HL Deb 25 July 1985 vol 466 cc1424-48

7.6 p.m.

Lord Kennet rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is now their policy towards Nicaragua.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a couple of months ago the Prime Minister wrote to the President of Nicaragua saying that Britain's attitude towards Nicaragua would depend on the exent to which their country was prepared to reduce the level of its armaments, to put an end to its interference in the affairs of its neighbours and to establish a genuine pluralist democracy. That is the voice of Britain.

Listen now to the voice of Nicaragua. The Foreign Minister of Nicaragua is on a hunger strike, but he does not call it a hunger strike: he calls it fasting and prayer, because he is a Roman Catholic priest. He has said: I make this fast to express a Christian rejection of the state terrorism used by the U.S. Government against Nicaragua and religious condemnation of the systematic kidnapping, torture and assassination of our sisters and brothers by the counterrevolutionaries whom the United States Government finances and directs. Again: As a way of expressing my love of God, of my people, and of the Church and my fervent desire that there be an end to the aggression and the beginning of a new relationship between the United States and Nicaragua—one which will be just and will respect our rights as a sovereign … nation. And again: As a witness that our people and Government most sincerely desire Central American solidarity, and have not the slightest wish to intervene in affairs that are solely within the competence of the other peoples of Central America. I ask the Lord to help change the hearts of rulers who have mistakenly allowed their territories to be used as a base for aggression against our people, thus involving themselves in a war by proxy which can in no way benefit their own peoples and which carries a risk of incalculable consequences for the Region. And lastly: I pray for Daniel our President and for all the leaders of our Revolution that the Lord may always lighten their path and that they may remain steadfast, as they always have, at the side of the most humble and needy, in defence of justice and national sovereignty.

There is a distance, is there not, between the voice of our country and that voice? Nicaragua is a very different place, and most English people are not well equipped to understand the sort of place that it is. It is the kind of country where priests become Foreign Ministers. It is the kind of country where a Foreign Minister-priest, if he does not like the way the world is going, fasts on water only in the hope of raising opinion to make the world better. This is not one of the priests in the Nicaraguan Government who have been banned by the Pope. He is still in the exercise of his right to celebrate. His duties as Foreign Minister are being undertaken by his deputy.

Let us listen to the voice of President Reagan. He accuses Nicaragua of (I quote) "religious persecution of Catholics and Jews". Let us look at them both. Of course the Church in Nicaragua is divided. We read a lot in the European press about the new Cardinal Obando and his peaceful opposition to the regime, and of the regime's disapproval and impatience with him. We do not read so much about the role of the other wing of the Church—and I refer to the religious orders and above all to the Jesuit Order. The Rector of the National University of Nicaragua, which subsists on state funds, is a Jesuit, and he fully backs the Sandinista revolution. And so it goes throughout. As for the Jews, President Reagan's charge is belied by the report of Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, who went to Nicaragua a couple of years ago and found that the 20 or 30 Jewish families there were perfectly all right.

President Reagan went on to accuse the Nicaraguan Government of genocide of the Miskito Indians. Nobody, least of all the Nicaraguan Government, would claim that their conduct towards their Indian population has been faultless, but I submit that "genocide" is not a word to be lightly used. The Administration have accused Nicaragua of training terrorists from the following organisations: ETA, which is the Basque terrorist organisation; the Red Brigades in Italy; the PLO; the Salvadorean terrorists responsible for the latest bombing of American servicemen; and the IRA. In particular, they said the Red Brigades had 200 men who had completed their training in Nicaragua last year.

On the 8th of this month President Reagan made his famous speech about the five countries who were engaged in, acts of war against the Government and people of the United States". He went on, Under international law any state which is the victim of acts of war has the right to defend itself". The countries were Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and what concerns us tonight—Nicaragua, which he called, a confederation of terrorist states, a new international version of Murder Incorporated. Yes, their real goal is to expel America from the world. They are outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich". I have spoken to the Spanish Ambassador, who tells me that there is no evidence that ETA people have been trained in Nicaragua and come back to Spain to commit terrorist acts; that the Spanish Government are worried by the recent Costa Rican and Honduran pressure on the Nicaraguan Government, and that experience of Cuba in the opinion of Spain teaches us that the American policy is not the right way.

I have spoken to the Italian Embassy who tell me that there is no evidence of Red Brigades terrorists having been trained in Nicaragua. I have spoken to the Israeli Embassy who tell me that they have no evidence that PLO terrorists have been trained in Nicaragua. I have spoken to the Salvadorian Embassy who confirm that they do not claim that Nicaragua played a part in the recent bomb outrage in San Salvador. I notice that The Times correspondent in Managua reports that the United States officials in Nicaragua have shown no knowledge of the basis for any of these charges. On the IRA in particular, they responded with "embarrassed grins" to questioning. No doubt this evening the noble Baroness the Minister will be able to tell us authoritatively about the IRA, as to whether or not there is evidence of their having been trained in Nicaragua.

Last month there was a meeting at Jamba in Angola. To this meeting went rebels against the governments of Afghanistan, Angola, Laos and Nicaragua. It was held in a portion of Angola which is in the hands of UNITA, a rebel force against the legally constituted Government of that country. This meeting was organised by an organisation called Citizens for America led by the Republican millionaire Lewis E. Lehrman, who ran for Governor of New York in 1982. It is called the Democratic International. Mr. Lehrman brought in his pocket a letter from President Reagan commending this rebel international.

The Prime Minister mentioned arms levels, and everybody is worried about arms imports into Nicaragua. Of course they have big forces. This is annoying for their neighbours and might even be frightening to those of them who do not enjoy American protection—which at the moment are none. But of course they are engaged in a war on their territory and not on anybody else's. After all, remember that during the American election the campaign was interrupted for a flash announcement of the fact that Russian Migs were arriving in Nicaragua. They did not arrive and they have not arrived since. Soviet arms exports to South East Asia, central Asia including Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, Saharan Africa, South America and Central America amount to less than 2 per cent. of Soviet arms exports; and tucked away somewhere in all that is Nicaragua. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London tells me that there is no evidence that the Soviets or Soviet bloc countries have delivered fighters, or that they have even delivered the Czech-built L39 trainer plane which has been spoken of.

Now let us come to the elections and democracy. The Government continues to hold that the Nicaraguan elections were bogus, not free and not fair. They did not send observers and this in itself leads some simple souls to believe that the elections were unfair—"If they were fair, our Government would have sent observers, wouldn't they?"—QED. If the Government had sent observers they would not have had to ignore reports like the one compiled by the Conservative Member of Parliament, Mr. David Ashby, Labour Member of Parliament, Mr. Alf Dubs, and me, after we covered those elections, observed those elections, and found that they were fair. Late on the evening of polling day all the observers from West European Parliaments who were there had a meeting to share their experiences. Her Majesty's Ambassador was present among the assembled parliamentarians and we were delighted to see him with us. He said that he had observed one irregularity and that was that a funeral procession had passed along the opposite side of the square from a polling booth and a woman had shouted out some political remark or slogan. He said, which was right, that this was a technical breach of the law. But the Ambassador himself judged it insignificant before anybody else could comment on it. Nobody else had seen anything wrong at all.

So who are the Government relying on in judging these elections unfair and unfree? Is the charge about earlier dates, not election day itself? If so, let me tell the House that I asked the Embassy staff in Managua what was the worst thing that had happened in the election campaign before. I was told the following story. On a certain day, the politician Arturo Cruz, who might or might not have been a candidate—an issue to which we will come in a minute—was holding a meeting indoors in a small town called Masaya. There were about 200 people in the hall. The Sandinista Youth of that place gathered outside and started chanting and shouting and, as any of us would have done, as the noble Baroness would have done and as I would have done, Cruz decided to call off the meeting. He left by the back door under police protection, got into his car, and with his friends who were in a couple of other cars, drove away. The police protection was not sufficient to prevent the glass of his car being broken.

Either that was the worst incident in the election campaign or it was not. If there were worse incidents I should like to ask the noble Baroness to tell the House what they were. If it was the worst incident, I must point out that it is ridiculous to call an election campaign unfree and unfair because of something that might have happened in this country and repeatedly happens in Latin countries throughout the world. Remember that in India deaths are normal in election campaigns, and yet we regard it as a worthy democracy.

That election produced a national assembly which contained 63 per cent. of the members from the Sandinista Front, 31 per cent. from the Right of it, and 6 per cent. of members from the Left of it. The House will know of Arturo Cruz, the man who did not stand. It is untrue to say that he was not allowed to stand. He chose not to stand. Under the law he was allowed to stand. Everything was ready for him to stand, as for the others, but he chose not to. He has been complaining that the elections were unfair because he did not stand and that the result would have been different if he had. He recently spoke at a meeting at London University to which I was invited, and I was able to ask him the question: "If you had stood, what do you think the result would have been? Would it have been 63 to 37, as it is? What would it have been?" He said, "Well, who knows? perhaps 60–40".

What is that assembly now doing? It is doing what it was elected to do. It is drafting a constitution. It is already clear that this constitution is going to be very presidential. It is going to be an ultra-French constitution. It has decided to do this because it has a civil war on its hands. We may regret that it is to be so presidential. We may observe that if it did not have a civil war on its hands in which one side was supported by an extraneous superpower, it need not be so presidential.

It has also passed an amnesty. That is to say that the armed rebels, who are financed by the United States, may lay down their arms with safety. I think this amnesty should be compared with that in Salvador next door, which is widely praised. The Salvadorian amnesty says that those who lay down their arms must be conscripted into the army, and they are. The Nicaraguan amnesty does not say anything of that kind.

Let us now compare this election with that in Mexico where the International Revolutionary Party won 292 out of the 300 seats available and is contesting the validity of six losses out of the remaining eight. It won almost all the 845 town halls. More than 1,000 claims of electoral fraud have been brought against it by the opposition parties. Demonstrations of 40,000 people have been out in the streets in protest at the electoral frauds. This party has been in power for 56 years. It has never lost a single one of the 31 governorships during those 56 years. It is fair to say. I believe, that the general judgment among informed people is that the Mexican election has been the least free and fair of all the recent Latin American elections— Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, E1 Salvador, Nicaragua and even Guatemala. What is the Government's opinion of the Mexican election? They have an opinion on the Nicaraguan election.

I come now to the United States action. First, there was the CIA action in mining the harbours. This was condemned by the World Court, and as a result the United States withdrew itself from the jurisdiction of the World Court regarding Central America. Then came the United States declaration of a trade embargo, justified by the declaration of a national emergency. This has not hit the British press much. The United States is among those countries in the world where a National Emergency is in force because of a clear and immediate threat to its national security. That threat is constituted by Nicaragua. The United States has refused to allow GATT and its 90 members to rule whether the embargo is in breach of its international trade regulations. Twenty-four Latin American countries have met to repudiate the embargo in SELA, the council of the Latin American system. A twenty-fifth deplored it separately. Meanwhile, what is the reality? Trade with the United States was only 17 per cent. So there is probably more illegality than cruelty in the present American action. Incidentally, Nicarguan trade with the Soviet bloc is 20 per cent.

More recent has been the resumption of so-called humanitarian aid to the Contras in northern Nicaragua. This humanitarian aid is to be financed by the CIA, that well known relief organisation. It is to buy anything except actual weapons and bullets—that is to say, it is to buy uniforms, military transport, food, and tents. It is, in short, a perfect use of "newspeak", worthy to stand beside the description of the MX missile as "peace-keeper." As a result of this last U.S. decision, President Ortega rescinded his promise not to buy Migs from Russia. As a result, the United States repeated its earlier statement that if he did buy Migs from Russia it would attack them. As a result of that, things are in the state they now are.

Let us turn now to aid. Norway is a country that traditionally has never given aid to central America. A couple of years ago, it broke that tradition and, for the first time, began to give aid to Nicaragua, and to Nicaragua alone. It is a constitutional Monarchy and multi-party democracy like ourselves. There have been the two cases of Foreign Office people who have spoken out of line—Mr. Geoffrey Dennis, who was dismissed for it, who leaked a cynical paper which said that the British Government should stick so far as possible to technical reasons in refusing aid to Nicaragua and a senior official had marked in the margin, "If we can find them". There is the case of Mr. Kevin O'Sullivan, the British technical assistant in the office of the European directors of the Inter-American Development Bank, appointed on the recommendation of the British Government. He has called the blocking of aid to Nicaragua by that bank "an open scandal".

I had always believed that leaking is never justified. A civil servant signs up. Those are his terms, and he should stick to them. I stuck to them when I was a civil servant. So did my whole generation. I am now beginning to wonder.

I turn now to Nicaragua's relations with its neighbours. One has to remember of course that it has a war on its own territory with armed insurgents supplied by the United States from Honduras and now also from Costa Rica. Over the last two years, Contadora, on which all our hopes rest, has produced a draft act covering everything for a settlement. Contadora is a group of the five Central American countries and four neighbouring Latin American countries not usually considered as Central American. This group of four produced a draft act covering everything that Contadora was set up to cover to bring peace and development to the region. Nicaragua accepted that act. But the United States did not like it and dished out objections, two or three each, to its Central American friends to be made against it.

The objections were mainly about inspection of the arms control provisions. Nicaragua agreed to reconsider the act and to have more on inspection in a codicil, protocol, appendix, or whatever you like. It invited the United States to restart bilateral talks to cover that as well as everything else that the United States had broken off. That invitation has been outstanding for two months. I wonder whether the Government will consider urging the United States to accept it and get back to the bilateral talks?

Nicaragua has proposed an internationally supervised demilitarised zone on the frontier with Costa Rica. It proposed this because it has more or less won down there. It has control of its own territory again, up to the frontier. It has not proposed it for Honduras because it is not in control of its own territory in the North. That is where the hot war is. It proposed that this should be done with the collaboration of France. Costa Rica objected to this and proposed that the Contadora group should be able to walk all over its own country, Costa Rica, not just the borders, and hoped that Nicaragua would do the same. Nicaragua is not doing that. But it is doing its own demilitarised zone on the frontier unilaterally. Let us now hope that the Contadora group can do better with the addition of other countries, as now proposed. I think that the Government probably favour this.

I should like to approach the conclusion of my remarks by inviting the House to listen to one more voice, that of Mr. Alan Garcia, the new and young President of Peru. He says: We do not accept the bipolar obsession which holds that Latin American conflicts are always backed by the other world power. We hope to overcome these errors in the future. In the meantime, we are in solidarity with Nicaragua".

That is the local judgment. They know. We must note that the more intrusive United States policy is, the better the Soviet Union looks. United States policy in Nicaragua tends to justify the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It does not justify it, but it tends to do so. The CIA handbook for the Contras in northern Nicaragua on how to deceive and murder people gives colour to every Soviet charge that political murders around the world are the work of the CIA.

Let us look to the future. I start with the remark of the vice-president of Nicaragua that if war came, Nicaragua "would not ask Cuba, the Soviet Union or Spain for combat troops. We would do things alone", he said. If the Americans invade, they will be resisted and they will kill enough Nicaraguans to be execrated for two or three generations. They will win, of course. But earlier invasions, the imposition of the Somoza dynasty and the reputation of the United Fruit Company, of almost forgotten memory, are now "olden days" things. If the United States invade, it will end that. Presumably, the Ortega brothers and Father d'Escoto will take exile in Spain, a NATO and European Community country, or perhaps in Mexico. Meanwhile the Sandinista revolution will repeat itself in Guatemala and Honduras. By that time there will be another Washington. What will it be like? That is where we come in. We are well placed to say cool words. We must not support the wrong and foolish actions of the United States. We must learn from our memories of Vietnam where our attitude of 99 parts placid approval to one part muttered reservation was not helpful to the world. But we must be always close at hand to the Americans, lowering the temperature, restraining, even consoling, but always clear in our disapproval.

The situation is a tragedy. It is a major tragedy for Nicaragua and a minor one for the rest of the world. I hope that the Government will soon throw off their blinkers and do what they can to ensure that it does not become a major tragedy for the rest of the world, too.

7.31 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and to my noble friend the Minister. Unfortunately this debate has clashed with another Latin American function: namely, the National Day reception of the Anglo-Peruvian Society which is taking place in another part of your Lordships' House and which I had undertaken to host some six months ago, long before this debate was tabled. Therefore my apologies are due because obviously I shall be unable to listen to all the speeches which are to be made tonight, much as I should have liked to do so.

My reason for speaking at all is that I missed the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, in November last year—although of course I read it—because unfortunately I was away at the time. When I saw the Motion on the Order Paper today, I wondered what had changed; why the noble Lord had tabled the Unstarred Question; and why the policy of Her Majesty's Government should change. Although I have listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has said, I am not sure that there is any great cause for much change.

I should like to mention some of the events which have taken place in that area in the interim which may put a slightly different light on what the noble Lord has said. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has had far more recent experience than I of Nicaragua. Many years ago I lived in Central America for some years and travelled very extensively on the isthmus. I still retain very close friendships with a large number of people in that area, and of course I have visited other parts of Latin America. I appreciate that the circumstances have changed, but the character and the nature of the people of Nicaragua have not changed at all. What has changed is those who are in charge, and that is the matter about which we should be thinking.

Let us consider what has changed since we spoke about this matter in November. I shall not touch on the elections because I did not go there and I know that other noble Lords did so. I look forward with great interest to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, has to say. Although he and I frequently disagree about solutions, I have always found the noble Lord to be a most perceptive observer of the Central American scene. I am sorry that this debate is not encompassing a wider area, because it is very difficult to view Nicaragua in isolation.

Since the election there seems to be emerging a type of corporatist state. The Sandinastas are, by their own admission and, indeed, their own philosophy, hoping to create a Marxist-Leninist state. I have no objection to that if that is what the people of Nicaragua wish.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Lord quote his authority for saying that the Sandinista front wishes to create a Marxist-Leninist state?

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I cannot quote the actual authority.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, why not?

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I have papers with me. There are authorities and they have been mentioned. People make speeches and one reads about them and they appear in the newspapers. Perhaps the noble Lord will bear with me. What I call the trappings of the state are the establishment of the central committee system, the commandants and all other matters with which the noble Lord is familiar.

Moreover, when there is a development of that nature which creates a corporatist state there is inevitably a decline in economic activity and it is not totally due to economic circumstances. I put it to the noble Lord and to the House that, although it may be wholly desirable in some people's minds, the utopia created by this type of development is not necessarily wholly satisfactory in the long run for the people. To go back to Animal Farm, by George Orwell, sometimes the last state is not as good as the first.

There is no doubt that reform was needed in Nicaragua, but it is impossible for reform to compete with revolution. The Sandinistas achieved their objective. They overthrew a government. They held an election as they promised. However, what has happened since gives cause for concern. Certainly among other things there has been a considerable military buildup.

It will be argued that the military buildup is purely defensive. It will also be argued that the regime which existed previously was wholly undesirable. However, in the past Nicaragua had a very small army consisting of 14,000 men, and it was very ill-equipped. Now Nicaragua has an army of over 100,000 people and a veritable arsenal of equipment. This is not entirely because they are about to be attacked. I do not believe that the United States will invade Nicaragua. In my view that is put up as an excuse and it is a very unlikely supposition. The United States would be extremely unwise to invade Nicaragua because it would find itself in a very difficult terrain, with jungle and mountains. The whole exercise would be a disaster. The Nicaraguans all the time say that that is what will happen, but I believe that it is a very unlikely possibility.

The United States invaded Grenada and, as it happened, it was a short, sharp operation and the final result has been most satisfactory. However, I do not believe that that is likely to happen in Nicaragua. In my view the United States has a very genuine preoccupation with what is going on because of Caribbean security in general. The other preoccupation is that when economies in this area disintegrate, the inhabitants of the countries who wish to leave do not go to other utopias such as the Soviet Union or Cuba. Where do they go? They go to the United States. That presents a very real immigration problem. The type of problem which is created is not generally realised.

We must remember that the United States—which is the country which apparently we all love to hate—is a very successful place. Despite the fact that people apparently do not approve of its political system, they still want to go there. The United States has to be careful about this situation because it already has a growing ethnic population. If the present trend continues, the United States will be the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, exceeded only by its neighbour, Mexico. Therefore, there are reasons for preoccupation in the United States and they are very real.

I pass to what the United Kingdom has been doing. We have supported the Contadora process and I believe that is absolutely right. However, it is not a very easy process because the countries involved have their own problems. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, mentioned Mexico. Mexico is a matter of grave concern. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that what happened in the recent elections in Mexico was worrying. It is a worry for those of us who visit Mexico regularly, and it is a great worry for the future.

However, I do not believe that the buffer state, which the noble Lord mentioned, or a peacekeeping force would be any solution. Unfortunately these matters have to be worked out internally and they will take some time. It is important that the United Kingdom keeps in close touch with the situation. I am very glad that in the last year we have re-established our post in Managua and that there are now mini-missions in all the Central American countries where there were not previously.

It seems to me that the concept of the mini-mission, with the one-man post reporting to another embassy, is sound. I hope that the noble Baroness will not mind if I say that I therefore deplore our withdrawal from Santo Domingo, because here is another place where, in the Dominican Republic, we could have had a one-man post which would have been a valuable listening post in the Caribbean, in which we, in the United Kingdom, have considerable interests.

I believe that we should continue to support the Contadora process. I also believe that we have to consider our position carefully as an ally of the United States. Obviously—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet—we must try to influence them. I think our influence in the United States is extremely important. But that does not mean that we can dictate policy to them, and it would be unwise of us to try to do so. They will listen to us because we are as concerned as the United States in Caribbean security, and that because of our involvement there we can be of considerable influence. But we must do nothing which in any way weakens the Western Alliance, for in the final analysis it is a strong alliance which is of most importance to British interests not only in Central America but throughout the world.

7.41 p.m.

Lord Milford

My Lords, we are discussing human beings, and from the last speech there was no sign of any humanity at all. The people who have been trodden down by a terrible dictatorship for years are now striving to throw off the past, and striving to lift themselves up. We are asking the noble Baroness tonight: are the British Government trying to help them in their efforts?

On 4th July, three weeks ago, the United States was celebrating its Independence Day. This winning of independence for the people living in America was a great event in the history of the world. But while quaffing their champagne and celebrating that day, I feel that they were complacent and did not face up to the fact that their government was, at that moment, actively involved in denying independence to other parts of America. Especially is this the case in Nicaragua.

Central America is largely ruled by vicious, one-man dictatorships. The people, the peasants, are on the boil. There are democratic forces struggling to bring in a new democratic society. On the other hand, the White House is completely against these moves. Look what it has done in Nicaragua: the freezing of bilateral aid; the cutting down of imports from Nicaragua; the blocking of 700 million dollars in loans. Then, on 1st May, a total trade embargo, and the growing threat of invasion.

Ever since the first days that President Reagan took office he has pursued a campaign to de-stabilise Nicaraguan society and government. The country is slowly being strangled. The hardship for the people is absolutely appalling. Do the British Government support what President Reagan is doing? Do they support his strangling of Nicaragua?

Why has it happened? It is because the people, in a free and democratic election, have voted in a government with socialist ideas. When it came to power 50 per cent. of the population was illiterate; 70 per cent. received no medical attention whatever; 20 per cent. of the children died before they were four years old. To reverse these trends is what the present government was hoping to do.

The people welcomed the future promises about education and health. They want to create a new and modern Nicaraguan state and people. But do our British Government support the American Government in its open efforts to destroy the democratic, elected government, and to make it impossible for the Nicaraguan Government to tackle its programme of reforms? Are the British Government behind President Reagan in his aid and support of the Contras? Why did we refuse to send observers to the elections? To please President Reagan? Incidentally, are the British Government doing anything about fascist groups in Britain recruiting mercenaries to go and fight with the Contras against the peasants and working class in Nicaragua?

President Reagan has called this funding aid to the Contras "humanitarian aid". But it has led to terrible losses in lives and economics. The outcome of the struggle of the Nicaraguan Government and people for a new world, a new society, is dependent not only on the Nicaraguan people but, above all, on world support and world help: support and help from all those who believe in justice and democracy, and are anti-colonialism in any form. Do the British Government support that? World peace is made more fragile every time the Americans invade a country such as Grenada, thousands of miles away from Washington; when they mine the ports of a country like Nicaragua; de-stabilise a country like Chile; or finance the invasion of a country like Cuba.

Keenly following events in Latin America, I have just read a book called Nicaragua for Beginners. It is a history of Nicaragua from the 15th century. It is an amusing book, with good illustrations. It gives an account of how, in the 20th century, it was taken over by America—its ports, its railways, its banks, etc. It became a complete colony, later ruled by the dictator Somoza, tolerated by America. I ask the British Government to give me an answer: do we support wholeheartedly President Reagan in his policy in Nicaragua?

7.48 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I suppose we can all have our personal opinions on the situation in Nicaragua, and it may well be that these will differ to some extent, but most of us, irrespective of party, would probably feel that, whatever its limitations and the possible dangers inherent in the Sandinista Government—although I think, with all respect to the noble Viscount who has just left us, it can hardly be described on any rational basis of estimation as Marxist Leninist—it is at least preferable to the appalling and corrupt dictatorship of Somoza, whose tough agents known as "Contras" are now doing their best to overthrow it, with considerable American support.

Such a judgment naturally depends to some extent on whether you would think that the revolt which eventually toppled Somoza was primarily due to a rising of long oppressed peasantry, smallholders and intellectuals; or whether it was, as many Americans seem to think, inspired to a large extent by communist agents based on Cuba, with at least the background support of the Soviet Union. Of course, if one plumps for the first alternative—and I believe a good many, perhaps the majority of your Lordships' House, would do that, with the exception of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein—one must also have some sympathy with the guerrillas in San Salvador and Guatemala, where a similar situation arises and where similar fears inspire the general policy of the United States.

Whatever our own feelings and our possible criticisms of United States policy—in this one respect I have sympathy with what was said by the noble Viscount—we must also admit that Nicaragua is, so to speak, in America's back yard and that the Administration would not take very kindly any representations levelled at it by Europeans, any more than we, for example, would care to be publicly lectured by America on our policy in Northern Ireland or the Spaniards for their policy towards the Basques. If we are to give advice—I see no reason why we should not, and I think we should—it should thus be delivered tactfully and not as a result of denunciatory statements designed to put the United States Administration in the dock. After all, we depend on United States' support for the purpose of keeping the North Atlantic Alliance together, and it is on the maintenance in being of that alliance that our security in these islands obviously depends.

Perhaps we, and here I mean the Government, have already let the Americans know discreetly and in private that we see real disadvantages, if not dangers, in the pursuit of a policy which may have as its object the undermining of the government in Managua by economic and physical, to say nothing of military, means. For though we may be far away and no doubt less conscious than the Americans of the possible extension of totalitarian rule in central or even elsewhere in Latin America, presumably we are in a better position to judge the effect in other continents of any action resulting in the reintroduction into Nicaragua by peaceful means of Somoza and his merry men, to say nothing of the advantages which the Soviet Union would undoubtedly profit from by any such action.

On the face of it, it seems rather odd that the Americans have not (as I believe) up to now fully supported the recommendations of the well-meaning and influential Contadora Group. They have not made greater efforts to come to terms with the Sandinistas instead of, in effect, breaking with them economically and putting even greater reliance on the activities of the Contras not only in the North-East, but also on the borders of Costa Rica. Clearly, the Sandinistas would not want to respond very kindly to much pressure, but they might be prepared to give greater evidence—I think they have already given considerable evidence—that they are not intent on simply forming a one-party state, suppressing all opposition and relying on military support from the known adversaries of the United States, notably Cuba. It was admittedly a great error for their leader to visit Moscow at the very moment when the Congress was cutting the funds supporting the Contras, but that is water under the bridge. It is still doubtful whether the Sandinistas will want to rely only on communist support if they could see their way to have tolerable relations with the United States.

The words of President Reagan describing the nature of the Sandinista Government and its support of terrorism and so on are, to say the least, highly exaggerated. By any reasonable person they would be considered not to be in accordance with the facts. I ask the Government to say whether they agree with President Reagan in those terms on the Sandinista Government.

Like the noble Viscount, I shall welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, who I believe also has recently been to Nicaragua and I hope he will give us a factual account of what is happening there at present.

In conclusion, I can only repeat that, whatever the temptation to do so, we must hope that the Americans will not, by one means or another, overthrow the Sandinista Government by forceful means. I simply do not believe that this is likely in the long run to check the spread, if that is a danger, of Left-wing movements, or whatever one might like to call them, in Latin America generally. In the long run the best way to check such movements as these would seem to be to improve the standard of living generally in the countries concerned. Among other things, that means ending the recession, encouraging trade and, above all, settling the highly dangerous, indeed explosive, problem of international indebtedness. But that brings us to matters beyond the scope of the present discussion. All I would recall as I sit down is the old saying that it is possible to do everything with bayonets, except sit on them!

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I wonder whether I might put a point to the noble Lord before he sits down. It concerns his "back yard" theory. Is it not the case that Nicaragua is 1,000 miles from the nearest point in the United States, and therefore if Nicaragua is in Washington's back yard, Sicily is in ours or something like that?

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, that may well be, but all I can say is that the Americans still regard it as their back yard, even though it may be 1,000 miles away.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Chitnis

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for again introducing the subject of Nicaragua to this Chamber, though if this is to become an annual or bi-annual occasion with roughly speaking the same cast saying (dare I say it?) roughly the same things, then it might he better if next time we could have a rather larger stage on which to play and perhaps have a debate about the problems of the entire troubled region of Central America.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and others have spoken about the Sandinistas and the American attitude to them. I should like this evening not to repeat the speech I made after the Nicaraguan election last year, but to concentrate on the Contras and ask what the British Government's attitude is to them. I realise that the Government know very little about the Contras. Indeed, it was only in May this year that they were able to say that the Contras had bases in Honduras even though they had been there since 1981, as many diplomats, journalists and even some Members of your Lordships' House have known. Therefore, if I may, I shall say a few words about them.

Apart from that odd member of the Confederation of Conservative Students, about whom I know the noble Baroness will be anxious to say a few words to the House, they really are a very ugly lot. In the first place, they are engaged in violent activity against a democratically-elected and legitimate Government. If we do not pursue the somewhat sterile argument about whether or not the election last November was fair, at least the British Government, as I understand it, recognise the Nicaraguan Government as legitimate. In the second place, many leaders of the Contras have a quite horrendous past. Their commander in the north is a former member of the National Guard, and indeed many of the officers were agents of that truly vile Somoza regime.

Thirdly, and most importantly, they are currently waging a campaign of violent terror against the civilian population of Nicaragua. A number of non-Nicaraguan groups, mostly Americans, have for some time now been monitoring the activities of the Contras, taking depositions in Nicaragua from people who have suffered from their actions, and so forth. I have some of them with me. I could, I suppose, read out to your Lordships' House detailed accounts of how some men, women and children met really gory and grisly deaths at the hands of these people. I am not paticularly inclined to do that, but I would say at least this: that the Contras behave infinitely worse, even, than the IRA do in Northern Ireland. They are truly bestial. What can be said certainly is that they choose particular human targets—doctors, health workers, teachers and agronomists—as the people that they want to kill and to torture before they do so. They concentrate on economic targets rather than military targets, on coffee-processing plants and granaries and that sort of thing. And they kidnap civilians—notably, of course, young girls, whom they rape. In short, as I say, they terrorise the civilian population.

We have heard a great deal about terrorism recently. Only last week the Prime Minister made a very strong speech saying that terrorism must be resisted wherever it is found, and that the Government would have no dealings with it. So I wonder what the attitude of the Government is towards the Contras. As far as I know, I know of no specific condemnation of their activities other than the old, trite formula that the Government deplore violence wherever it is found. Indeed, there have been reports that there were informal conversations between officials of the Foreign Office and Arturo Cruz when he was here. Let us remember that Arturo Cruz is the political leader of the Contras.

I must say that I thought that the Foreign Office had principles about dealing with people who are determined to use violence to bring about political change. Indeed, to broaden the Question slightly (but I think the answer may be of more significance than simply in relation to the Contras of Nicaragua), what is the Government's definition of a terrorist movement? Do the Contras measure up to it? If not, why not?

8.2 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful once again to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for enabling us to debate this continuing problem. When the noble Lord opened a similar debate on 20th November, he was able to give us a first-hand impression of the general election which had just been held in Nicaragua, and he has given us further interesting information this evening. His conclusions were that, given all the circumstances, the elections were as fair as could be expected and, as he said in his speech, the Sandinistas obtained 63 per cent. of the vote. Another Member of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, who has just spoken, again was an observer at that election and he came to a similar conclusion. He has, in a short but powerful intervention, given us some more important evidence this evening.

I regard those elections in Nicaragua as important in a country which had no great experience of democratic elections. Some people take a contrary view. They give the impression that they would prefer an authoritarian Right-wing regime to an elected Left-wing government. The United States Government has, unhappily, given that impression from time to time. This is because the United States Administration appears to believe that Nicaragua is planned to become a Soviet base on the American mainland, with Cuba as the surrogate.

In her speech in the debate on 20th November, the noble Baroness gave us the impression that the British Government tended to share that view; in other words, that the elections were something of a charade and that President Ortega and his government are working patiently towards a system on the pattern of Cuba in Central America; that is to say, the sort of Marxist-Leninist government to which the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, referred.

The nub of this debate is whether this is in fact true. As we all know, there is conflicting evidence; but the sad fact is that things have certainly not improved since our last debate eight months ago; they have worsened. That is certainly a justification for having another debate. There is great concern in the United States itself, as the votes in Congress demonstrated; and the Administration has been forced to tone down its policies although the April vote against the allocation of funds to the Contras was later reversed, mainly, it seems, as a result of President Ortega's unfortunate visit to Moscow to ask for aid. It has been forcefully argued that persistent hostility from the United States would push Nicaragua further into the arms of Russia and Cuba, and that it would be far better to start talking to President Ortega than to frighten him. Perhaps the noble Baroness would comment on that. After all, the USSR does not succeed everywhere in the world; indeed, they fail more than they succeed.

We also understand, as we have said before, the strategic significance of Central America to the United States. Their acute sensitivity makes their present leaders say and do things which are not always in sympathy with the Declaration of Independence. Nor is the attitude of our own Government always crystal clear. There have been charges that Britain is secretly backing the United States Administration's economic blitz on Nicaragua by helping to block international aid to the Sandinista Government, and as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has mentioned in his speech, there is the internal Foreign Office document which purported to say that the problem of explaining the policy of blocking loans in public will however persist and we shall need to stick to our present line of claiming that our opposition is based on technical grounds. This is a very unfortunate extension of British policy. More recently, the Guardian on 28th June said this: The United States Administration has launched an effort to persuade Britain and other West European allies to support the CIA-funded Contras fighting the government of Nicaragua". The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, has referred to this and to Mr. Arturo Cruz, the main political leader of the Contras. Well, he has been in this country canvassing this line. I think that the noble Baroness could help by telling us in fact whether he has seen officials of the Foreign Office or even Foreign Office Ministers during his stay here.

Of course, the prolongation of the war in Nicaragua is a major tragedy, as I think all noble Lords agree. It diverts scarce resources from construction to destruction. I read that the Sandinistas have an army of over 100,000, armed by the Soviet Union, and that the Contras have 20,000 men armed by the United States. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether this is true?

Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has said, President Ortega has said that, as a result of the reversed vote in Congress, he is lifting a five-month-old voluntary moratorium on arms imports which raised the possibility mentioned several weeks ago that they would again buy Soviet MiG jets and that this, in turn, could lead to a US military response. One hopes that that is certainly not true.

As to the Contadora talks which have been referred to—and in the November debate we all seemed to pin our hopes on these—the news is gloomy. Last September, an agreement seemed to have been reached which Nicaragua supported, but this went into the sand. Perhaps the noble Baroness can give us some detail about this and about the effect she thinks the US trade embargo that they imposed in May has had on the Contadora efforts. Does the Contadora have the full support of the United States Government at this time? This is a very important question because, if the answer to that is no, then the Contadora do not have much chance of success.

I understand that the Contadora are now to make a final effort towards a settlement, and that they have called for the first time for direct talks between Nicaragua and the United States. In this debate, it would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could confirm that this is true: and that the British Government support the plea of the Contadora to the United States to hold talks with President Ortega, and also to move towards the possibility of a practical settlement.

The other reason given for the United States hostility towards Nicaragua is that the government there encourage terrorism. This has been referred to by noble Lords, and particularly by Lord Chitnis. It certainly seems from all one reads that the evidence for this is very slender indeed, and we would appreciate the noble Baroness's comments on this as well. I note that the Economist on 25th May reported that Nicaragua agreed to a commission to monitor the border movements but that this was rejected by Honduras. This certainly seems strange. If there is nothing to hide, why should a commission not hold an investigation? And why should Honduras object, and not Nicaragua?

I must say to the House that I see US policies in Central America as being deeply disturbing. They succeed in giving the impression that they do not want the countries there to enjoy the very freedom they have so strongly declared lie at the heart of their policies. If the money the United States spends on armaments and military expeditions in the area had been spent on raising standards in Nicaragua and neighbouring countries, the situation there would be very different indeed. Now to classify, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said, Nicaragua with Libya and Iran is to strain the imagination.

As against these depressing reports, there is the rather more encouraging assessment that a good majority in the United States Congress now agrees that the United States must pressure the Sandinista regime for change, but not by attempting to overthrow it illegally. If the United States took military action it would have the most far-reaching implications in terms of world opinion and respect for what the United States and the rest of the Western world generally stand for. We have only to pause a moment and think what the invasion of Afghanistan did to the reputation of the Soviet Union in the third world.

This brings me back to Nicaragua itself and to the objectives of its government. I am sure that the noble Baroness and your Lordships will have seen the recent booklet entitled, The Threat of a Good Example? written by Dianna Melrose for the Public Affairs Unit of Oxfam. I have been deeply impressed by this booklet, and as one might expect from Oxfam, it is an objective account of the problems of this sad country. It describes the simply appalling legacy of the dreadful Somoza regime. To read this booklet is to feel ashamed. If we were living in these hopeless conditions of sub-human squalor, what would we be doing or thinking, my Lords?

There is not doubt that the Ortega Government has brought new hope and also made some important social progress in a country where over half the population was illiterate. Social progress is proceeding. They have introduced an adult education programme; and when they took over the country 94 per cent. of rural children had little or no primary education. They have built schools; and in the field of public health, land reform and food production, while they have a formidable task they are making strenuous efforts. If I may confirm this with some objective evidence, two years ago the Inter-American Development Bank said this: Nicaragua has made noteworthy progress in the social sector and this is laying a solid foundation for long-term socio-economic development. Oxfam itself pays tribute to what they call "these great steps forward". In any objective debate credit must be given for this progress. The document also states that the war is wreaking havoc with development schemes all over Nicaragua and that the distruption and the human suffering caused by the violence is enormous. They say;: defending the country from attack is now draining a massive 40 per cent. of Government funds. Inevitably the poorest are worst hit by the diversion from development to defence". The cost of the war, in terms of death, suffering and loss generally, on pages 37 and 38 of the pamphlet is enough to make one weep.

Let me quote from the conclusion of the pamphlet itself: Without a political solution, Nicaraguans will continue to suffer and die. As war cripples the economy further, the poorest will be the worst hit. There is a real risk of a serious escalation in the regional conflict, with possible implications for United States commitments to NATO and European defence. The British Government has repeatedly stressed its support for the 'Condatora' initiative as representing the best hope for achieving peace in Central America. The Government has also endorsed the consensus European view that 'the problem of Central America cannot be solved by military means, but only by a political solution springing from the region itself and respecting the principles of noninterference and the inviolability of frontiers'.". The summary and recommendations are important and I shall be glad to have the reactions of the noble Baroness to them and to have her confirmation that this still remains the policy of the British Government. I hope that we are also co-operating with our EEC partners to seek a negotiated settlement, as the report suggests.

In conclusion, may I say that my broad personal position, as I have often said before in this House, is one of friendship and sympathy for the United States. We are also allies in an uncertain world. Like everyone here, I have been concerned for the President during his illness and I hope he makes a complete recovery. But we also have an obligation and a right to criticise and to advise from time to time. The evidence, as it comes to me, certainly does not seem to justify the hard line attitude of the United States Government towards Nicaragua. For example, Mr. Colin Smith, a most reputable journalist, reported from Managua to the Observer last Sunday, and no doubt your Lordships will have read what he said, which is as follows: All the evidence points to the fact that there is certainly no red terror in the Russian or Cambodian mode here. On the contrary, the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas has a human rights record that, apart from Costa Rica which abolished its army in 1948, is a shining example to most of its neighbours". There is of course room for improvement, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said, but this government of President Ortega is immensely better than the terror Nicaragua knew under Somoza. Why does the United States always bolster the Somozas and the Batistas? Surely there is something better here. There are the possibilities in Nicaragua today of hope, of compassion, of some desire for a better life—and indeed a better life which is based on some form of democracy as well—on which new relations can be built.

8.17 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for giving us the opportunity to debate once again the Government's policy towards Nicaragua. This subject was debated fully in November and has been the subject of a large number of Questions here and in another place.

There should, I hope, be no doubt about the aims of this Government's policy towards the whole of Central America. We wish to see peace, political stability, the consolidation of genuine democracy, and economic and social development in the region. Set out in those general terms, I hope that what I have said answers the question of the noble Lord, Lord Milford, who asked what the policy was.

We have therefore consistently supported, with our European Community partners, the efforts of the Contadora Group to promote a comprehensive negotiated solution of the region's conflicts. The Contadora process represents a brave and genuine effort to promote the resolution of Central America's problems from within the region itself. This is surely right; and I think it is a point with which all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate would agree.

We and our European Community partners gave practical expression to our support for the Contadora initiative at the meeting of European and regional Foreign Ministers at San José in September 1984, attended by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. Following the European Council meeting in Dublin in December last year, a declaration was issued by European Community heads of government, reaffirming their firm support for the Contadora Group and the principles for which it stands. The declaration reaffirmed that the problems of Central America could not be solved by armed force but ony by a political solution springing from the region itself and respecting the principles of non-interference and inviolability of frontiers.

I would like to remind noble Lords of the terms of the last paragraph of that statement. It reads: The Ten remain convinced that the Contadora process is the best opportunity to achieve a political solution to the crisis in the region. They hope that the efforts being made to reach agreement on the final text of the Contadora Act will come to early fruition and they urge all those concerned to work towards this end. They reaffirm the willingness which they expressed at San José to support, within their capabilities and if requested, the efforts of those States to which it falls to implement the provisions of any agreement". We have followed closely the efforts of the Contadora Group. We have actively encouraged the progress made so far; and we have noted with concern the difficulties encountered by the group. May I briefly recall recent events? A meeting of the Contadora Four and the five Central American countries was planned for 14th February. The 10 members of the European Community sent messages to the Contadora countries on the eve of the meeting reaffirming their support, and encouraging the group in its efforts. But the meeting was postponed as a result of a bilateral dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over a case of political asylum.

We were therefore pleased that in April, after a break of several months, the nine participating states met in Panama. This meeting appears to have marked a step forward. The closing communique spoke of notable success in the establishment of three committees to monitor political, security, economic and social matters. The serious problem of refugees in Central America was also to be monitored by the political committee. In May the group met again and concentrated its effort on the most difficult key issues: namely, security, arms limits and the presence of foreign advisers. But little headway appears to have been made. There was no agreement on the important issues of simultaneity and adequate verification.

The next meeting was held in Panama City on 18th and 19th June. Regrettably, due to the action of Nicaragua, it did not run its full course. Despite the best efforts of the Contadora countries, the Nicaraguans attempted to divert the meeting from addressing the matters on the agenda, and to concentrate instead on Nicaragua's bilateral problems with the United States. Having failed in this, the Nicaraguans formally refused to discuss the agenda before the meeting and walked out on 19th June. The four Contadora Group members met on 21st and 22nd July and made a number of proposals aimed at reviving the peace initiative. We particularly welcome the proposals that there should be immediate action to put a stop to the arms race and intimidating acts of force and to strengthen democratic systems and national reconciliation.

The Nicaraguan Vice-President, Senor Sergio Ramirez, has recently visited certain Central and Southern American countries. Nicaraguan intentions appear to be to shift the blame for the failure of the June meeting onto others and effectively to delay progress in the Contadora negotiations. The Nicaraguan Government show no sign of fulfilling their promises to promote pluralist democracy for their people nor of meeting the growing concerns of their neighbours. We appeal to the Nicaraguan Government to return to the Contadora process in a way which is consistent with the wishes of the other participants.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, what action would the Government consider showed a desire to promote pluralist democracy in Nicaragua? What could they do now?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think that there are two things. We would like them to go back to the negotiations in the Contadora Group, one of whose objectives is the establishment of democracy. And of course we would like to see free and fair elections, as I said at the beginning.

Britain has been working actively with our Community partners on the follow-up to last year's meeting at San José. Noble Lords will recall that it was envisaged at that meeting that the next step should be the conclusion of a co-operation agreement between the European Community and the Central American countries. I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that at the Foreign Affairs Council this week the Community position was agreed and negotiations will now take place with the five Central American states and Panama.

Our aim is that the agreement should be ready for signature at the meeting which is envisaged later this year between the Foreign Ministers of the European Community plus Spain and Portugal, the five Central American states and the members of the Contadora Group. This co-operation agreement and the political dialogue between the Community and Central America which will go hand in hand with it are designed to strengthen and support the efforts of the Contadora Group to bring peace and economic development to the region.

Your Lordships will readily appreciate that these two aims are closely linked. The countries of Central America do not fall into the category of the very poorest, in developmental terms. But their economies are suffering, like so many others, from the consequences of economic recession and massive external debt. In some cases these problems have been greatly exacerbated by the effects of political instability and civil war. For example, for some years now the guerrillas in E1 Salvador have followed a deliberate policy of attacking economic targets. There is thus an urgent need for the increased economic and technical co-operation between the Community and Central America which we hope will be agreed later this year.

In this way we and our Community partners can play our part in tackling the economic and social problems which lie at the root of the present dangerous instability in Central America. At the same time, it is only fair to point out that the Community's effort will still amount to only a small proportion of the economic and technical assistance which the United States is devoting to the region. But increased aid and trade will not help much if the political and security situation in Central America is such as to frustrate economic reconstruction and social development. That is why our whole approach, with our Community partners, is designed to support the efforts of Contadora to promote conditions of political stability in which the fundamental social and economic problems can be addressed.

This requires that all concerned—including Nicaragua—must devote themselves, constructively and in good faith, to the Contadora negotiations. I have already referred briefly to some aspects of Nicaraguan policy which cause us most concern. I spoke of the lack of genuine pluralist democracy. You will recall that we were not convinced that Nicaragua's leaders ever intended to allow elections last year which would threaten their monopoly of power. We considered that the election campaign was flawed and that the monopoly of the media enjoyed by the ruling Sandinista Party, coupled with other institutional advantages over the opposition parties, effectively eliminated the possibility of genuinely free and fair elections. I repeat our firm hope that a way can be found to return to the path of democratic development promised by the Sandinistas in 1979.

The Vice-President of Nicaragua, Senor Sergio Ramirez, visited this country in February. He met my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who expressed her concern at the policies pursued by the Nicaraguan Government. She told him that our future relations with Nicaragua would depend on progress towards the establishment there of genuine pluralist democracy, the scaling down of armaments, and an end to their support for subversion in their neighbouring states.

Nothing has occurred to diminish our concern over the destabilising effect of Nicaraguan foreign policy and attempts to subvert neighbouring states. In May the Honduran authorities announced the arrest of six Sandinista Front members who confessed that they had been transhipping and hiding weapons in Honduras for the use of subversive Honduran groups being trained at present in Nicaragua. Some of them had been involved in such activity since 1979.

There have been other disturbing events. In May border clashes took place on Nicaragua's borders with Honduras and Costa Rica. Some of these were of a significant scale. I would remind noble Lords that Costa Rica is a country which has not possessed armed forces for many years. Growing tensions in the region have unfortunately obliged it to reconsider whether its security needs can he met by its existing police forces.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked me a quite specific point about the allegations that there are IRA links with Nicaragua. I can confirm to him that we have no evidence of links between Nicaragua and the IRA. But we are in close touch with the United States Government on terrorism as on other matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Milford, asked me a question about mercenaries. I can confirm that we deplore the recruitment and use of mercenaries. This can protract conflict and introduce international complications, thus delaying the search for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, commented on President Reagan's terrorism speech. I would only say that President Reagan was commenting on a number of countries from which, as he put it, the United States has particularly suffered. We have suffered, too, from such state-inspired terrorism; for example, from Libya.

Our concern is also undiminished over the level of arms in Nicaragua. Nicaragua now has the largest armed forces of any state in Central America, with equipment to match. Over the past four years, Nicaragua has acquired from the Soviet bloc several highly sophisticated and advanced M1–24 helicopter gunships, more than 100 tanks and an equally large number of armoured vehicles. The Nicaraguans now possess substantial numbers of artillery pieces and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, including SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. Their armed forces, with reservists and militia, number more than 100.000. I can confirm that point to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. But President Ortega is reported recently as having said that he could arm 200,000 people. It is small wonder that Nicaragua's neighbours are so deeply concerned to secure guarantees that her strength will not be turned against them.

The Nicaraguans have sought to explain and justify this dramatic build up of arms by claiming frequently that the United States intends to invade Nicaragua. Your Lordships will have noted that no such invasion has taken place. The United States has made frequent statements to the effect that they are seeking a peaceful solution to the problems of Central America. In a recent letter to a United States Congressman, President Reagan stated quite categorically that he was not seeking the military overthrow of the Sandinista government or to put in its place a government based on supporters of the old Somoza regime. He also stated: My Administration is determined to pursue political, not military, solutions in Central America. The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, devoted almost all his speech to the question of the Contras. I should like to say, in response to the points that he made, that President Reagan's letter to US Congressman McCurdy condemned atrocities on both sides; and, of course, we have urged all sides to show restraint in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me whether or not any Ministers or officials have met Arturo Cruz. When Senor Cruz was in this country he was not received by Ministers or officials during his visit and he has had no contact with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials. As for the Federation of Conservative Students' representative, I can see that this was a tease. I can only repeat what was said in another place: that I do not know what they do to the Sandinistas, but Conservative students sometimes frighten me.

We should always bear in mind that the United States has real and legitimate strategic interests in this area. The Western alliance also has a strong interest in the stability of the area, since the main military supply and reinforcement route for Europe passes through the Caribbean. May I say to my noble friend Lord Montgomery how grateful I was for the remarks that he made in support of this important point. Our own and wider Western interests could be seriously affected by instability and an increase in Soviet influence in the region.

We of course maintain normal diplomatic and commercial links with Nicaragua. We re-opened a resident mission in Managua last year. We contribute to the European Community's development programme in Nicaragua which amounted to £9 million in 1983, the largest allocation of any country in the region. Britain contributed about 22 per cent. of this. We have this year made significant donations of £200,000 to refugee appeals by the International Committee of the Red Cross and £230,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for their work in Central America, including Nicaragua. In March we made available £100,000 to the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development to help displaced persons in Nicaragua. We maintain a small bilateral aid programme to Nicaragua, consisting of a number of scholarships, and we support small development projects co-financed with British voluntary agencies. Four such projects were approved in 1984–85. The scholarship programme is drawing to a close, but further proposals for co-financed development projects will be considered on their merits.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, both alleged that we were blocking loans to Nicaragua. We are not, in fact, blocking any loans. The IADB approved a loan to Nicaragua in 1983 of 31 million dollars. British Government policy towards Nicaragua at the Inter-American Development Bank was explained comprehensively by my honourable friend Mr. Rifkind on 15th May. We consider all new multilateral projects on their merits and in relation to the recipient country's standing with the international financial institutions.

On the point of ECGD cover, it was suspended at the time of the civil war due to economic disruption. The commercial criteria under which cover can be restored have not yet been met. I think that these points were raised by both the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and I believe that it would be quite inappropriate for me to comment on the leak, the answer to which was given in another place about a month ago.

We shall maintain our present policy towards Nicaragua until that country's Government start to act in such a way as to show that they present no threat to their neighbours; reduce the level of their arms; establish genuine pluralist democracy; and show that they are genuinely prepared to work for a negotiated agreement to resolve the problems of Central America.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I wonder whether she could say a word in answer to my question about the Mexican elections.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the Mexican elections are not the subject of this debate. We are discussing Nicaragua.