§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
As part of the Consolidated Fund debate I wish to discuss the question of British relations with and policy on central America. That matter has been raised many times in the House. I wish, first, to outline what I believe to be the very serious nature of the conflict within the central American region and then to go into some exploratory questions with the Minster about British policy in the region.
Much publicity has been given over the past few years to what is happening in central America. Most of it surrounds the revolution in Nicaragua and its many achievements, and also the war in El Salvador. Perhaps less publicity than should have been given has been given to the appalling human rights position in Guatemala over the years and the fundamental instability of the political position of much of that region. More recently the news about the secret sale by the United States of arms to Iran and the suspected laundering of the money through banks in Switzerland and Israel back to central America has been given a great deal of publicity. It is interesting to note that the Contadora leaders claim that the money that LieutCol. Oliver North was supposed to be secretly and illegally laundering and supplying to them in central America never reached them.
The House should concentrate on the fundamental nature of the dispute in central America. It is not a basically poor area, nor is it infertile. It has fertile soil and it is rich in a variety of raw materials, yet within the area live the poorest people in the world. Anyone who has seen the subsistence level at which many of the Camasinos in Honduras are forced to live will begin to realise that that is true.
When the region achieved its independence from Spain many decades ago in the last century, the raw materials were taken over either by the landowners or by foreign-owned multinational companies. For that reason, there is a warped process of economic development and all the countries in the region subside further and further into debt, military dictatorship, and multi-national domination of their economies.
In the case of Nicaragua, the Sandinista movement, which is based on the life of Sandino, a hero of the country in the 1920s and 1930s, fought a long struggle against the dictatorship of General Samosa and finally achieved power in 1979. Since that time Nicaragua has seen tremendous achievements, but it has made them against the background of the most terrifying odds and international repression. Disputes there have an international connection and British policy towards the region was ostensibly one of support for the Contadora peace process. However, British policy is little more than following the bidding of the United States at every turn.
Perhaps I could quote from a written answer given by the Minister for Overseas Development on 4 December. When I asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonweath Affairshow much aid has gone to (i) Nicaragua, (ii) Honduras and (iii) El Salvador in (a) 1984, (b) 1985, (c) 1986 and (d) 1987, projected,I was told:The latest available figures for gross British bilateral aid on a calendar year basis are as follows:1010
1984 £ 1985 £ (i) Nicaragua 9,000 116,000 (ii) Honduras 3,446,000 3,653,000 (iii) El Salvador 205,000 103,000"—[Official Report, 4 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 721.]It must be said that none of those figures is large, but, if one studies the figures for 1979 and before, one sees that there has been a considerable reduction in aid to Nicaragua to the point where there is now virtually none. At the same time, there has been a considerable increase in aid to El Salvador and to Honduras. That is an indication of the direction in which the Government's foreign policy thinking is going.
Within the region, the Governments have come together through the so-called Contadora process and continually sought and negotiated a peaceful settlement of the conflict in central America. Our Government, together with EEC Governments, claim to support this process, but the voting record of our Government at the United Nations seems to show that at best they managed to abstain and at worst they seemed to manage to vote largely with the United States in a minority with a small number of countries. EEC loans offered to the region and EEC discussions in the region seem to be continually hampered by the attitude and activities of the British and West German Governments who are more interested in following the policy of the United States on the region than a policy that would lead to real peace and self-determination for the people in central America.
In Nicaragua other British connections have to be raised, but they have to be raised in the context of what is happening there. Nicaragua is a poor country that is striving to pull itself out of a morass of debt and underdevelopment and having to borrow large sums of money on the international market in order to aid itself.
Since 1979 Nicaragua has had very little in the way of overseas aid from any Western countries. It has had some assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, but little from elsewhere. Because it has had so little aid, the development programmes of the Government have been severely hampered. Nevertheless, the campaign against illiteracy in Nicaragua achieved a UNESCO prize as being a model for the rest of the world, and the development of the health service is quite remarkable. It is a moving experience to see doctors, nurses and auxiliaries doing their best in very bad conditions in hospitals in Nicaragua to bring a health service to people who have never known a health service before. Likewise, the education service, the various training schemes and the growth in employment in the country as a whole.
What is appalling is that in Managua and other places one sees the victims of the war—the people displaced because of the Contras attacks in the northern and southern regions of the country. What is also appalling is the suffering in those regions and the way that the Contras, armed and financed by the United States, and United States-backed organisations, continually pick specifically on the products of the revolution, destroying health centres, killing nurses and doctors as they go about their business in that region.
It is an evil, and I wish the rest of the world to know about it. The Contras are the remnants—that is the only way to describe them—of the private guard of General Somoza up until 1979. They are an evil force that 1011 is financed with very expensive and sophisticated weaponry to go about their death and destruction. Here is a book, published by the Washington office on Latin America, entitled, "Nicaragua: The Human Tragedy of the War." This catalogues just three months of the war between April and June this year. I will quote virtually at random. Here is one particular case:
"Kidnapping; Attempted Murder of CivilianJune 21, 1986. Near Nacazcol, Jinotega. Around 8:00 p.m., Eucebio Herrera Blandon, 28, was taken from his house by about 19 contras, who originally identified themselves as Sandinista Army troops (17). Eucebio recognized two of them: Alejandro Palacios, who had been a member of Somoza's National Guard, and Raul Blandon, 19, who himself had been kidnapped the previous year (18). Raul begged "El Terror," the leader, to let his cousin Eucebio go and was threatened with death (19).Along with Eucebio, the contras kidnapped his two uncles, Cesario Rizo Blandon, 64, whom they murdered, and Fermin Blandon, whom they released. Eucebio believes that they released Fermin because he was not involved in any cooperative, while the attempt to murder him (Eucebio) was made because he was the president of a cooperative (20).Eucebio spend one night tied; the following evening, the attempt to murder him was made:They told me to lie down on the ground, and a man whose name is Chevo stabbed me with a knife. He stabbed me 12 times: 3 times in the heart, the rest in the chest and neck.They did this to me at 6:30. They left me for dead, covered with branches. (21)But Eucebio survived, although he required surgery on his heart and had to spend seventeen days in the hospital (22).That is a horrifying story of what happened in one small village in Jinotega. The book chronicles the details of what happened to other people throughout the country, especially in areas where the Contras have been particularly active. The links that the Contras have are worldwide and go very deep.
Two weeks ago a conference was held by the Contras in the Barbican conference centre in London. That conference was hosted by prominent members of the Federation of Conservative Students—one of whom is employed by this House. That organisation is nothing more than a bunch of mercenaries who are trying to destroy a Government who put themselves up for election only two years ago and won those elections quite substantially. In every sense of the word it is a democratically elected Government which has diplomatic relations with most countries in the world, including Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and most European countries.
The links that the Contras have, and their freedom to organise elsewhere, come not because of the justice of their cause or because of any skills or organisation, but solely from the money that they have been given by the United States and others. The June 1985 issue of Searchlight chronicles the links between European Nazis and the Contra movement. It states:Nazis in Britain and France are at the centre of a secret operation recruiting mercenaries to fight alongside right-wing 'contras' trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The involvement of American mercenaries with the CIA-backed 'contras' has been known for some time, and the newly uncovered role of British and other European 'dogs of war' is also being co-ordinated through right-wing circles in the United States. The presence of Britons in the 'contra' camps along Nicaragua's borders first came to light in late April when two were arrested by police in Costa Rica. Since then investigations have revealed that their recruitment is 1012 being organised through European chapters of the World Anti Communism League, using known Nazis as recruiting agents.It goes on to explain the links between European Nazis and the Contras as they go about their business.
It is correct to ask the British Government exactly what their policy is towards the Contras in Nicaragua. The Government have diplomatic relations with the Government of Nicaragua. We support the Contadora process—at least, that is what the Government say—yet at the same time the Contras are allowed to organise freely and openly in Britain, with a conference being held in London, supported by members of the Conservative party. It is organising in a way that has been condemned as illegal by the International Court of Justice. Nicaragua sought a judgment against the United States for the violation of its national territory and the undeclared war that is going on against Nicaragua. Because of that court decision, one would have thought that the United States should stand condemned in the eyes of the world. Tragically, the British Government have still redused to condemn the United States for its continued violation of the independence and freedom of Nicaragua. It is perfectly reasonable to ask exactly where the British Government stand on this matter.
There are other ramifications. The use of Honduras and Costa Rica as a springboard to attack the Government of Nicaragua is well known, but it must be fully understood. What is happening in the region is more than just a war against Nicaragua for the United States. It has a regional strategy to it. Honduras, the poorest country in the region, has been heavily under the influence of the presence of American troops year after year. Each year, the United States organises larger and better exercises in Honduras. Each time, they leave more and more equipment behind, and each time more airfields are built. Each time, more radar equipment is left behind. Honduras is being used as an aircraft carrier, and from Honduras planes fly in and out of Nicaragua, trying to drop supplies to the Contras there, to be used against the Government and people of Nicaragua. It is perfectly reasonable to ask what the British Government's policy is.
What is also interesting is that the bases in Honduras are also being used to fly in and out of El Salvador, where the civil war has been continuing for some years. An article in The Independent of Saturday 13 December by Chris Norton, who is a respected correspondent who lives in San Salvador, states:President Duarte still officially refuses to acknowledge the Contra supply flights which operated out of San Salvador's Ilopango airport—a military airport just outside San Salvador. It appears that those flights, including the one that was shot down in Nicaragua, were carried out without the knowledge of the president of El Salvador; the knowledge was kept from him by the military and the American embassy because they thought that it was not necessary for him to know it.
Events in Nicaragua and in El Salvador are linked by the United States' determination to destroy the Government of Nicaragua and to impose on El Salvador a Government in the mould that they would wish. At the moment they are headed by Presiden Duarte, but one wonders how long he will last before the United States embassy finds someone more to its liking in the region.
El Salvador has some geographical similarities with Nicaragua. It has many poor people. Those who work in the coffee industry are paid appalling wages. It has 1013 landless peasants who travel around the country looking for work. As a result of the civil war, a fifth of the population are either internal or external refugees. That was before the tragic earthquake in the autumn.
The tragedy of El Salvador is compounded by the economic strategy of the Duarte Government, which is to spend all American aid on the military and cut spending on social matters such as social security, health, housing and hospitals. The contradictions of that strategy have led to the horrors of the war, with the Vietnam-style methods that are used in the mountainous areas of El Salvador, and the most appalling poverty in the urban areas. Above all, it has led to the activities of the death squads and the murdering of so many innocent people in El Salvador itself. It is estimated that more than 50,000 have been killed by the illegal acts of bandits over the past five years. The violation of human rights is not quite on the scale that prevailed in 1981 and 1982 but it is still extremely serious.
It is incumbent on the British Government to consider their policy towards the region. Nicaragua is condemned, in the words of the Foreign Office briefing, for being a Marxist dictatorship, but it has held free elections and there is freedom of expression and of religious assembly and worship. There have been great achievements, despite all the difficulties. An election was held in El Salvador, which many considered to be fraudulent, yet it had the blessing of the British Government. Indeed, the British Government continue to bless the Government of El Salvador. To prove how much they bless that Government, they have undertaken the military training of one officer of the El Salvadorean army. One 19-year-old officer is undergoing language training, after which he is apparently to attend a military college in Britain.
I ask in all conscience whether the British Government can claim to be neutral in the region? Can they claim to be supporting the Contadora process for negotiated peace in Nicaragua while at the same time supporting United States policy in every avenue of the world and offering military help and advice to the Government of El Salvador? The training of one officer might be seen as a small beginning, but it is a serious departure when we involve ourselves in the training of an army with such an appalling human rights record, which rates it among the worst armies throughout Latin America. Additionally, we seem to be keen on giving aid to the country.
The memories of those who have fought for human rights in El Salvador, trade union organisation and dignity, are being stamped upon by the United States, now with the approval of the British Government. I have the Congress papers of Fenastras, one of the major trade union federations of El Salvador. On the front cover is a moving picture of Maria Elsy Marquez, the secretary of the candy and pasta workers, who disappeared in 1981. She is one of the thousands who have been murdered in El Salvador for standing up for working-class interests, for human rights and fundamental decency. She, together with Archbishop Oscar Rameiros and so many others, has stood up for a civilised form of government in El Salvador, yet it seems that the British Government are more interested in providing military aid than in bringing real peace to the region.
When peace talks have taken place—they have been called by the FMLN and one set of talks has taken place—they have broken down continually. I do not believe that there can be any peace in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala or any other countries in the region 1014 without, first, the end of United States aggression against the progressive movement throughout the region. Nor can there be peace without social justice. The basis of the region's problem lies in the poverty of the poorest, who live in the Campucino areas and in the shanty towns around the capital cities of the region. The British Government could play a role in this region, but they choose not to do so.
I should like to emphasise the point that I made earlier about the losses that people have suffered in El Salvador. I have visited the country three times in the past three years. Each time, I have been moved by the way in which the people cope, in the midst of all that suffering and all these losses. I hardly met a working-class or peasant family who had not lost somebody to the death squads or to the army, or who had just disappeared. Yet they still go on. they are still determined to achieve something better for their country and their lives.
I have a list of people who have disappeared or have illegally been killed over the past two years. It is a fat document. It is produced by the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared, the camadres, the CODEFAM and the church group on human rights in El Salvador. They are admirable organisations that deserve our support and help.
The final matter to which I wish to refer before I address one or two general points to the Minister relates to our policy on Belize and Guatemala. Belize achieved its independence in the normal way in which it was achieved in many countries in the Caribbean, and a mutual defence agreement was made with Britain. There is a British base in Belize that apparently costs about £33 million a year to run. What is going on in that base is unclear. On 8 December 1986, I asked the Secretary of State for Defencewhat non-United Kingdom forces have had use of British facilities in Belize over the past three years".The answer was:
British facilities are used by the Belize defence force. So far as other foreign forces are concerned, records are available only for the last two years. In September 1986, both the BDF and British Forces Belize hosted a troop from the Bermuda Regiment during a two-week joint exercise. In February 1986, a sports team of US service men from Panama visited the BDF and BFB. United States observers were invited to witness joint BDF/BFB exercises in January 1985, January 1986 and July 1986."—[Official Report, 8 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 88.]There is a base in Belize. It is certainly looked at enviously by CONDEMDEC countries within that region, which have an enormous training facility of their own— Honduras—and, no doubt would like to have the use of that base area and training grounds in Belize. Was the American sports team visiting? What was it doing there? Is it normal for American sports teams to fly to what is supposed to be an obscure base in Belize, or is it something that shows a much closer relationship between British military activity in the region and the United States than we have hitherto believed?
Relations between Belize and Guatemala have been enormously difficult. I understand that negotiations are continuing between the new Governments in both countries. Guatemala has not entirely renounced its claim on Belize, yet the British Government have renewed diplomatic relations with Guatemala and are supporting the civilian Government of Guatemala. Will the Minister tell us what the current state of relations is between the 1015 British Government and Guatemala, what is the attitude towards that base in Belize and whether any other countries have the use of it.
The area of central America is one of enormous poverty. The crucial point about it is that, to get out of that poverty, it requires assistance, aid and trade. It does not require the constant harassment and the presence of thousands and thousands of American troops and American money that will destroy any process to bring social justice to that region. The British Government have had ample opportunities in the past not to go around the world as the poodle of President Reagan and agree with everything that he does, but to stand up for human rights and the self-determination rights of the people within that region.
I hope that the British Government will recognise that the sordid, nasty tale of the sale of arms to Iran, the attempted laundering of money back to the Contras in central America, the illegal war that has been going on in Nicaragua, and President Reagan's obsession with destroying the Nicaraguan revolution is dangerous to the rest of the world.
We should recognise the legitimate wishes, aspirations and determinations of people throughout that region. I hope that in future the British Government will take a role independent of the United States and genuinely seek to improve our aid to Nicaragua, and to the poorest people in one of the poorer regions of the world. I hope that they will recognise that all the delegations—from the Church, trade unions, political parties and others—that have gone to the region have come back with fundamentally the same message: that the United States is trying to destroy the progressive and social movement in the region. The British Government are seen by the poorest people throughout the region as very much a part of the process of the United States' destruction of their rights.
I eagerly await the Minister's response. I sincerely hope that he will condemn the United States' aggression against Nicaragua and support the decision of the International Court of Justice, which has also condemned that. He should recognise that Nicaragua has a perfect right to take Honduras and Costa Rica also to the world court for violation of its national borders. There should be a change of direction of the British Government's policy so that we resume aid to Nicaragua in a real sense. We look to a future that does not allow millions of people to be confined to a life of misery, poverty and starvation in refugee camps in the region.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on getting this debate, and on his patience in waiting until this hour to make his speech. I congratulate him also on his comments, with which I completely concur. I am only sorry that I missed the first few minutes of his speech, due to logistic reasons that I am sure the Minister will understand.
I shall refer first to the Caribbean part of central America, which I am sure that the Minister will be able to deal with. Labour Members have contributed recently towards a bipartisan policy on several areas. That is why I am doubly disappointed at the Government's double-dealing, particularly recently on central America. The 1016 Minister should know what I am talking about. With regard to the Turks and Caicos, will the Minister bring the House up to date on the progress of that constitutional commission? Both sides of the House wish that dependent territory to get back to an elected legislature as soon as possible. We understand the problems that there have been, but I hope that Sir Roy Marshall's constitutional commission will make progress. When does the Minister expect to report to the House on that? Therefore, when can we expect the return to an elected Government in the Turks and Caicos?
I shall refer to only one other country in the Caribbean before coming to central America, the main subject of the debate—I refer to Grenada. I do not condone in any way any crimes that have been committed by those who have been found guilty, particularly Phyllis and Bernard Coard, but I hope that the Government will make representations to Grenada to the effect that leniency should be shown in relation to the death penalty. The Opposition would find it intolerable if, in a Commonwealth country, when a great deal of concern has been expressed about the judicial process, the people who have been found guilty in the first part of the judicial process were to be executed.
That brings me to central America and the main thrust of my hon. Friend's speech. He mentioned Belize. I had the opportunity recently to visit the base there. That is another area in which the policy of the House is bi-partisan. We support the base there. I gave an assurance to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Belize that when the Labour party wins power at the next election in the United Kingdom, we shall continue that base as long as it is required by the Government there.
Of course, we hope that there will be an agreement between Belize and Guatemala that will allow us to phase out our presence and allow the Belize defence force to take over any remaining responsibility. I am impressed by the way in which the Belize defence force is developing and by the assistance that the British forces are giving to it.
The British forces assisted during four crises—in Jamaica, Mexico and El Salvador, dealing with natural disasters, and in Colombia. As for sending helicopters to Colombia, not only was the truth contrary to reports on BBC television, but those reports were scurrilously repeated by the chairman of the Conservative party after they had been corrected by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. The chairman of the Conservative party went on to repeat what was known to be a lie. The helicopters were allowed by the Nicaraguan forces not only to land in Managua but to refuel. Refuelling occurred not without some difficulty.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Member. I hope that I did not hear him say that he accused the chairman of the Conservative party of lying. The hon. Member should rephrase his point. He must not accuse an hon. Member of repeating a lie.
§ Mr. Foulkes
It is important to spell out that the BBC report on television said that the Government of Nicaragua had refused to allow British helicopters to land on their way to the disaster in Colombia. That was not the case. The Nicaraguan Government not only had allowed the helicopters to land but had refuelled them. Both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence corrected that in written statements in the House. Nevertheless, about a 1017 couple of weeks later, the chairman of the Conservative party, a Member of this House, repeated what was clearly an incorrect statement on the BBC. That shows his irresponsibility. Labour Members are aware of that, but not everyone outside the House might be.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Is my hon. Friend aware that, during the earthquake crisis in El Salvador, Nicaragua sent an aeroplane load of medical aid and equipment to assist in the recovery?
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. I hope that the British Government will encourage the Government of Guatemala, now that we have established consular relations, to start detailed discussions with the Government of Belize about the dispute between the two countries so that it can be resolved. President Cerezo has said a number of times that he wants these discussions to take place. As I found out recently, the Foreign Minister in Guatemala is a little reluctant to get down to detailed discussion and negotiation. I hope that our Government will do what they can to encourage those discussions. The sooner that normal understanding exists between Belize and Guatemala, the better, not just for that area but in general.
I shall deal briefly with the two main countries, to give the Minister an opportunity to speak. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, I had the opportunity to visit El Salvador and to talk to people on all sides of the argument. I spoke to a number of Ministers, including the Defence Minister. That is why I want to make a point, which my hon. Friend made, about the training of one soldier from the El Salvadorean army in the United Kingdom. The Minister may shrug his shoulders, but people feel strongly about this matter. When I was in El Salvador, it was clear from the Defence Minister's attitude that the Government of El Salvador see this as recognition that everything is OK in that country. As I know from the reports which I have read of the position in El Salvador, although, as my hon. Friend generously said, there have been some improvements in that country, there is still repression and persecution. While that continues we should not be giving the kind of recognition represented by training that officer. To suggest, as the Government have, that that one officer will go back and change the whole nature and ethos of the armed forces there is utterly ridiculous when one sees the kind of forces that they are and the things that they have done. It is tokenism and it is taken in the wrong way in El Salvador.
I also call upon the Government to be active in supporting the dialogue which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the Government of El Salvador have broken off on a number of occasions. Unless we can get a positive, meaningful dialogue going between Government and rebels in El Salvador, there will never be progress towards peace in that country. I hope that the Minister will indicate his support for that today.
The most important country, not just in itself but for its significance outside its boundaries, is Nicaragua. I am not uncritical of aspects of the policy of the Government of Nicaragua. No member of the Opposition is. We are not uncritical of many aspects of British Government policy 1018 either, as I regularly make clear. Nor are we uncritical of United States Government policy. I must say, however, that when I make representations to the Government of Nicaragua on behalf of the Opposition I find a greater willingness to take account of those representations and to do something about them than I find with the British Government or the United States Government.
The Government of Nicaragua were elected in free and fair elections, as the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who was an observer there, will confirm. They have made great progress with literacy and health, but they are also achieving one of the most difficult things for any country to achieve. The transition from a revolutionary situation in which they overthrew a dictator who was supported by the United States to a pluralist democracy within a few years is no easy task. Conservative Members here and, above all, the White House, the National Security Commission and the State Department in the United States should recognise that. It is intolerable that during that successful transition the Nicaraguans have been subjected to continual aggression from the United States—psychological aggression in which, as the leaked documents showed, the British Government collaborated—economic aggression and, above all, military aggression. One recalls the mining of ports and the bombing of the Corinto supply depot and one is aware of the support given to the Contras.
The most recent revelations about the American Government make it imperative that the British Government dissociate themselves from all that the Americans are doing. To their total discredit, the British Government have not yet done that. The International Court of Justice has made a ruling. The Foreign Office accepts that court as the highest court in the world, as we do. We should be telling the Americans to accept its rulings. In the face of that ruling, however, the United States Government have not merely continued to support the Contras, they have increased their support for the Contras, making them the biggest contributor in the world to state-sponsored terrorism. If they claim to condemn state-sponsored terrorism, they should condemn this instance of it.
The revelations about the Iran-Nicaragua connection with money being channelled through Switzerland to the Contras is the most despicable example of the underhand way in which American Administration have been operating in relation to this issue. For the Government to continue to say that they support Contadora while continuing this kind of action is hypocrisy. It is merely paying lip service to Contadora.
Representatives of the Federation of Conservative Students have gone to Costa Rica to fight with the Contras. We saw the article, "Conservative with a Kalashnikov" in The Guardian and asked Ministers to condemn that student. They refused to do so. I asked the chairman of the Conservative party to condemn it. He also refused. We can understand that he would find that difficult, but I should have thought that the Minister would condemn it.
Two weeks ago—I feel extremely bitter about this—there was a conference in the United Kingdom at which Arturo Cruz, a leader of the Contras and an advocate of terrorism, spoke. It was attended by many Conservative students and, in spite of an assurance from the Minister, 1019 a representative of the Foreign Office attended. I am told that it was a mistake. It is not my experience that Foreign Office representatives go to such meetings by mistake.
On 24 November, a diplomat from the mission in San Jose attended a meeting there. We know that Arturo Cruz and other leaders at that United Nicaraguan Opposition conference were planning, with the support of the Americans, and especially Elliot Abrahams, the establisment of an alternative Government in Nicaragua. I know that because I have spoken to people who have testified to that effect.
British Government representatives were present at meetings when plans to undermine an elected Government with which we have diplomatic relations were laid. That is intolerable. These terrorists are killing women and children and other civilians, as we see from the report in "America's Watch" from the Washington Office on Latin America. Dreadful torture, maiming and murder is taking place. It is now paid for by the American taxpayer and supported, unless it is denounced today, by the Government. Unless the Minister condemns it unequivocally today, he will confirm that the Government are party to it. We say that such terrorism must stop and we shall continue to criticise it. We ask the Government to join us in that criticism.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)
I join the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) in congratulating the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on his success in the ballot and on being successful at a reasonable time in the morning, although the debate started a little too early for the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.
The debate has understandably tended to concentrate on Nicaragua and central America, but I should like to comment first on other matters. I welcome strongly what the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley said about the British garrison in Belize. I assure the hon. Member for Islington, North, who raised the potentially sinister aspects of sporting contacts between the United States military team and the United Kingdom base, that he should not read into that more than there is. He also asserted that we have established diplomatic relations with Guatemala. That is not so. We have merely established consular relations. Discussions about further progress continue.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley asked for an update on the Turks and Caicos Islands. I appreciate the bipartisan approach that has developed. The commission continues to sit. We hope to have its report early in the new year, but we cannot predict whether elections will flow from it automatically because we do not know what it contains, but I shall keep the hon. Gentleman informed.
With regard to Grenada, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the result of the trial, especially as there could be an appeal.
Both hon. Gentlemen raised the subject of the voting record in the United Nations on Nicaragua. We were one 1020 of 46 countries which abstained on the General Assembly resolution, so the impression they gave that we were in a minority of one does not stand up.
I find it frustrating that we spend a great deal of time in the House talking about central America, in particular Nicaragua. Obviously, despite all our efforts, we have not been able to dispel the misconceptions about the Government's policies. The woodworm seems to be fully integrated in the minds of Opposition Members.
I reaffirm that the Government are convinced that a political resolution remains essential for the restoration of peace and stability in central America. We do not consider that the problems of the region can be resolved by force and we have consistently urged restraint on all sides. That is why the Government, together with their European partners, have expressed full support for the efforts of the Contadora group to promote a resolution of the problem there through regional multilateral negotiation. We want to see, and have supported practically, a comprehensive, verifiable, simultaneously implemented agreement on the basis of the Contadora objectives agreed by all five central American countries in September 1983. Although no such agreement has yet been signed, we shall continue to support the efforts to sign it and to demonstrate practically that support with our European partners.
As hon. Gentlemen know, the basic plank of our policy is support for the Contadora process. The 21 objectives drawn up and agreed by all the Contadora and central American states have gained widespread international support and hon. Gentlemen are familiar with those objectives. We work closely with our European partners in our effort to support that process and we demonstrate practically our support for a move towards a peaceful resolution of conflicts in the area. That was evidenced at the Luxembourg meeting and by our commitment of assistance to the region.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I want the Minister to make it explicit that the Government's support for Contadora and a peaceful solution means that he condemns the aggression by the Contras which is completely inconsistent with Contadora.
§ Mr. Eggar
We have consistently said that we support a political resolution of the problems of central America, and the hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.
As the hon. Member for Islington, North said, the countries of central America do not fall into the category of the poorest in United Nations terms. Therefore, they are not necessarily the first recipients on a worldwide basis of development aid. Our aid is intended as an active support for the efforts of the Contadora group.
We also try to assist with the humanitarian problems of the region. We have responded positively to appeals for humanitarian relief work in the region. Last financial year we contributed over £600,000 to appeals by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for work in the region. So far this year we have contributed an additional £250,000. In March we made available £100,000 to the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development in El Salvador. 1021 We have also contributed more than £500,000 in emergency relief in the aftermath of the earthquake in El Salvador.
Hon. Gentlemen have made remarks about the level of our aid to Nicaragua. One cannot overlook the fact that Nicaragua received over 50 per cent. of European Community aid to central America between 1980 and 1984 and that Britain's contribution and percentage of the EC aid budget was slightly over 20 per cent. There has been a considerable commitment of resources indirectly to Nicaragua.
The hon. Member for Islington, North added to the general misinformed criticism of our offer to train a Salvadorean military cadet. We do not consider that exposing a young Salvadorean army cadet to the professional standards and methods of the British Army can be interpreted as condoning human rights abuses. Indeed, we very much hope that he will take back to El Salvador an idea of the values that govern the activities of our armed forces. All four Contadora group countries currently trying to negotiate a comprehensive settlement to the problems of central America, as well as some of our European partners, extend military training facilities to the Salvadoreans. The offer of military training to one young cadet must be seen in the wider context of our aid programme to El Salvador.
I was surprised at the Opposition's criticisms of our assistance to El Salvador. The total assistance is limited and designed to acknowledge and encourage the substantial progress that President Duarte's Government have made particularly on human rights. That progress has been recognised by most international observers, and I detected a grudging recognition of it by Opposition Members. I note with interest the fact that the Opposition rarely decide to criticise the more serious abuse of human rights in Afghanistan or Kampuchea. The motive of their criticism of El Salvador is not clear.
I want now to consider the remarks made about the Contra conferences in London on 6 and 7 December and that in San José on 24 November. I want to reaffirm and reiterate that there was no question of any official Government support for those conferences. A junior member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office attended the conference at the Barbican but did so on her own initiative. I explained in writing to the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley that when I answered his question I was not aware that the official concerned had attended the conference. Had I known, I would not have given the hon. Gentleman the answer that I provided.
Opposition Members would be wrong to read more into the matter than the simple facts permit. Neither the holding of the conference nor the attendance of an official detracts in any way from the Government's commitment to a political rather than a military solution of the problems of central America.
§ Mr. Eggar
As Opposition Members are aware, it is fundamental to a democratic society that individuals and groups be allowed to lobby freely on behalf of their political and other aims provided that their activities remain within the law. I am surprised that Opposition Members are so committed to the restriction of free speech when the message behind that free speech happens to be something with which they do not agree.
The hon. Member for Islington, North described the Contras' representative as a member of the Somoza private guard. However, Dr. Arturo Cruz, the Contra leader who spoke at the conference, is first and foremost a politician. He stood against Ortega in the 1984 presidential elections in Nicaragua. The hon. Gentleman should get that into perspective.
The meeting of the Contra leaders in San José was clearly intended as a political meeting, otherwise the Costa Rican Government would not have permitted it to take place in their capital. In fact, to emphasise their commitment to neutrality, the Costa Rican Government refused a visa to a Contra leader as he was considered to be a military rather than a political figure. The member of the British embassy who attended the conference did so as an observer as part of his normal duties of obtaining information and reporting to us on developments in the area. Before Opposition Members raise too much fuss about that, I stress that there were present observers from many other western countries and also Latin American parliamentarians including some from three member countries of the Contadora group.
Allegations that the meeting of the Contras in San José, which was attended by our diplomat, was secret are entirely without foundation. Of course, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials at home and abroad have a duty to keep Ministers fully informed of developments in the areas of their responsibility. Therefore, they need to keep in contact with a wide variety of groups. Such contact does not necessarily imply any form of recognition or support. Labour Members should not read more into the facts than is present on the surface.
I should like to end on a positive note. I referred earlier to the difficulties currently encountered by the Contadora process. I also referred to our intention to continue supporting the efforts of the Contadora group to resolve the problems of central America. In February next year, the third meeting of the San José dialogue will take place. The Foreign Ministers of the European Community, the central American states and the Contadora group states will meet in Guatemala City to fulfil the commitment undertaken at Luxembourg. We and our European partners see that meeting as a reaffirmation of our support for peace, democracy and economic development in the region. We see it as a positive contribution in an area of significant tensions. I am sure that the meeting, at least, will be supported by Opposition Front Bench Members.