Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Mar 2009 : Column 194WH—continued

3 Mar 2009 : Column 195WH

It was rather sad that when the Serious Organised Crime Agency took over from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, it took a different view of the role of drug liaison officers working with Governments in Latin America. I hope that the Minister will speak to her counterparts in the Home Office to ask this question: given that Latin America is still one of the major providers of drugs that end up on our streets and impact on all our communities, and given that there has been a change since SOCA replaced HMRC on this important issue, are we confident that the current level of drug liaison officer support for our embassies and for Governments in Latin America is adequate? I am conscious of time, but I want to touch on two more issues. What would be helpful to you, Mr. Amess? You saw how many people rose to their feet wishing to speak.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Certainly two other hon. Members wish to speak, and there are just 13 minutes left until the winding-up speeches.

Mark Pritchard: To be helpful, Mr. Amess, I shall speak for just three more minutes, first on animal conservation and secondly on human rights. I hope that the Brazilian Government will consider illegal logging. We have seen the demise of the giant otter, squirrel monkeys and macaws. There is also the issue of the illegal shipping of mahogany. According to Nature Conservancy, only 7 per cent. of Brazil’s Atlantic forest remains. Excessive commercial ranching causes deforestation. I am very concerned about illegal logging in Peru, which I visited a couple of years ago. I am especially concerned about the Tahuamanu rain forest. I hope that hon. Members will join me in supporting the WWF campaign to save the declining turtle populations in Colombia, Guyana, Ecuador and Peru. In Chile, the kodkod, one of Latin America’s smallest wild cats, has become endangered, as its habitat is being destroyed.

I hope that the Government will consider the pet trade in this country. I introduced two Bills on the issue in this Parliament, but they were rejected by the Government. One was on the sale of endangered animals on the internet. Endangered animals from the countries that we are discussing are still being sold on the internet in this country and being homed and housed in this country, which is wrong. The Government also rejected my Bill on the sale of primates as pets. Some 3,000 primates are being kept as pets in this country. Many of them were sourced from Latin America. Latin American countries, along with the UK Government, need to do far more if they care about their environment and habitats. Eco-tourism may be a motivation: why should people come to the diminished rain forests—albeit that some of them are saved—if there is no wildlife to see there?

Human rights are improving in some countries, for example, Colombia. I welcome the decline in the number of homicides and kidnappings in Colombia and in the homicides of union leaders. More needs to be done and each killing is unacceptable, but I want to put on the record my recognition of the efforts of the Government of President Uribe. Cuba has not been mentioned. One could argue that it is not really part of Latin America, but it is for the sake of the work of Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I hope that the
3 Mar 2009 : Column 196WH
Foreign Office will look urgently into the case of Church leader Pastor Robert Rodriguez—previously the national president of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers in Cuba—whose trial was due to be held in the past 72 hours. I believe that the charges against him are trumped up and that there should be a fair trial. If Raul Castro is serious about changing Cuba, one of the best things that he can do is allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and set an example by allowing a fair trial for this pastor, who is seriously ill in prison. All that Pastor Rodriguez does is preach the gospel, serve the poor and help his community.

10.20 am

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has few peers in Parliament in terms of his commitment to the people of Latin America.

What is so interesting about Latin America is that it was the first continent to have neo-liberalism imposed on it, beginning with the coup in Chile on 11 September 1973. It is heartening that the mass of people on whom the neo-liberal experiment has been tried have rejected it, and we can draw some lessons from that as we face the current economic crisis. I will avoid the temptation to praise the 50 years of the Cuban revolution and to be slightly critical of our policy in Colombia, because—surprise, surprise—I want to deal mainly with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country; indeed, the only two facts that I knew about it before I became involved were that it quite often won the Miss World competition and that it never qualified for the World cup. However, I have now dug a bit deeper, and it was a question to our former Prime Minister that got me really interested in Venezuela.

As I said, Venezuela is a pretty inoffensive country. We have never been at war with it; in fact, Venezuelans feel historical connections with Britain because of our support for them in the war of independence and because Bolivar lived in London for a time. However, if I were a Venezuelan—certainly a supporter of the majority—I would be slightly uneasy about the British Government’s stance towards Venezuela in the past few years.

Let me begin with former Prime Minister Blair’s reply to my question. He said:

There was no substantiation of those comments, which were not well received in Venezuela. In addition, a Foreign Office Minister was—how can I put this diplomatically?—ambivalent about the coup in Venezuela. I will push it no further than that. We then have the dodgy statistics. Another previous Foreign Office Minister—the Minister’s predecessor—used a series of statistics from something called Transparency International in Venezuela to substantiate claims of corruption there. Unfortunately, some of the personnel who staffed Transparency International in Venezuela took part in the coup against Chavez. The organisation is hardly independent, and I urge Ministers to stop using such dodgy statistics.

3 Mar 2009 : Column 197WH

It is important to address some of the misinformation that the international and British media have perpetuated about Chavez and the process of change in Venezuela. It is worth knowing that there were no halcyon days of neo-liberalism, when private companies were rampant across Latin America. Venezuela tried the neo-liberal model, but it led to deep inequality and poverty, despite the country’s vast potential wealth. I have checked the figures, and more than 50 per cent. of the population lived in poverty, with 20 per cent. in extreme poverty. One in five children suffered from malnutrition. In 1995—before Chavez—the figures peaked, with 75 per cent. of the population living in poverty. The experiment with neo-liberalism and free-market capitalism was not a success, which explains the victory of Chavez in the late 1990s.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend quoted the previous Prime Minister’s reply to his question, but he has raised questions about the weakness of neo-liberalism much more recently with the current Prime Minister. When he did so, was he disappointed by the barracking and chanting from members of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who are clearly unreconstructed disciples of neo-liberalism and just keeping their heads down for the moment?

Colin Burgon: No, I believe in the class struggle, so if my opponents shout at me and carry on, I see it as part of that struggle. I have no problem with that—

Mark Pritchard: We never said a thing.

Colin Burgon: I will not respond to that.

There are some other things that I need to put on the record. For ordinary Venezuelans, progress under Chavez has been quite impressive. More than 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Even though oil prices were high at the time, the former Governments did not attack poverty in any way whatever.

Thanks to the Barrio Adentro service, millions of Venezuelans who did not have access to any kind of health service now have access to doctors for the first time in their lives. As a result—this is just one statistic—there has been a massive decrease in infant mortality. Another important point—hon. Members who went to Bolivia will realise the importance of this—is that 6 million Venezuelans have been given access to clean water since Chavez came to power. Educational programmes have also drawn millions of people into schools and universities, which did not happen before.

I am pleased to say that the minimum wage in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, at about $370. An additional 900,000 Venezuelans are now entitled to a pension and to social security benefits, which are set at the same level as the minimum wage. One of the big battles that Chavez faces is with media. The international and domestic media are incredibly hostile to him, but I want to deal with the British press, because that is what we are more concerned with. Mark Twain said that if

and that is certainly the case with the British press. In the lead-up to the recent Venezuelan elections, an
3 Mar 2009 : Column 198WH
editorial in The Guardian claimed that Venezuela had an “authoritarian government”. The Independent falsely claimed that Chavez

The Daily Telegraph explained support for Chavez by claiming—this is a really good one—that

The Times quoted Chavez’s ex-partner, Marisabel Rodriguez—a candidate for the Opposition—as saying:

which is a really penetrating analysis.

Worse, however, is the role of what we would class as the liberal press. The Guardian has spent money keeping correspondent Rory Carroll in Caracas. He had a full-page article extolling the virtues of Chavez’s ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, but she finished up with 1.7 per cent. of the vote in the election. The statement that the British press is unbalanced can therefore be substantiated.

On international trade, the Government can and should improve our relations with Venezuela. Countries such as France, Spain and Portugal have certainly taken the opportunity to sign deals with Venezuela. I am conscious of the time and of the need for the Minister to reply. What I am really asking for is a cool, dispassionate acknowledgment of the great social progress that has been made in Venezuela, which is substantiated by some of the facts that I have given. I ask the Minister to make sure that we do not engage in, or succumb to, the kind of misinformation that we have experienced over the past few years. Instead, we should build a constructive and open dialogue with the people of Venezuela and their leader, Hugo Chavez.

10.29 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. One and a half hours seems a short time in which to cover thoroughly the many issues affecting a huge continent, but it is good that in this short debate we have been able to raise many aspects of the things that affect the continent and the UK’s relations with it.

The debate is particularly important because in foreign policy terms it is often easy to overlook a region such as Latin America when the daily news headlines are about the latest crisis between Israel and Palestine and the middle east, continuing threats concerning Iran and its potential nuclear capability, geopolitical changes involving Russia and China, and our military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often Latin America is not at the top of the agenda, which is why it is important that Parliament should find the time to discuss the issues. I was, like other hon. Members, particularly intrigued to hear from the hon. Member for Islington, North because of his more than a quarter of a century of interest in the issue, and the fact that he has great knowledge and expertise, having made many visits to Latin America. It was fascinating as well to hear about the recent parliamentary delegation to Bolivia. I feel that when one has visited a place there is additional authenticity when one talks about it, so it has been particularly interesting to hear those views.

3 Mar 2009 : Column 199WH

Why should Latin America matter to the UK? We have heard a host of reasons, such as climate change and the environment. Apparently more than 20 per cent. of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rain forest, which is sometimes described as the lungs of the earth. Deforestation is a big and pressing issue and it accounts for a large percentage of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. It will grow in importance in the coming years. Indeed, Latin America’s global influence is growing. Brazil, in particular, looks as if it will become a regional superpower. That will lead, no doubt, to discussions in other international bodies. There is already, and has been for years, much discussion about Security Council representation at the UN, and which countries should be entitled to permanent seats. The UK will have to be involved in the relevant negotiations. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) highlighted the political consequences of closing UK missions in Latin American countries, given that the area will grow in global importance.

Other reasons why Latin America matters to us are the drugs trade—most of the cocaine that ends up in the streets of Britain comes from Latin America—and poverty and human rights: problems which, even though they are on the other side of the world and not on our doorstep, should concern all parliamentarians.

David Taylor: Would the hon. Lady include in her reference to human rights the position of women in Latin America, and specifically in Guatemala? I secured a debate on that some time ago, and have asked questions about it more recently. Women in Guatemala are subject to horrific levels of domestic and street violence, rape and murder, and more needs to be done by countries such as ours to promote human rights, particularly for indigenous women, and to help them get access to the Guatemalan system of justice. The position of women there is bleak and dire.

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is interesting to hear what he says about Guatemala, which I confess is a country I do not know a huge amount about. It is unfortunate that often in countries where human rights abuses are rife, women suffer the brunt of them. It is certainly important that our Government should do all they can to encourage the promotion of human rights in Guatemala and other countries.

I want to go into more detail about climate change and deforestation. It is staggering to think that nearly 50 per cent. of Latin America—45.9 per cent, to be exact—is forest. That is a higher proportion than occurs in any other region of the world, and, as I mentioned, 20 to 25 per cent. of global carbon emissions come from deforestation there. One might think that avoiding deforestation should be a quick win. It would not require a massive change in technology. However, it is proving very difficult.

I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is conducting an inquiry on deforestation. We recently visited the Congo basin in Cameroon, which is of course on a different continent from the one we are discussing, but gives rise to similar issues. It is difficult for the world community to get the right balance between managing to avoid deforestation while maintaining the rights of local indigenous people who live in the forest.
3 Mar 2009 : Column 200WH
We are not yet anywhere near a robust payment system for the avoidance of deforestation. Brazil announced plans a couple of months ago to reduce deforestation by 70 per cent. in the next 10 years, but that target is not necessarily as high as is needed. Greenpeace Brazil has been critical of it in relation to the level of change that is needed. Indeed, although deforestation had been decreasing in the four previous years, last year it was on the rise again.

Biofuels present another environmental issue. There can be advantages to them in reducing deforestation—Brazil produces a huge amount of sugar cane ethanol, which can be a quite good, sustainable biofuel—but when land, and particularly forests, are cleared to grow biofuel crops any environmental benefit is lost. That is why the Environmental Audit Committee, in a report on the issue, called for the Government to halt the rush towards increasing biofuel targets in Europe. The sustainability guarantees were not in place.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Lady may know that one of the problems is that the growth in maize-based ethanol has forced up the price of maize, and thus tortillas, which are the only sustainable form of food for many poor people, particularly in central America. Essentially, those people are starving to feed American gas guzzlers.

Jo Swinson: Indeed; the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food called the growth in biofuels “a crime against humanity”, which is pretty strong and stark language but certainly highlights the scale of the problem. There are many unintended consequences from the production of biofuels, although it may be pursued with good intentions. We need sustainability guarantees, and fortunately there have been recent moves by the Government to establish those.

The cocaine trade in the UK is estimated to be worth about £6.6 billion. Much of that comes from Latin America and in particular Colombia. There are British Government efforts to reduce drug trafficking, of course. I had the advantage last summer, while I was in Cuba, of meeting some Navy officials from our ship Wave Ruler, which is one of the British vessels that patrol in the Latin America region. As well as providing assistance when hurricanes strike, it has a counter-narcotics remit. Those officials were engaged in an interesting conference with Jamaican colleagues about successful strategies.

I note that some good work is happening, but I hope that the Government will recognise that we must fight a continuing battle. While we tackle demand on the streets in the UK we must also tackle the supply side from Latin America. I am sure many hon. Members will have seen the information campaign “Frank” on the television, and it is certainly welcome. However, as well as highlighting the social and health problems of cocaine use, it is important to get across the message about the darker side of funding the trade, such as terrorism, kidnapping and violence.

Next Section Index Home Page