Caracas, Venezuela, March 9, 2006—Yesterday afternoon the British Parliament held a debate about UK policy towards Venezuela. Many British Members of Parliament, or MPs, spoke in support of the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. MP Jeremy Corbyn said, “the people of Venezuela are overwhelmingly behind a President who promises to use the nation’s wealth to conquer poverty.”
Colin Burgon, Labour Party MP for Elthem, called for the debate on Venezuela and got nearly 100 other MPs to support it. The debate was held to try and clear up what the UK position is to Venezuela and how it is different from the US.
On Februrary 9, Burgon asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair about Venezuela during the Prime Minister’s weekly question and answer session. Should Britain follow a, “Right-wing US Republican agenda,” towards left wing Latin American governments like Venezuela’s, asked Burgon.
Blair responding saying it was important, “the government of Venezuela realise that if they want to be respected members of the international community they should abide by the rules of the international community.” Venezuela’s alliance with Cuba would be better if Cuba was, “a properly functioning democracy,” Blair also said.
Chavez responded saying, “you don’t have the morality to go telling me anything, you who disrespects international law and the sovereignty of the people of Iraq.” Blair’s comments were, “the opening of the European front,” of Washington’s effort to isolate Venezuela internationally, said Chavez.
In yesterday’s debate Burgon said Blair’s comment was, “more than disappointing, and it created a minor political tsunami.” That day’s meeting was held to give the British Labour Government an opportunity, “to clarify their policy towards Venezuela and clear up any confusion,” said Burgon.
About 14 MPs from the three main political parties spoke in the debate. The majority of them made positive comments about the work of the Venezuelan government. The main points they focused on were the strategic interests Britain has with Venezuela as well as the need for the UK to support social justice and democracy in Venezuela and Latin America.
Colin Burgon and several other MPs mentioned Venezuela and Britain’s mutual material interests. Venezuela is the UK’s third largest market in Latin America. The huge oil and mineral wealth Venezuela possesses was also highlighted.
That British business is the fifth largest foreign direct investor in Venezuela was also mentioned. One of the few critics of the Venezuelan Government in the debate, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard focused on the issue of the Venezuelan investment climate.
Pritchard said Chavez was endangering a safe investment climate in the country with his anti-capitalist “rhetoric.” The Venezuelan President’s comments about the UK returning the Falkland Islands were “disturbing,” said the Conservative MP.
The majority of the other MPs present rejected Pritchard’s comments and made statements in support of Venezuela’s new model of development. Labour MP Jon Trickett was one of many to praise Venezuela’s rejection of neo-liberal policies and focus on social justice.
Liberal Democrat MP Paul Keetch said “Many residents in the poorest areas of Venezuela now have access to basic health care, whereas before they had nothing.” A long list of the democratic, economic, and social achievements of the Venezuelan process were made by the John McDonnell, Labour MP.
McDonell, who is also the Chair of the UK solidarity campaign, “Hands Off Venezuela,” highlighted the major liberating role women play in the changes taking place in Venezuela.
A common theme was that the UK should distance itself from the US position towards Venezuela. Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski said this was especially so when senior Republicans, such as Pat Robertson, were calling for the assassination of Chavez.
The government should treat all elected governments, “with equal respect and the US right-wing fundamentalists should desist from efforts to destabilise the democratically elected Chavez Government”, said Burgon.
None of the MPs in the debate claimed Venezuela was an authoritarian state or that it does not respect democracy or human rights. Keetch said that Chavez had politicised the judiciary to an extent but that this was a lesson, “learned from Washington and is not unusual in the Americas.”
The Government Spokesperson and Minister for the Middle East, Kim Howells, was largely very positive about Venezuela. Howells praised the Venezuelan “free press,” and, “vibrant news media, that are not afraid to reflect the concerns of people from all parts of society.”
Howells confirmed that Venezuela has been showing the UK, “tremendous co-operation,” with combating the international drug trade. The UK and Venezuela worked closely together to recently hold the first meeting of Latin America, Caribbean and EU drugs observatories in Caracas, said Howells.
The UK would not, “shy away from criticism when we judge it to be necessary,” said Howells, “but our policy remains to seek constructive engagement with Venezuela. We have much to gain from working together.”
The purpose of Parliamentary adjournment debates is to hold the relevant government Minister to account on important subjects. All questions asked to the Minister must be answered. The debates have no direct policy implications but make the government go on the record about particular policies.
Britain is the European country that has shown the most solidarity with Venezuela. The British Trade Union Congress, representing 6.7 million workers, is the only national trade union federation to have passed a motion in support of the Venezuelan process.
UK-based Venezuela solidarity groups have been very active in lobbying trade unionists and MPs in Britain about the Venezuelan situation. They have worked continuously to gathering and share information about Venezuela with UK policy makers.