New Labour goes back to old roots in Latin America

Foreign minister Tony Lloyd tells Andrew Marshall Britain must start to reassert its presence

There will be a metaphorical Union flag in the luggage of Tony Lloyd when he arrives in Bogota today. The Foreign Office minister, on his first official visit to Latin America, is determined to reassert a British presence on the continent. "Latin America has been neglected over a long period of time by British governments," he says. But now "there has been a reawakening".

Mr Lloyd is a rarity on the Foreign Office: a minister who is knowledgeable about, and has experience of, Latin America, having already visited several of its countries. The last minister who expressed any interest was Tristan (now Lord) Garel-Jones, the Conservative minister, for whom Mr Lloyd expresses appreciation.

The visit will be to Colombia and then to Brazil, two nations which are commercially important. Brazil is Britain's biggest trading partner in the region and Britain is the largest investor in Colombia. Mr Lloyd has never visited either.

Many of his predecessors had never been to Latin America at all -in general, it has often been seen from within the Foreign Office as peripheral and unglamorous. Mr Lloyd says it is partly the fault of Latin America itself, where many countries went through decades of military rule and spurned international trade. "Latin America entered a period where it gloried in an introverted view of itself," he says. "Now, it's looking outwards." Strong economic growth, market openings, liberalisation and democratisation have transformed Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Britain has strong claims to a role in Latin America. It provided much of its capital in the last century and maintains trading links with most countries. It is still in the top three of foreign investors in virtually every country but British trade lags behind Germany, France and Italy. With New Labour's accent on the role of commerce in diplomacy, Mr Lloyd wants to reinvigorate trade relations, especially with Brazil. "Brazil is an economic superpower, very often underestimated by people in Britain."

He will also play the other Labour tune: ethical foreign policy. In Colombia, he wants to talk to the government, churches, trade unions and others about human-rights abuses, though he is careful how he phrases it. "Britain is there as a good friend of the Colombian people. Undoubtedly though, we have clear concerns. Like any good friend, we want to talk about those concerns."

The intention is that a discussion about human rights should not just be talk. "It's easy to give a good stern lecture. But we want to examine what our contribution might be. We have to develop a strong, practical relationship." There are hints this might include the kinds of assistance - training, information, exchange programmes - previously offered to Indonesia. Britain's role in Latin America should not be limited to commerce, Mr Lloyd argues. "The British have a reputation for standards and values," he says. That could translate into a greater British, and European, influence in a region which has always been keen to see counterweights to American hegemony.

In any case, he will be pressed for his views about the enlargement of the UN Security Council, which could be expanded to include a new Latin American member. Mr Lloyd will not be drawn on British interests in this matter, but he does say: "Brazil is increasingly a political power, and one with which Britain should develop a proper relationship."

Always hanging over British links with Latin America is the sovereignty dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Mr Lloyd denies this hinders British relations and is relatively optimistic about getting on with Argentina. It was Lord Garel-Jones, with his fine understanding of the subtleties of the problem, who helped broker the agreement that restored diplomatic ties between London and Buenos Aires in 1991. Since then, bilateral agreements have been struck, talks are going on over oil and gas exploration in the South Atlantic, and a visit to London by the Argentine President, Carlos Menem, is under discussion.

There are even fresh hints that a deal might be emerging that would end the Falklands dispute, allowing for a full rapprochement between Britain and Argentina. But for most of those in Britain who love Latin America, it will be enough that at last the region is starting to receive its fair share of government attention.

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