid programme.
That is an important—vital—area of work. If we consider all the initiatives being taken—initiatives of substance rather than wordy commitments—there is strong evidence that we are doing our part and will continue to do so.
The debate has been very valuable. It has drawn attention to a region that, I recognise, can suffer if it gets less attention than it merits. That is why I am grateful to the noble Baroness for having secured the debate. We have a full agenda on which to work with Latin America. I certainly look forward to helping to make that agenda work and to all the assistance that I know I will receive in your Lordships' House in that objective.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated in the debate. It has been most useful and has covered a diverse number of subjects. In spite of everything, I feel optimistic about the future, not only of Latin America, but of our relations with Latin America. That is due in no small part to the Minister's positive and thorough response. I thank him for that and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.