Every year members of the House of Commons devote time to a short debate about Latin America and the relations between the United Kingdom and the continent.
A great deal of the debate was focussed on Bolivia, as some members have been on an Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) visit there, and it is good to see that a lower profile country discussed, though of course the election of Evo Morales has caused a bit more interest to be taken. Venezuela is of course mentioned, as Hugo Chavez has also managed to elevate it a little in the national consciousness. Having read many of these debates before I do find them a bit tiresome in the way that the same heroes/bogeymen are trotted out, according to the taste of the contributor, and one feels that it is a bit of a dialogue of the deaf with neither side really listening to the other. I live in the probably vain and naïve hope that sometimes it might be realised that human rights abuses occur in countries other than Cuba, and that maybe someone of any persuasion might fulminate that indigenous peoples are tricked out of or evicted from their land or otherwise have it stolen, have their environment polluted and it’s all totally illegal – and what kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world about Latin America and those who might want to invest there??
However, that is to be slightly unfair, especially as Guatemala does get a mention, by David Taylor MP in a short section on human rights . David Taylor MP is to be congratulated for bringing up the situation as regards women’s rights in particular, as he also did earlier in the year. There was also an IPU visit to Guatemala in 2006.
One always feels that Latin America in general is not really a priority for the UK at all, perhaps as we do not have any former colonies there, though we have had a long history of links in the past, as alluded to in the debate. Indeed, in my own borough there is a small square and devoted to Bernardo O’Higgins with a bust of him, to commemorate his studies here. Of course, it could be that their powerful neighbour in the north means that everyone else is muscled out, and history does back up that suspicion, as the US sought to ensure European business was shifted out and that the Americas should be their exclusive sphere of influence.
The devotion of a mere hour to this debate rather confirms this general lack of interest, so I am pleased to see that members echoed what would be my anxiety at this indifference and also that it is exemplified in the downgrading of representation by the United Kingdom throughout Latin America. The post of Guatemalan ambassador was downgraded in 2007 and we have seen a reduction in the staff there, even at a time when in Central America there are no embassies at all in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, and the first two of these are covered by roving staff from Guatemala. We hear that a review has taken place which seeks to ensure that the Foreign Office “use resources to best effect”. Yet at the same time, and this is while we are members of the EU, we have separate ambassadors for the Holy See and for Italy who by my reckoning are situated close enough to walk to each others’ offices.
A more cynical person than I might wonder if in fact that diplomatic representation is not necessarily spread where it is needed but where it might be most comfortable to live. An ex-insider, Craig Murray, confirms this view in his book “Murder in Samarkand”, about his time as ambassador in Tashkent – a post I note was also downgraded in 2007. Whilst the headlines about his time in Uzbekistan are well known what is also interesting is the description of his day to day work trying to help UK citizens, businesses and projects while having insufficient staff and resources. He also comments that while Africa is claimed to be of importance – and a continent close to his own heart – in fact senior diplomatic representation there has been cut.
So, it seems to me that if the countries of Latin America do not appear to be important or strategic to the UK then this must be partly a self-fulfilling state created by the UK not reciprocally according any importance to them.