William Hague must get post-colonial on Latin America. Fast
During a recent Foreign Office ceremony our ever inclusive Foreign Secretary invited questions from the floor. Without hesitation a distinguished, redheaded woman offered enquiry. No academic or think tank boffin alas, this piper-upper was none other than the (relatively) new Argentinian ambassador to London, HE Alicia Castro.
Undeterred by several interruptions from an anxious William, the question – relating to the Malvinas or Falkland Islands – came: “Seeing that the UN and the international community and a large group of Nobel Prize winners urge both countries to (start) negotiations in order to find a pacific and permanent resolution, my question is: ‘Are you ready for dialogue? Are we going to give peace a chance?’“
With bilateral tensions high; this apparent olive branch – albeit delivered within a highly public domain – had to be handled with care; only a crafted, sensitive reply would suffice. It came: “Thank you. That’s enough. Stop.“
This wincingly silly reluctance to join a grown up debate or buy temporary diplomatic credit with humour, or a gesture of constructive engagement is characteristic of the negligence displayed by Britain towards Latin American countries for too long.How might this dynamic, outreaching and fast growing continent – as politically, culturally and socially diverse as it is – view successive UK governments, and indeed the present one?
Modern history shows a litany of bad moves on our part. The Thatcher government’s support for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; the indifference of the New Labour years to Latin America (including the devotion to the Bush administration and the Washington global consensus), manifested in the closing of embassies and occasional insults to the “pink tide” nations of Venezuela and Bolivia; bungled diplomacy with rising giant Brazil, and of course the on-going wrangle over Malvinas/Falklands, the small Island flying the Union Jack flag 8,000 miles from the British coast.
Another often overlooked factor for a less than perfect atmosphere might just be the existence of UK overseas territory tax havens directly in Latin America’s eye line – Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda etc – which allow trans-nationals and criminals operating from the continent to launder money, avoid tax and keep poor people poor; Action Aid estimate that one single new loophole in the recent budget will cost poorer nations, including some in Latin America, £4 billion.
Despite the global financial crisis, Latin America has continued to grow and poverty has continued to fall. The IMF recently increased its growth forecast for Latin America and its 600 million citizens; a population larger than the EU. The greatest concentration of democratic governments outside Western Europe is located there and UK tourism to the continent is increasing – BA weekly flight frequency to Brazil alone has doubled.
Yet, in another example of almost neo-colonial arrogance, Hague recently waded in to the Argentinian decision to nationalise oil fields operated by Spanish company REPSOL, a bilateral matter in the first instance, but also (as excellently argued here by Will Hutton) one with a deepercontext of that sovereign nation’s resources being snaffled under its nose, to its economic detriment. The multi-national of course would be compensated at the market rate.
The FCO must urgently re-adjust its approach to Latin America along the lines of equal partners, not colonial overlord and client colony. The ALBA economic group, for example, may contain many nations which are to the left of the UK government, but they are all democratic and, US interference aside, largely stable.
When these sensitive, bilateral issues of re-nationalisation of resources (at precarious structural junctures for those host countries) such as the REPSOL episode for Argentina or this week’s TDE electric issue for Bolivia emerge, Hague must ask himself if it is helpful to offer public judgements on what is best for that nation.
Broadly, Hague should also weigh up whether, as an economy in double dip recession, immersed in privatisation and neo-liberal economic doctrine, which according to the Bank of England recently cost our citizens an estimated £50 billion and our economy entirely around £7 trillion, we hold credibility to advise healthily growing nations thousands of miles away on their own resource management or economic strategies?
Cosmetically, the FCO is trying harder than the New Labour administration did. The El Salvador embassy has re-opened and from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires, we are moderately increasing diplomatic staff. But as a Chatham House report put it, whilst China, Russia and even the US and others are meaningfully engaging with Latin America, “Britain appears to be dusting off the policy relics of the 19th century.”
Step one to rectifying this would be the practical necessity for negotiations with Argentina over Malvinas/Falklands; it is babyish, jingoistic and poor strategy to pretend otherwise. This call for peaceful negotiations is backed by the major regional blocks including MERCOSUR, The Union of South American Countries (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
For too long we have maligned individual Latin American nations. Collectively, their trading, economic and cultural communities are growing and joining up into internationally important unions. We can be partners in this historic reconfiguration, or we can bang the old Empire drum and be ignored.
Picture credit: Getty ImagesTagged in: Argentina, falklands, foreign policy, Latin America, Malvinas, william hague
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