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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 March 2009

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Latin America

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard .)

9.30 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased that we are debating UK relations with Latin America today. I shall divide my speech into three parts. I shall discuss Latin America in general, then talk quite a lot about Bolivia, and in conclusion make some general remarks. Looking at the number of hon. Members here, I think that we can all do the arithmetic and agree the timing so that everyone can contribute.

This is a time of high excitement throughout Latin America. The continent is going though incredible changes at a very fast pace. There is in the air a sense of optimism and, in many countries, of liberation from past oppressions. I have been involved in debates about Latin America ever since I first entered the House in 1983. During that period, there have been terrible times in Latin America, but there have also been times of great hope. I think that now is one of the optimistic times.

One thinks back to the period of dictatorships in the 1980s in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru and one remembers the vast human rights abuses that have happened throughout the continent at various times. Now one sees, not necessarily liberation for everybody, but optimism on a grand scale, particularly for people who have been systematically discriminated against—namely, the non-Spanish-speaking minorities in a number of countries, and the people who suffered under the various dictatorships. It is pleasing to see that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is up and running and is effective. I hope that, if required, we will be able to give recognition, help and support to that institution, because it is important to have it.

Britain has always had a huge relationship with Latin America, not only through trade and investment. Indeed, the Bolivarian wars of independence started in Britain, when Simon Bolivar and de Miranda sat together near Warren street and plotted the liberation of much of the continent from the then Spanish empire. British commercial involvement was huge throughout the whole continent. I therefore find it rather sad to have to say—I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on this—that there seems to be a problem, in that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been systematically downgrading our diplomatic representation throughout the continent and closing quite a lot of embassies.

The Department for International Development has followed suit by leaping to the headline figures that show that most Latin American countries are deemed, in the Department’s terms, to be middle-income countries, which means that the requirement for British overseas aid is limited. We therefore have fewer DFID offices in Latin America than in any other part of the world.
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Although we still have a substantial programme throughout Latin America, my suspicion is that once the office is closed and representation is taken away, two things happen: first, the accountability of the programme starts to diminish; secondly, the programme is cut altogether. We should be aware of that process. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort and good news on that point.

The United States has traditionally had enormous influence over Latin America. That stems from the Monroe doctrine, which arose after most of the countries in Latin America had gained independence. Essentially, the US sees Latin America as its own backyard, and its intervention throughout the region has seldom been a benign affair. One thinks of the numerous incidents of US military involvement and engagement in Latin America and of the promotion of coups, such as those in Chile and Guatemala.

Trade with the US has always been dominant throughout Latin America, but things are changing fast. Two schools of thought are running throughout Latin America: there are those who want to have direct trade links and treaties with the US, such as those signed by Peru, Columbia and Mexico; but there is also the community of Andean nations debate, which is dominated by Bolivia and Venezuela, which most strongly promote the idea. I hope that the Minister can give us some positive news and that she will encourage the EU to engage directly with the community of Andean nations and negotiate with them, as well as having the bilateral agreements that are currently being made with individual countries.

Huge change is happening throughout Latin America. Essentially, a political debate is going on about the economic and cultural independence of Latin America, and whether its development, growth and future depend entirely on relations with the USA, or whether it will take a much more independent route in the future. For example, a few years ago, Argentina had a massive economic problem: it had huge debts and its economy had collapsed. Now, internally, Argentina has turned itself around; it is much more economically stable and standards of living are rising. Although there are still political tensions within Argentina, it is very much part of the development process throughout Latin America. Likewise, the huge changes that have recently taken place in Venezuela—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about them this morning—show that there are different paths to development and out of poverty. Those paths do not necessarily rely solely on the traditional development of trade patterns; they also relate to the idea of a stronger internal market, a stronger indigenous economy and the ability to break free from the cycle of debt, depression and poverty.

As I mentioned at the start of my speech, behind all that lies the fault line throughout Latin America. The independence movement of the 19th century brought about independence essentially for the settler classes and the colonials who dominated the continent at that time. We now have the growth of non-Spanish-speaking communities, the development of indigenous people and their rights, and demands that their human rights be recognised and dealt with.

Traditionally, Latin American people have migrated in large numbers—mainly to the USA, but to Spain and other parts of Europe as well—to seek salvation, to find work and to send money home. On a recent visit, many
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people mentioned to me their anger at the way in which the European Union is treating Latin American migrant workers. Some time ago, many hon. Members here today were present in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room when the all-party group on Latin America invited all the ambassadors from Latin America to come and talk to us about their concerns. They were unanimous in their condemnation of the EU ruling that threatens the deportation of large numbers of Latin American people who work in Europe, often as unskilled workers such as office cleaners and in similar jobs. We should think again about that policy. Deporting those people is cruel and inhumane to them, damaging to their economies back home, and damaging to relations between Britain, Europe and Latin America.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Latin American immigrants and migrants to this country from other parts of the European Union make a real contribution to this nation and its economy, but is he saying that he is at odds with his Government’s position and the introduction of the new points-based migration system? Does he agree with the system or not?

Jeremy Corbyn: We are dealing with two issues here. One is the position of migrant workers in Europe. I personally strongly support the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign as the right way forward, because it recognises that people have been here a long time and that they seek to work and to contribute to our economy and society. That path makes for a more cohesive society. I do have a number of concerns about the points-based immigration system, not least its effect on poorer countries throughout the world. Such a system often sucks out the most skilled and able people when they are most desperately needed in those societies. We must look at that aspect.

Mark Pritchard: rose—

Jeremy Corbyn: I stress that this is a debate not about immigration but about our relations with Latin America. However, since the hon. Member who wishes to intervene represents the area where I grew up and learned many of my political skills, such as they are, I cannot resist the temptation to give way to him again.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman knows that we get on very well. I do not agree with much of what he says, but at least he is consistent and believes what he says. There is a lot to be said for that in this place.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is what I learned in Shropshire.

Mark Pritchard: And Adams’ grammar school is an excellent grammar school—and partly fee-paying, just for those people on the left of the hon. Gentleman’s party to note.

I am a little confused. A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman appeared to argue against the Government’s position of resettling people in and asking people to return to Latin America. In a second point, however, he contradicted himself by saying that migration to Europe sucked out the best brains from Latin America. Which is it? He seems to be confused.

Jeremy Corbyn indicated dissent.

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Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman did make those two separate points.

Jeremy Corbyn: I made two separate points in response to a very gentle intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who is trying to divert this debate from its true purpose. I do not intend to be diverted. That is the sort of tactic they use in Adams’ grammar school’s debating society, so I am not prepared to go any further down that road. I have made my views clear, but, if he doubts them, he can read Hansard tomorrow.

I was privileged recently to be the leader of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Bolivia. We spent one week there and met a large number of political representatives of all hues. We had an important meeting with the Vice-President of the country, met a number of popular organisations in El Alto, the very poor area just north of La Paz, and went to Santa Cruz to meet those who, for all intents and purposes, are the leading opposition forces. The IPU organised the visit, and I hope that representatives of the Bolivian parliamentary system—probably after the elections later this year—will be able to undertake a reciprocal visit to this country.

The purpose of our visit was to build relations at parliamentary level. The delegation consisted of, from the Commons, my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and myself, accompanied by Kenneth Courtenay, the general-secretary of the IPU, and the House of Lords members of the delegation, Baroness Gibson and Lord Kilclooney.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend may be aware that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Latin American country profiles, Bolivia is restricted to about 10 or a dozen words, in contrast with other countries that are the subjects of detailed analyses. Does he believe that Bolivia’s relatively weak economic status means that, as a priority for the FCO, it is correspondingly low and vanishingly small? Does he regret that?

Jeremy Corbyn: This will totally shock my hon. Friend, but I have good news to bring him on behalf of the Government.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Which Government?

Jeremy Corbyn: The British Government. I have just had a very useful conversation with our esteemed Minister, who deals with these matters, and I am sure that she will not mind me repeating it. She is to meet the delegation that went to Bolivia, and we will apprise her of all the details of our visit. Indeed, I have offered her 60 pages of my hand-written notes on it.

David Taylor: In Spanish.

Jeremy Corbyn: Sadly, the Minister declined to receive them. Even though they are written in English, I am sure that they are just as incomprehensible as if they were written in any other language, but I am confident that, at the end of the meeting, she will appreciate the importance of Bolivia as a developing country in Latin America and of according a higher status to British representation there. I look forward to doing that.

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Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I have yet more good news for the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the delegation’s visit, which, as far as I am concerned, was extremely successful, was significantly enhanced by the more-or-less constant presence of both our ambassador to Bolivia, Mr. Nigel Baker, and the Bolivian ambassador to Britain, Señora Beatríz Souviron? Is it not true that the British ambassador’s profile was significantly enhanced by his participation as an international facilitator during the national meetings on the new constitution between the Bolivian Government and the regional prefects?

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he says, we were accompanied throughout the visit by the ambassador, Nigel Baker, on behalf of the British embassy, and by Beatríz Souviron, the Bolivian ambassador to the UK, which meant that we had very good advice from them both before and after all the meetings that we held. The visit was also considered to be important because—I believe that this is correct—the British parliamentary delegation was the first national parliamentary delegation to go to Bolivia from any European country for a very long time. There has been an EU delegation, but none from any national Parliament. As a result, we were very well received. The Bolivians felt that the visit was an important recognition of the democratic changes and process in their country. We were able to discuss how we can support and assist that political and democratic change, and I was most impressed by the people whom we met.

There are two images of Bolivia which are fundamentally wrong. If one reads most of the press, one assumes that Evo Morales is some kind of stooge of President Chavez of Venezuela and that Bolivia is tantamount to a Venezuelan colony. That is absolute nonsense—there is no such feeling. There is a feeling of mutual support and solidarity, as there is between many other Latin American countries, but that is now how the relationship is presented in the press. Secondly, although enormous and fundamental political debates are ongoing in Bolivia, it is not true to say that the democratic or parliamentary systems have broken down—quite the opposite. We witnessed pretty robust discussions between the various political groups, but surely the important point is that they were having those debates.

Another fundamental point is that President Morales became the President of Bolivia as a result of popular social movements, including the campaign against water privatisation in Cochabamba and the cocoa growers’ campaign, of which he was an intrinsic part and effectively the leader. He was also helped by the strength of the miners’ unions in several places, particularly Potosi, and the strength of the popular movements representing one of the poorest places in Bolivia, El Alto, a large barrio on the Altiplano above Le Paz. Morales became President as a result of those campaigns and popular movements and, in many ways, he represents the hopes and aspirations of the very poorest people in Bolivia.

Furthermore, Morales was the first non-Spanish speaking, indigenous leader to be elected to the presidency on a popular vote, the highest popular vote ever received by a presidential candidate in Bolivia; and it was the first time that somebody had won in the first round of an election. That is very significant, indeed, and we should pay due respect to it. At a reception organised
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by the British embassy, somebody who, as far as I can gather, is not necessarily a supporter of Evo Morales or the political process that he represents told me, “Forever, Bolivia will be judged before and after the election of Evo.” His election has been that fundamental to the change in attitudes in Latin America.

The new constitution pursued by the Bolivian Government is being developed through a constituent assembly chaired by a redoubtable lady, Silvia Lazarte, who addressed a meeting in the House when she visited late last year. The constitution is designed to protect indigenous rights, land rights and linguistic rights, to provide education, health, opportunities and hope, and to protect human rights in Bolivian society. This has been met with huge opposition, particularly from the wealthier provinces, mainly led by Santa Cruz, which are opposed to it and to the land reform elements in particular. It went to a national referendum and was approved by just over 61 per cent. on a national vote. The vote in La Paz was considerably more than 61 per cent. and in Santa Cruz and the other opposition provinces, for want of a better word, the result was more or less the mirror reverse of the national result, with around 40 per cent. support for it and about 60 per cent. opposed. Nevertheless, it has been approved.

During the first three days of our visit we were gasping our way around La Paz because we rather unwisely went straight into activities and meetings without taking sensible advice to spend a day acclimatising ourselves to living at 4,000 m. So we got through it, shall we say. We had meetings with the Government, the Vice-President and the Foreign Minister and were able to discuss Bolivia’s relations with neighbours and with Europe.

Bolivia’s relations with its neighbours are obviously important. It has a small population and is a poor country that relies particularly on exports of hydrocarbons and minerals for its survival. Therefore, relations with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru are important. Unfortunately, Bolivia’s history has been one of wars and loss of territory to Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile. There is a continuing problem with the competing claims over the northern part of Chile and how those are going to be resolved. It is not for us to decide how that situation will be resolved: that has to be done bilaterally within Latin America. It is creditable that there has been a series of meetings and quite a good relationship developing between the Bolivian and Chilean Governments. One just has to support that process and hope that something good comes out of it. Bolivia requires good relations to export its crops and goods.

On the democratic developments in Bolivia, we met representatives of all the political parties and had an interesting meeting with the public defender or ombudsman, who is effectively a kind of human rights commissioner. The person we met was impressive. The reports that she had produced on investigations were objective and interesting, particularly the one on the killings in Pando, where a number of people died in a conflict between a group of campesinos and representatives of the prefect. One can say with confidence that there is a strength in the democratic process there and in the inquisitive process through the public defender’s office, for example.

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