Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:07 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Viscount Montgomery of Alamein Crossbench 4:07 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, like many speakers I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on his brilliant introduction. It is definitely worthy of further study. His choice of title was particularly subtle: it is quite clearly a very complex subject. Having listened to many speeches, one can see the enormous variety. A good example was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ryder, which illustrated the complexity of the subject and what is needed to confront the various challenges that face us. My sympathies lie with the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I am not sure how he can possibly sum up this incredibly wide-ranging debate in 25 minutes. I wish him well in that endeavour.

As anticipated by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I will turn to Latin America, where my experience over many years lies. In that capacity, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, whose vice-chairman I am in the all-party group, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, with whom I have worked for many years to promote Latin American affairs.

Sadly, British influence has declined slowly since the Government decided that Latin America was no longer a priority. It was a very curious decision, since the GDP of Latin America is considerably more that that of Africa and the Middle East combined, and equal to that of eastern Europe. We are a small country on the fringe of Europe, but a very important member of the EU. The problem is that, although we trade extensively with the EU, when it comes to business, trade and investment, on which we depend, unless we are in joint venture with European companies, we are in competition with them; so we need a very active foreign service in this area. In that context I return to a suggestion made in an earlier debate, that we should close down UKTI and reinstate commercial offices in embassies and generally strengthen the Foreign Office effort in Latin America, which has been declining gradually over the past 10 years.

We pay attention to Brazil and Mexico, of course, which is hardly surprising as they are both important members of the G20. Brazil is the dominant power in South America and growing fast, while Mexico is the power in the north. We all look forward to the visit of President Calderon from Mexico at the end of March. There are numerous opportunities for trade and investment in both these countries where we already have quite a lot of investment.

Turning to more specific challenges, I want to mention Venezuela. Recently President Chavez won a clear mandate for indefinite re-election every six years, starting in 2013. The referendum was conducted with only minor infractions but was hardly a fair contest, as the Government control most of the media and used state funds on a massive scale to secure the yes vote, which also affects governors, mayors and other elected officials.

The second problem concerns the economy. Oil, which is controlled by a state monopoly, accounts for 90 per cent of exports and 50 per cent of the budget. With high prices, Chavez could dispense largesse to other left-wing countries such as Nicaragua, Bolivia and Argentina, but with low prices he has had to withdraw foreign exchange reserves from the central bank.

Sadly, Venezuela is showing all the symptoms that apply to Communist states: the quashing of the media, state funds for the ruling party and a cult of personality of the leader. Despite all this, Venezuela remains a fascinating and beautiful county with very talented people and a youth orchestra of international renown. There are still many opportunities for British business there, but one needs to advance with caution. I wish it well, and hope we can retain an important influence there.

Next is Argentina, where we have an excellent embassy but little direct ministerial contact from London. A number of its opposition politicians have been to London during the southern hemisphere's holiday season. Although the presidential elections are over two years away, the Kirchners are universally unpopular and alliances and campaigns are already well advanced. I get to meet all these characters who come through London and who always deliver the same message: that it is a tragedy that the two commissions covering oil and fishing, set up years ago as a bridge-building exercise, no longer exist because Argentina has withdrawn unilaterally. Both sides would have a great deal to contribute, but the unilateral withdrawal has been more damaging for them than for us. One hopes that the commissions can be reinstated at an early date.

To end on a positive note, at the end of April this year, the four-yearly summit of the Americas will take place in Trinidad, where President Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on both Latin America and Caribbean policy. That will be a major occasion and I hope we can return to Latin America another time to deal with what will happen afterwards, because there are many parts of the continent that are of considerable interest and to which we ought to continue to pay attention.