HL Deb 20 October 1999 vol 605 cc1177-93

8 p.m.

Baroness Hooper rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their current policy towards Cuba.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am most grateful to the usual channels for this arrangement and to all who will contribute to the debate.

It is some time since I tabled the Motion, following my first visit to Cuba in January this year. At that stage, I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, fresh from a first visit, was eager to wind up the debate. I am happy to see her sitting on the Front Bench this evening. However, diaries did not permit a date to be settled until now. As a result of recent government changes I am delighted that we shall hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, especially in view of her particular responsibilities for the Caribbean region.

Since January a number of events and developments have spotlighted Cuba and had a positive effect on our relationship with that country. Therefore, now is 'a good time to hear from the Government their reaction to those events, as well as any new policy developments.

The delayed timing of the debate also enabled me to make a second visit to Cuba. My first visit was a private holiday and my second visit—some two weeks ago—was memorable not only because it gave me the opportunity of a meeting with "El Comandante", Fidel Castro himself, but also because it signified the completion of negotiations and the implementation of an agreement between SmithKline Beecham Biologicals, a Belgian subsidiary of SmithKline Beecham, and the Finlay Institute for the further development and licensing of the meningitis B vaccine developed by the Finlay Institute. As a non-executive director of SmithKline Beecham, I am extremely pleased by that important breakthrough which will have such an impact on the health of children throughout the world.

That leads me to one development on which I want to focus in the short time available for this debate. Health generally and biotechnology in particular have been given a high priority in Cuba and there have been many successes with first-class research and development facilities and a pipeline of products of which the meningitis B vaccine is a leading one.

In April this year, at the invitation of the Cuban Government, and with the support of British Trade International, CARITAG (the Caribbean Trade Advisory Group) organised and led a small biotechnology mission to Cuba. The idea was to introduce United Kingdom pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, large and small, to the sector in Cuba by visiting some of the 38 biotechnology facilities grouped together near Havana and to identify projects for future partnership and co-operation. The mission was successful and recently was followed up by the visit here of a team from Cuba led by Dr Agustin Lage, the director of the Centre of Molecular Immunology in Havana. He spoke to a well-attended seminar and had a busy programme of bilateral meetings with experts in England and Scotland.

I believe that that is a most exciting development in which the United Kingdom is playing a leading role. I hope that other concrete projects will result. I want to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, for an assurance that the Government will continue to give support and encouragement to bilateral missions of that type in order to encourage further partnerships.

In passing, I mention that both the Cuban ambassador here in London and our ambassador in Cuba have worked hard on such missions. They deserve congratulations on, and thanks for, the roles that they have played in supporting the development of relations in that important sector.

In regard to health in general, Cuba has had great success as a result of its health programmes, including its preventive health programme. Cuba enjoys the lowest infant mortality rate in the region. As I understand it, Cuba is interested in developing a special health role in the region. As a result of the consequences of the Hurricane Mitch disaster, Cuba sent 400 doctors to Honduras. Doctors have also been sent to El Salvador and a number of Cuban doctors are working on loan in Haiti.

On my last visit I was able to see La Escuela Latina Americana de Ciencias, the Latin American scientific school which has recently been opened. It has 2,000 students from low-income families and from country areas all over Latin America. They spend two years at the institute and complete their medical training in hospitals or clinics in other parts of Cuba. That is an interesting and an important initiative. It may be that United Kingdom interests in the region could coincide with that initiative. We could encourage our doctors and medical professions to give help and support.

Other events this year include the visit of members of the Cuban National Assembly, led by Dr Ricardo Alarcon. I know that my noble friend Lady Young was much involved with that. She organised a parliamentary seminar which gave many of us the opportunity to offer our views on such issues as the impact of the extra-territorial effects of the Helms-Burt on legislation and human rights issues, as well as discussing communication in the areas of educational and cultural exchanges.

Among the good news this year is the fact that the Export Credits Guarantee Department has reinstated Cuba as an insurable risk for British exporters. Many of us had been pressing for that for some time, and we are delighted by that development.

Another piece of good news is the fact that in a couple of weeks' time, in November, the Ibero-Hispanic Summit is due to take place for the first time in Cuba. The heads of state of virtually all the Latin American countries will be represented, as well as Spain and Portugal. There will also be the first visit ever by a King of Spain to Cuba.

Among the bad news, however, is the havoc caused by Hurricane Irene last week in claiming two lives, destroying 13 buildings and causing damage to the banana and tobacco crops. I hope that we shall hear from the noble Baroness what the Government are doing to help and support in that emergency.

Cuba is a small country, struggling to maintain its identity in a difficult world economic scene and with an impossible relationship with its closest neighbours to the north. We may not all agree with some of the politics, but we should help. Certainly in my capacity as president of Canning House (the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council) I know we shall continue to encourage not only trade and commercial activity, but also more contact and exchanges on the educational and cultural front.

The United Kingdom has important historic associations with, and considerable influence in, the Caribbean. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has ministerial responsibility in that area. I hope therefore that she can give us a positive and optimistic view and plan for the future.

8.11 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, in speaking in the debate this evening I begin by declaring an interest as president of the UK side of the Cuba Initiative. Before I say anything about Cuba, I want to say that this will be the last time that my noble friend Lord Montgomery will be speaking in your Lordships' House. I am sure everybody will recognise that, as the acknowledged expert on Latin American subjects and on the Caribbean and Central America, he has made a major contribution in this House. It is therefore a matter of deep regret that he has to leave it under the circumstances in which he does.

On previous occasions I have had the opportunity to raise Questions about the nature of Britain's relationship with Cuba and the importance of resolving differences through dialogue and close contact. In doing so I have been conscious of the need for us at least to maintain our relations at the level of that of our European partners and not allow the concerns of the United States in its relationship with Cuba to determine the pace at which we engage in dialogue.

In the time available I can raise only a few topics, but I too would first like to commend the Government's recent decision to take forward with the Cuban Government a dialogue for resolving questions on official debt, referred to by my noble friend Lady Hooper. I understand that in September the ECGD reached an understanding with the Central Bank of Cuba. That means that British exporters will soon be able to take advantage of new export credits for Cuba. The agreement, which stems from a memorandum of understanding enabling repayment of a proportion of Cuban short-term debt, owes much to the personal involvement and interest of the then Minister for Trade, Brian Wilson, and I am pleased to acknowledge that.

In parallel with those discussions on the official debt, informal proposals have been developed to try to resolve the question of Cuba's remaining commercial debt to British companies. The Government have been supportive of that initiative which is now being developed with the Cuban central bank. I hope that, as those discussions proceed, Ministers will continue to note to the Cuban Government the importance of removing this remaining impediment to UK-Cuban trade.

In the past 18 months Cuba has indicated in a very practical way its willingness to co-operate with Britain and others on the interdiction of narcotics passing through the Caribbean region. That is indicative of the ways in which Britain can develop a much closer relationship with Cuba at a functional level and is to be welcomed.

Perhaps I may raise a specific issue of concern. The Government are committed to a ban on tobacco advertising by December of this year. There is a difference between cigarettes and cigars. Cigars are a different market from cigarettes. There were 55,000 people in Cuba employed in the tobacco industry in 1999 and in 1998 tobacco accounted for 13.5 per cent of Cuba's GDP. Moreover, cigars account for 40 per cent of all the exports from Cuba to the UK each year. Cigars are sold largely through mail order, specialist shops, restaurants and hotels. Those concerned with this business are worried about the lack of clarity in the regulations affecting that issue. I hope that the Government will be able to say something on that. I shall understand if the Minister cannot respond this evening but, if not, perhaps she will write to me. It will have a serious knock-on effect in Cuba, something I do not believe was ever intended.

Of course, we have differences with Cuba on issues of human rights and issues relating to governance. But I echo what my noble friend said when. I say that I am glad that we had a successful visit in which the Cuba Initiative was able to host jointly with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy a visit to the UK by members of the Cuban National Assembly. The delegation, led by the president of the assembly, Ricardo Alacon, was able to debate with Members of both Houses, our political parties and others the relative merits of our two systems of government. It is fair to say that both sides benefited from the contacts.

I hope that there will be further visits of that kind. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, will visit Cuba at the earliest opportunity. And I hope that in this country we shall see senior members of the Cuban Government, including Dr Carlos Lage, the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers.

Britain also has a role to play in the closer integration of Cuba into the Caribbean region, and most particularly in relation to its possible accession to the Lomé Convention. Cuba is already participating in the present negotiations as an observer. Should it decide to proceed to full ACP status, it will be necessary for EU member states to accept that this will change the nature of its relationship with Europe. Recent remarks by Caribbean leaders indicated their desire to have Cuba inside the grouping in order that a more substantive dialogue on matters of mutual concern can take place. I believe that such an approach is equally as valid for Europe, as Cuba within the ACP will encourage a more intimate and practical dialogue within the broad-based development relationship Europe has with countries of the ACP.

Britain has an important role in enabling the Cuban people to chart their own course with the Americas. Further steps are now required by the Government to build on the much improved relationship that is now in place.

8.17 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for asking the Question and speaking with such clarity, and also for the work she is doing to promote technical co-operation and trade between Cuba and this country. I am also delighted that my noble friend Lady Scotland has inherited responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean. I am sure she will do well. I hope she will follow her earlier predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in taking a special interest in Cuba and the Caribbean.

I have always been interested in Cuba's social experiment and have twice visited the island in the past three years, the last time as a member of the IPU delegation. Cuba has many lessons to teach other developing countries and some developed countries too, especially in the field of public and primary healthcare. That is despite the fact that it is a one-party state with a centrally-controlled economy—hardly the model currently favoured by the IMF or the OECD.

The achievements of universal access to healthcare and the virtual elimination of illiteracy are remarkable for a poor country, as are the advances in higher education and research of international calibre as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper—the most famous being the meningitis B vaccine, a world first. A number of other potential developments in the biotechnical field are of great interest, some involving genetic modification—I am not sure Greenpeace would approve.

When assistance from the Soviet bloc suddenly ended in 1990, many observers thought that popular dissatisfaction with the austerity programme, known in Cuba as "the special period" that followed, would see the end of the Communist era, especially as the USA seized that moment to tighten the screw on Cuba through the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts. But this was a serious miscalculation. For one thing, Cuba has a fierce tradition of independence, initially from Spain, but now from the USA, which grossly exploited Cuba economically in the past while giving little back in the first half of this century. It was this exploitation and profiteering, particularly by sugar plantation owners, but also by others, which lay behind the nationalisation without compensation of land and enterprises after the 1959 revolution.

However, I return to the substance of the Question. It is clear that, partly due to the pioneer work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, there have been significant increases in trade and cultural exchange between Britain and Cuba in recent years, as described by both noble Baronesses. I am sure that my noble friend will tell us about the visit of her immediate predecessor, who is sitting in front of me—her noble friend Lady Symons—and her honourable friend Brian Wilson, the Minister for Trade, last year. Particularly encouraging has been the reopening, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, of ECGD funds to Cuba, although the sums so far underwritten are quite small. But it will allow us to catch up somewhat with other European countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, which long ago found ways of providing credit for their exports to Cuba.

But looming over all efforts to increase trade with Cuba is the American embargo, which extends to food, medicines and medical equipment, though recently there has been a little bit of a relaxation on the medical side. There is also the effect of the extra-territorial Act. Can my noble friend, for example, give us an update on any action that Britain may have taken, or intends to take, in the World Trade Organisation or in Europe which might persuade the US Congress to end these restrictive unilateral measures against trade with Cuba?

There is no doubt that US trade policy has been damaging to the Cuban economy. For example, it has been much more expensive for Cuba to obtain goods from Europe than from the USA, its traditional supplier. Some items are completely unobtainable because of US links to the multinational companies that supply them—this has applied to medicines and chemicals for Cuba's own pharmaceutical industry. The American Association for World Health, in its well-known 1997 report on The Impact of the US Embargo on Health and Nutrition in Cuba, states: The inclusion of food and medicine in an international trade embargo is a violation of international human rights conventions which uphold the principle of a free flow of food and medicines, even in wartime, to serve the basic needs of civilian populations". The report goes on to list all those conventions that the US has broken in this embargo. The report gives plenty of evidence of the harmful effects of under-nutrition and lack of equipment; of spare parts, for example, to repair water purification plants, which have broken down. What is remarkable is that, despite under-nutrition and an increase in water-borne infections, the infant and child mortality rate has continued to improve. This is because of careful nutritional targeting of vulnerable groups and a very effective primary healthcare system which gives universal coverage.

The contrast with the situation in Iraq, which has also suffered food and equipment shortages as a result of sanctions, is striking. There the infant and child mortality rate, which was quite good before the Gulf War, has more than doubled, probably due to inadequate food distribution and primary care and lack of health education—something which is given on a personal basis to every Cuban by his or her GP or community nurse.

I should like to finish with one paragraph. This system so impressed Professor Patrick Pietroni, who is the Postgraduate Dean of General Practice at London University, that he is organising a British-Cuban conference for GPs which will take place in Cuba next March and which will provide an opportunity for the mutual exchange of ideas. More than 100 British doctors will be attending, among whom I hope to be. I very much hope that the Government will be able to give this imaginative conference their blessing. It would be enormously appreciated if my noble friend could arrange to visit Cuba at that time and look in at the conference, as well as bringing, perhaps, a Minister from the Department of Health. Although the traditions are different, our National Health Service, especially at the primary healthcare level, might find the Cuban approach well worth studying.

8.24 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, it is most fortunate that this debate is taking place so shortly after the visit of my noble friend Lady Hooper to Cuba. If I may say so, it was a very successful mission. The Cubans are extraordinarily talented people and the fact that this technological development has been put to world use is quite marvellous. I hope that there will be more of them; indeed, this should be supported most strongly.

Most of what I had intended to say has been said, so I shall endorse some of the comments made. First, I turn to the devastating effect of Hurricane Irene. On this occasion it was mostly rain 'that caused the damage; but the damage was to the tobacco crop, which is one of Cuba's principal exports. I was shocked to hear what my noble friend Lady Young said—namely, that there will be difficulties about the export of this crop because they will need help. I am not sure that they need the total help of aid. Cuba is full of extraordinarily talented people. They are very energetic and hard working.

What the Cubans need is trade and investment because that will create employment and bring the country into the international community as a fully-fledged member. I know that there are problems with the political system, but we should work with them and work towards that aim. That is why the memorandum of understanding which will lead to the restoration of full ECGD cover is so welcome. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said, it is a modest start. But it is a start. We have been asking for this for some time and I am sure that it will grow. We have been at a disadvantage in the United Kingdom with some of our friends across the water in the rest of the European Union. It is to be hoped that this will grow from that start.

As several speakers have mentioned, the biggest obstacle is the question of the restrictions on Cuba by this drastic and absolutely catastrophic legislation in the United States, which we all know is called Helms-Burton. This is a totally scandalous piece of legislation; it is completely against all international law. The WTO has been extremely weak as regards doing anything about it—very wishy-washy. I regret to say that I think the European Union took a rather half-hearted approach to getting something done about it. It is very much incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government to press the EU to take a much more robust line with the WTO to ensure that the US is brought to book on this issue. If we are to have a world in which we can trade together internationally, such infringements cannot be allowed. The fact that the United States is enormously powerful and tries to bully a small island nearby is totally unacceptable to the international community. I hope that we can be much more strong minded about that in the future. Indeed, that would be very welcome.

My noble friend Lady Young has done miracles with the Cuban initiative, which has been a very important event. Last year we had the inward mission from the Cuban National Assembly led by Ricardo Alarcon, to which my noble friend referred. I endorse her suggestion wholeheartedly that we should have a visit from Carlos Lage, who is a very important member of the Cuban Government. He is a talented young man. In fact, I made that suggestion in an earlier debate on this very subject.

Regrettably, I must thank my noble friend Lady Young for her kind remarks about my efforts in this field. It is correct that this will be my last intervention because, alas, I am leaving at the end of next week to go on a South American tour in order to honour some long-standing commitments which were made long before this House of Lords Bill started its passage. Therefore, I shall not be here at the end of the Session. However, it has been an enormous privilege to serve in this House. I have been here for 23 years and have pursued certain causes, many of which were related to Latin America, but I have also pursued other causes. It is encouraging to see that so many enthusiastic potential Latin Americans have participated in this debate. I may not agree with what is being proposed for the future of the House but I accept the will of Parliament. I shall retire, I hope in good order, and I hope to keep in touch with many friends in the hereafter.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, will my noble friend give way? He has until tomorrow to submit his name for election. I think that it is absolutely outrageous that he has not already done so. I for one, as a great admirer of my noble friend, hope that he will change his mind and submit his name for election to continue in this House.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those comments. I have written some letters on this subject and my view is that if we believe in democracy we should practise it and have a fully elected senate.

8.30 p.m.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for introducing this debate. It is quite difficult to make another comment on my noble friend Lord Montgomery. My noble friend may have made his final speech here but one never knows. As someone said, a week is a long time in politics.

My theme is Cuba's economy and its economic prospects. I am mindful that the Commonwealth Development Corporation is operating in Cuba and this welcome initiative, supported by the then government, came shortly after my time with CDC. Given Cuba's geographical position and its considerable economic potential, we might expect prosperity. Cuba has the population needed to continue its development and it has a fair share of natural resources. It could aspire to a leadership role in the Caribbean. But the Cubans are not prosperous. Cuba's economy is narrowly based and too dependent upon tourism, its exports too dependent upon sugar, and those exports too dependent upon Russia. Fuel consumes a large proportion of its foreign exchange earnings, 20 per cent. Of which come from US dollar remittances.

Not much foreign investment—SmithKline Beecham excepted—is being made in Cuba, hard though the Canadians have tried. Yet Cuba's slow economic progress is not in our interests. Small states have problems and temptations enough. The Caribbean needs to progress and to remain stable. Cuba is patently not playing the part that it could. Indeed we do not hear the same story from the Dominican Republic, still less—if your Lordships will forgive me—from Puerto Rico.

Central to progress is the availability of foreign capital and freer access to markets. Regrettably Cuba idiosyncratically chose the wrong partner, the Soviet Union, a partner which could never have delivered a fraction of the economic opportunity available from good relations with the United States. Nevertheless, for how long must Cuba now be stood in the corner? And for how long will Fidel Castro be able to rail at his neighbours to rally his faithful? What will the United Kingdom do to speed up the rate of change in this stalemate relationship? Minor US relaxations of earlier this year have been welcome but are nowhere near enough. What additional dimension can the European Community bring? France, and to a lesser degree Holland, have Caribbean interests. A large proportion of the Caribbean peoples are Hispanic, which brings in United States domestic politics, probably regrettably, and as dollar remittances are likely to come from Castro's opponents, Cuban domestic politics also.

Nevertheless when two states, one the world's most powerful and the other small but potentially a full member of the international community, are at loggerheads we are presented with an excellent test for our diplomatic skills. For we cannot want Cuba to remain an outsider, nor be content to see the United States of America being so unforgiving. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us how she believes we will fare with our diplomatic representations and what other people we can bring to bear with us to be more successful than we have been so far in drawing Cuba into the international community and achieving a reconciliation with the United States.

8.34 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, my claim to take part in this debate is three years' residence in Havana as a diplomatic wife in the early eighties—I was the Candidate from Cuba in my first parliamentary campaign—and a continuing interest in the country and its people since then.

Most people seem to like Cuba and the Cubans. There is, even now, a residual admiration for Fidel Castro—the young lawyer defending his student friends against the Battista regime and the romantic hero of Moncada—and the entry into Havana still exercises a spell, albeit a fading one. Not many people ask why so many of his close colleagues from the revolutionary era committed suicide.

The Cubans have a high standard of literacy, their health provision is good. They are naturally enterprising in the Caribbean way. Despite its poverty, the country still turns out good doctors, and, as we have been reminded today, good scientists and technologists, architects, dancers, artists and musicians. Indeed the success of the Buenavista Club and the recent Cuban Festival in London has brought a new generation of admirers. On his historic visit in 1998 the Pope called for openness and dialogue among Cubans. It seemed that Fidel might be reintegrated into the family of leaders, and to some extent that process has begun. And yet, in March four people who criticised the party in print and called for free elections were imprisoned for periods ranging from three and a half to five years.

This July the Cuban Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission estimated that there were 300 to 400 political prisoners in Cuba. To put that in context, that would equate to 1,500 to 2,000 in the United Kingdom. In October Elizardo Sanchez, who leads the commission, was refused an exit visa to attend a conference organised by Vaclav Havel. Cuba is not a free society; Fidel still wears his tailor-made battle dress and hurls defiance at the evils of the world financial system or of the USA, and sometimes who can blame him?

Raoul Castro, the anointed heir, tells us that nothing will change if Fidel dies, although observers are getting either nervous or excited according to their natural disposition. There is tension developing internally between those who can benefit from the dollar economy of tourism and those who cannot and who live in poverty, even when they hold professional positions. So what next? Interestingly, the Canadians and the Spanish—who in my time in Havana arguably enjoyed the best relations with Cuba of any of the "Western" powers—despite their continuing close relations sometimes demonstrate their disapproval of the lack of progress since the Pope's visit. Canada has suspended some of its high level contacts as a protest against human rights violations. My understanding is that the Spanish foreign minister has indicated that conditions may not be right for the King of Spain to visit Cuba on the occasion of the Ibero-American summit, and the presidents of Argentina and Chile may not attend either.

So what should the UK Government do? One obvious thing—many people have mentioned this—is to continue to oppose the Helms-Burton legislation, which at best merely provides Fidel with the excuses he needs to defy change in his country and, at worst, can cause real hardship to his people. Developments such as the institution of direct flights from the UK to Havana are to be welcomed, especially for those of us who, like myself, remember rather hairy journeys in ancient aircraft via Miami.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hooper and Lady Young, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, all individually contribute in their different ways to the creation an Anglo-Cuban network of activities and personal contacts. These are greatly to be valued. I join with those who regret the imminent departure—as I believe it will be—of the noble Viscount. When I first arrived in this House he was one of those who greeted me warmly and welcomed me to this House. I personally—and I am sure all of us—will miss his presence greatly.

The recent establishment of the British Council in Havana is a further excellent development. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government intend to expand this small initiative, which would doubtless be much welcomed in Cuba? The news given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, of the development of further successful co-operation between our two countries on medical matters is also most welcome.

Can the Minister tell us what is happening in terms of the valuable technical assistance being given to Cuba in the area of banking and public finance, for example? Can she confirm the Government's intention to continue to act vis à vis Cuba in a balanced way? Does she agree that the obvious benefit of integrating Cuba into the wider world of international trade and other relations must not obscure the desirability of encouraging development towards greater democratic freedom in Cuba? While growing trading agreements and tourism can improve the Cubans' standard of living and can help to bind Cuba into the family of nations, we should not forget that democratic progress should ideally start before Castro dies in order that he can use his prestige and charisma to assist its implementation. Our pressure towards democratic development should not cease, otherwise we could see an explosion after his death which will plunge this delightful and talented people into tragic chaos.

8.41 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I shall begin by echoing the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Young about my noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein. The knowledge and expertise he displayed yet again this evening will be greatly missed. We on this Front Bench deeply regret his impending departure from the House.

We are indebted to my noble friend Lady Hooper for introducing this debate. Many noble Lords are already aware of her deep and enduring interest in Latin American affairs—an interest which l am keen to make clear that I share. I believe it was almost three years ago that your Lordships' House last had an opportunity to consider in detail our relationship with Cuba—thanks to the initiative of my noble friend Lady Young, whose knowledge and understanding of Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole is without parallel. I am delighted to pay tribute to her.

It has been the policy of successive governments in this country, together with our European Union partners, to support a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy in Cuba, where there should be respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Underpinning this vision of Cuba's future is our ongoing effort to promote a sustainable economic recovery and improvements in the living standards of ordinary Cubans. This is a goal which we share with the United States, but we have differed—and continue to differ—on the tools we should use to achieve this goal.

In particular, we have our disagreements on the American application of the punitive economic embargo first imposed 39 years ago yesterday. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, or LIBERTAD Act, the unwelcome legacy of the Helms-Burton legislation, is the most recent embodiment of this unjust US policy, an issue to which I shall return later. However, we would like to make it clear from these Benches that we view this legislation as an international trade issue, rather than an argument with the United States over the quintessential aims of our policy towards Cuba.

We do not believe that the United States embargo against Cuba is the way forward. For that reason, under the previous government, the United Kingdom voted with our European Union partners in support of the Cuban resolution condemning it at the United Nations General Assembly. It is important that the Government continue to demand an end to the US embargo. It is important that the Government continue to recognise that economic isolation will serve only to drive those who are already poor to further extremes of destitution and desperation and thus to invite the twin spectres of social and political chaos to take up residence in Cuba.

Turning to trade and investment, our links with Cuba must progress in tandem with our political relations. It is therefore unsurprising that we welcomed the visit to Cuba a year ago of the Minister's predecessor at the Dispatch Box, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. Given the lengths to which successive governments went towards steadily improving and developing our diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, her presence this evening at this debate is most welcome. It shows both her personal and ministerial commitment to the subject.

I am very pleased that the Government have continued the initiatives pioneered under the previous administration. I believe we have seen much progress as a result in the past two years. In particular, I should like to single out the British Airways inaugural flight, which took place in April this year. I believe it to be an important milestone in achieving our ultimate goal of a Cuba fully integrated into the global community.

Private investment is crucial to sustained development and economic growth in Cuba. Under the foreign investment law passed in 1995, which allows 100 per cent foreign ownership in certain circumstances, Cuba is actively seeking foreign participation in commercial activities. Although I understand that investors can still face practical difficulties, there are some excellent opportunities for establishing joint ventures or other forms of commercial association. Will the Minister pledge to encourage British investors to make the most of those opportunities, provided that British investors and businessmen who choose to invest in Cuba endorse best business practices and recognise the basic rights of Cuban workers?

Historically, when one step forward is taken, two steps backwards have often followed. However, on a more optimistic note, there has been some new flexibility towards Cuba in US policy. Last year, following the Pope's visit to Cuba, the US administration implemented measures including the restoration of direct passenger flights, the resumption of family remittances, increases in the sale of medicines and the expansion of people-to-people contacts through cultural, scientific and sporting exchanges. These measures have provided some relaxation of the trade restrictions in Cuba. They were expanded in January of this year to include such things as the restoration of a direct postal service between the US and Cuba.

We cannot ignore the fact that Cuba is the sole country in the western hemisphere with a Communist regime. However, most agree that some form of transition will eventually take place in Cuba. It is critical that this transition is a managed one.

As to human rights, I would simply ask the Minister whether, in line with the Government's ethical foreign policy, she can give an assurance that the Government are committed to a vigorous programme of meetings with dissidents and human rights groups during ministerial visits to Cuba, as well as forthright representations to Cuba's ruling elite on the need for reform.

Some of these thoughts are the way forward—the way forward being won through engagement and dialogue. It is in the common interest of both this country and of Cuba to forge a deeper relationship from which our companies, our exporters and the Cuban people can all benefit. It is through this approach alone that we shall encourage Cuba to realise its full potential in the next millennium.

8.47 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may say straightaway what a happy event it is to stand at the Dispatch Box for only my second debate and to hear such unanimity from all sides of the House. It is a particular pleasure. I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for introducing this debate. The House continues to benefit from the keen interest the noble Baroness shows in Cuba and the depth of experience she brings to issues relating to Latin America and the Caribbean.

I am also pleased that the House has been given the rare opportunity to discuss Cuba in this way, particularly given the recent tragic loss of life and damage to crops and homes as a result of Hurricane Irene, to which the noble Baroness referred. We do not have yet full information about the damage caused by Hurricane Irene in Cuba, but the Cuban authorities are aware that we stand ready to look at ways of helping, should they so request.

The landmark visit to Cuba of my predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, a year ago was followed by two highly successful visits by the then Minister for Trade and his business teams. Bilateral relations between Cuba and the United Kingdom have continued to expand and grow in several important ways. Trade and tourism continue to increase, reflecting the United Kingdom's interest in Cuba, not least among its business community. Regular trade missions are now diversifying into the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, with positive signs.

At this stage, I should like also to take an early opportunity to express my pleasure that the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, has chosen this debate in which to make his last contribution in this House, and to acknowledge the gratitude of the House to him for all his helpful interventions and wise counsel given on issues relating to the Caribbean and Latin America. Indeed, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, rightly praised developments as regards British Airways, which now flies to Cuba. We feel that that is an extremely helpful venture. In April, we were pleased to welcome Ricardo Alarcon, the President of the Cuban National Assembly, with a delegation on a parliamentary visit. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, who I would also like to compliment on her great contributions in this area, is to be congratulated on the sterling work that she has done in relation to the Cuban initiative, and on her efforts to make that visit such a success. The Government support such parliamentary exchanges. These are helpful building blocks in furthering the bilateral relationship. I am also happy to give the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, the assurance she sought as regards the continuation of those bilateral relations.

This year has also seen issues relating to official short-term debt being addressed by the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD) and the Government of Cuba, with the possible provision this allows for the negotiation of new medium-term credit. This is good news for capital goods exporters to Cuba.

Co-operation between the United Kingdom and the Cuban authorities on countering drugs and crime problems continues to develop. British Customs officers have provided training for their Cuban counterparts. Mr John Abbott, the Director-General of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, visited Cuba in August of this year.

I should like to echo what has been said by several noble Lords as regards cultural links. These, too, are being explored following the visit by the Cuban Minister of Culture earlier this year. Now that the British Council has re-established its presence in Cuba, which we and the Government of Cuba welcomed, there is a growing mark et for Cuban culture and the arts in the United Kingdom. I hope that the noble Baroness will be pleased that this development has taken place.

In scientific co-operation, too, we are moving forward, with successful exchange visits on biotechnology taking place this year and the academic and commercial opportunities these raise. We have heard a little about those in today's debate. On the Cuban meningitis B vaccine, in particular, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her recent successful visit to Cuba. The Government acknowledge the important work being done in this area and will follow events—and the potential for further collaboration—with great interest. Further, I hope that the indication made by the noble Baroness that the cross-fertilisation of medical views and the connections they have engendered will of course continue.

Her Majesty's Government welcome all these developments in our relations. In time, Cuba is surely set to become one of the giants of the Caribbean. Its success or failure in finding a future path that avoids economic or social collapse will have a major effect on the region, for good or ill. The Government are conscious, too, of their obligations to our Caribbean Overseas Territories.

I understand the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about Cuban cigars. Early indications from the Department of Health suggest that her anxieties about the negative effects do not at the moment appear to be justified. However, I invite the noble Baroness to contact the Department of Health in relation to pursuing the matter further.

When my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met the Cuban Foreign Minister, Perez Roque, at the EU/Latin America and Caribbean Summit in Rio in June, he took the opportunity to convey to the Cubans a strong message about that country's poor record on civil and political rights. But he was able to acknowledge the important role that Cuba could play economically in the region, suggesting that Cuba could be the motor for the future economic well-being of the Caribbean. In this, as with our traditional Caribbean partners, the UK will seek to play its part.

In saying that, the Foreign Secretary also echoed the words of His Holiness the Pope when he began his historic visit to Cuba in January last year. He called on Cuba to open up to the world and on the world to open up to Cuba. That is why we give our wholehearted support to Cuba's participation in events in the international arena, such as the Rio Summit. Cuba and the other 47 participating countries signed up to an "action plan" document at the summit. It covered many of the areas in which we are working in partnership with Cuba and our EU partners; for example, in both the economic and the human rights fields. Another important area covered in the summit "action plan" was science and technology. That issue is one that several noble Lords have highlighted in this debate. Cuba's enthusiastic co-operation with the UK in the field of biotechnology, as we have seen, is the sort of practical co-operation that the spirit of Rio was trying to engender.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, rightly emphasised some of the challenges that are still left as regards our relationship with Cuba. In terms of our bilateral relations, the UK, as I have outlined, is warming in its relations with Cuba. However, this Government make no bones about those aspects of the relationship with which we are much less than happy. I firmly believe that none of the other aspects of the bilateral relationship will function properly if we do not also work hard at the complex of issues in our political relations.

With our EU partners, the United Kingdom believes that dialogue and co-operation—not embargo and isolation—is the most effective way of encouraging the political and economic evolution we wish for Cuba. The EU common position codifies this clear statement of the EU's commitment to intensify its dialogue with the Cuban authorities and all sectors of Cuban society. The common position's flexibility allows EU partners to pursue their own bilateral relations within its overall framework. We want to be Cuba's partner—with full co-operation dependent on improvements in human rights and fundamental freedoms—by discussing all issues of mutual interest and concern in a spirit of friendship and co-operation, with give and take on both sides.

My noble friend Lord Rea, the noble Viscounts, Lord Montgomery and Lord Eccles, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and others all raised the issue of the United States relationship and Helms-Burton. The US Administration has been left in no doubt that we do not support extra-territorial legislation; nor do we agree with its policy towards Cuba. At ministerial level, our most recent exchanges—indeed, my own exchange in Washington, together with those of my noble friend Lady Symons—have raised these issues with some vigour with our American friends. Her Majesty's Government have taken every opportunity to raise the matter, which is one upon which obviously we do not agree.

On economic, social and cultural rights, Cuba can claim to have made significant achievements. However, we and our EU partners attach great importance to civil and political rights and respect for fundamental freedoms, on which Cuba's record, sadly, remains poor. We are therefore keen to work in partnership with Cuba on its international human rights obligations and to encourage an end to arbitrary detention and the unconditional release of prisoners; freedom of expression; free media; and co-operation with the UN human rights mechanisms. In this regard, I welcome the recent talks at senior level on a range of UN issues, including human rights, in the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

In closing this debate, I repeat my thanks to the noble Baroness for giving the House the opportunity of discussing Cuba. I reaffirm that the hallmarks of this Government's policy towards Cuba are frank and respectful critical dialogue coupled with practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest. I know that both our countries seek to develop the relationship in a sustained way, even when our views do not always coincide, entitled as we are to express our own views. In this spirit, we respect Cuba's right to the view it has of its current situation. Through our increasing contact, this Government will go on to learn more about the Cuban reality. However, we are hopeful that our Cuban counterparts will signal their desire to continue to work with us in an open and constructive way on all these issues so that a greater understanding might evolve of our own concerns as we work towards building an effective dialogue and co-operation.