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The Tories’ War on Progressive Latin America

Cosying up to Bolsonaro, supporting coup d'états and facilitating crackdowns on human rights - the Tory record in Latin America today tells you why they were so willing to make friends with Pinochet.

On 9 November 2010, the new Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a speech at London’s Canning House, lamenting the loss of British influence and prestige in Latin America. Hague set out a plan, known as the Canning Agenda, to restore that influence.

The Canning Agenda contained the seeds of a British neo-colonial project, encompassing both trade and defence strategy, with oil and mining interests at its core. At the time, this project contrasted sharply with the “pink tide” governments and the resurgence of resource nationalism on the continent.

Nine years after Hague’s speech, we can assess the impact of his agenda on the region. From Brazil to Bolivia, Honduras to Colombia, the effect of British government policy has been to undermine democracy and assist those responsible for major violations of human rights.

Boosting Bolsonaro

Over the past decade — particularly since the removal of elected President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the subsequent rise of Jair Bolsonaro — the UK government has shown a keen interest in Brazil’s raw materials. Building on the groundwork of his unelected predecessor Michel Temer, Bolsonaro has opened Brazilian resources up to international capital like never before.

Bolsonaro publicly congratulated Boris Johnson upon his election as Tory leader, and said that his government could “count on Brazil in the pursuit of free trade, the promotion of prosperity for our peoples, and the defence of freedom and democracy.”

In 2019 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other shadow cabinet members drew attention to the Tories’ “cosy” relationship with the Bolsonaro government. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas also probed Johnson on the fires engulfing the Amazon, to which the Prime Minister responded: “I would be reluctant to encourage any measure now that did anything to reduce trade, and free trade around the world and it’s much better to support the re-forestation of Brazil in the way that we are.” He then reiterated the cosmetic donation of £10 million to Brazil, a country with US$358 billion in offshore reserves.

The Conservative Government’s relationship with Jair Bolsonaro did not, however, begin with his election. We have first-hand information that the FCO was in contact with Bolsonaro and allies as early as 2014. Then Ambassador Alex Ellis also appeared in public with far-right, pro-Bolsonaro media personalities, such as TV host Danilo Gentili.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has delayed its response to a freedom of information request about its communications with Bolsonaro before his election, as well as correspondence with Brazilian finance minister Paulo Guedes. Following months of stalling, that response is now due after December 12th.

Bolsonaro, a racist, homophobic misogynist, who once eulogised the American cavalry for its genocide of the continent’s indigenous people, came to power in transparently dubious circumstances. Bolsonaro’s main opponent Lula da Silva, who was on course to win, had been jailed on trumped-up charges to stop him from running.

The British government had no qualms about any of this. Asked how they planned to deal with Bolsonaro, Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan was most enthusiastic: 

“The Prime Minister has written to President-elect Bolsonaro. Our ambassador in Brazil has seen him, many of the future Ministers and the transition team, and we look forward to working very closely with Brazil in the time ahead.”

The same month, Daniel Kawczynski MP was approached by a constituent about Early Day Motion (EDM) 1854, urging him to support the House of Commons registration of concern about the election of Bolsonaro.

Kawczynski responded: “I recognise your concerns but I must be clear that President-elect Bolsonaro received a mandate from the Brazilian people. It is not for the UK Government to interfere in the democratic processes of another country.” While 68 members of parliament signed the early day motion denouncing Bolsonaro, not a single Conservative MP was present.

Kawcynski’s focus on Brazil, with its own enormous oil wealth, seemed to begin in 2013. In January that year, Kawcynski asked William Hague in the Commons about the “steps [which] British embassies are taking to lobby foreign governments to create fair markets, absent of corruption.”

A bogus and now thoroughly discredited “anti-corruption” inquiry, Operation Lava Jato, was the main lever used to oust Dilma Rousseff and block Lula da Silva from running. The Foreign Office and the UK oil industry helped fund Transparency International, an NGO that gave steadfast support to Lava Jato, and helped it secure global visibility. The FCO also donates $1 million every year to the Atlantic Council, a security think tank that cheered on Lava Jato and Rousseff’s impeachment. 

British legal firms such as Hogan Lovells played their part as well. The firm’s website boasts of “undertaking an internal investigation of Eletrobras, the largest electric company in Brazil, of allegations related to the Petrobras ‘Lava Jato’ scandal”.

Reaping the Rewards

Shortly after Dilma Rousseff’s removal in 2016, Liam Fox jetted off to meet the new government. Britain opened a fresh consulate in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais, where Brazilian mining operations are historically located. Another Tory minister, Liz Truss, paid a visit to the country in April 2018, six months before Bolsonaro’s election victory, “talking free trade, free markets and post-Brexit opportunities” (as Truss herself put it). 

Truss met with Brazilian officials to encourage “an open economy and privatisation”. She praised the think tank Instituto Milenium, claiming that it was committed to “free speech and free markets”. Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s finance minister, is one of Instituto Milenium’s founders. He has led the drive to sell off Brazilian assets to foreign investors at a knockdown price. We have submitted another freedom of information request for information about what else Truss was doing on her trip to Brazil, but that has been stalled as well. 

Some documents have come to light, however, because of an accidental leak. Trade minister Greg Hands was caught lobbying the Temer government in 2018, asking for tax breaks on behalf of Shell and BP. Hands also represented British companies at separate events on energy, mining and water. In August 2019, another trade minister, Conor Burns, met with the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, to discuss security and surveillance assistance. Figures released in November showed that Rio security officers had already killed over 1,500 people this year, surpassing the total for 2018. 

The investment and security conditions in Brazil seem to be paying dividends for British business. By 2018, Shell and BP — with whom the UK ambassador to Brazil has met over twenty times since 2017 — had already accumulated 13.5 billion barrels of its oil, more than Brazil’s own Petrobras, for a fraction of the cost.

British companies have also invested heavily in biofuels. BP owns the largest biofuel plant in Brazil, and Shell has many investments such as the Raízen biofuels joint venture. Long depicted as environmentally friendly, biofuel production is in fact responsible for deforestation and pollution. Its heavy use of resources contributed to the São Paulo water crisis of 2014, which caused mass shortages.

Humanitarian Intervention?

In September, the UK government pledged £40 million of “humanitarian assistance” to Venezuela, £30 million of which was to be sent to organisations inside the country. The announcement seemed to have been coordinated with an additional pledge of $120 million of “humanitarian assistance” by the US State Department of State shortly before. However, there is zero transparency about where this money is going. In response to an FOI request, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) stated: “We are withholding the details of those organisations we are supporting inside Venezuela.” 

This is cause for concern, since ostensibly neutral NGOs have long been involved in regime-change operations in Venezuela, financed by auxiliaries of the US government like the National Endowment for Democracy. In contrast to the paltry £40million of supposed “humanitarian assistance”, the Bank of England froze £1.3bn in Venezuelan gold reserves in February of this year — a sure sign that the British government was trying to destabilise the government of Nicolas Maduro.

The Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó has appointed businesswoman Vanessa Neumann as his UK representative. In 2017, Neumann told the CIA director Mike Pompeo that she was “interested in your open assessment on American interests in or threats from Venezuela”, adding that “regime change looks to be — we hope — imminent”. She recently described the military coup against Bolivian president Evo Morales as “a big inspiration”. 

In September 2019 (some months after being appointed ambassador), a leaked recording showed Neumann “on tape offering to relinquish Venezuela’s historic claim [of Essequibo] in exchange for backing from London.” In the recording, Neumann references conversations with the British FCO and Guyana’s high commissioner, stating that the Foreign Office “won’t support [Guaido’s efforts to overthrow Maduro]” unless concessions are pledged on the issue of Essequibo. 

When asked in an FOI request about meetings with Neumann and discussions about Essequibo, however, the Foreign Office responded that “the information… requested is not held by this Department.” Was Neumann overstating her ties with the UK Foreign Office, or was the Foreign Office holding off-the-record meetings with members of the Venezuelan opposition, discussing territorial claims that originate in Britain’s colonial era?

British interests in Venezuelan oil and the frontier dispute with Essequibo are longstanding. According to declassified Foreign Office documents from 1974, among Britain’s main priorities in Venezuela were the “protection of Shell’s access to Venezuelan oil… We should protect, as far as we are able Shell’s continued access to Venezuelan oil.” The Foreign Office also noted with caution that “the effect of nationalistic Venezuelan legislation needs careful watching.”

At this time, British officials were also watching the border dispute over the Essequibo closely: “The quarrel over the Guyana frontier and general suspicion of Britain as a former colonial power has led Venezuela to join our critics in the UN and the Organisation of American States. It must nevertheless be an objective of our policy to soften the Venezuelan attitude over Guyana.” 

Elsewhere, Neumann thanked former foreign office minister Alan Duncan for his support. “It has been an honor to work with you, Sir Alan Duncan,” posted Neumann. Yet according to another FOI request to the Foreign Office, there is no record of Neumann’s meetings with Duncan. In other words, the Foreign Office appears to have kept zero records of its correspondence with a supposed ambassador.

Celebrating the Coups

On 10 November, a military coup ousted the Bolivian president Evo Morales after unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud and weeks of violent protest. The unelected Senator Jeanine Áñez, whose party gained less than 5 percent at the ballot box, replaced Morales, representing a coalition of Christian fundamentalists, the far right, and separatist factions from Santa Cruz.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet denounced the “disproportionate use of force by the army and police”, after massacres of anti-coup protesters and other abuses by state security forces throughout Bolivia. 

But the Foreign Office merely issued the following statement:

“The United Kingdom congratulates Jeanine Áñez on taking on her new responsibilities as interim President of Bolivia. We welcome Ms Áñez’s appointment and her declared intention to hold elections soon. Free and fair elections will rebuild confidence in democracy for the Bolivian people. We look to all political parties to support efforts to restore calm following recent violence and to organise fresh presidential elections in accordance with the Constitution.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s response could not have been more different:

“To see [Evo Morales] who, along with a powerful movement, has brought so much social progress forced from office by the military is appalling. I condemn this coup against the Bolivian people and stand with them for democracy, social justice and independence.”

Of course, this was far from the first time the UK had found itself on the side of coups in Latin America. After the US-backed coup of 2009, Honduras became one of the world’s most dangerous nations for political activists. The post-coup regime has been implicated in massive human rights violations, including the assassination of high-profile environmental activist Berta Caceres.

In the year leading up to the 2017 Honduran election, which was widely denounced as fraudulent, the British government approved the sale of spyware to the country’s government. The export licences for spyware, plus decryption technology and other equipment associated with surveillance and eavesdropping, were followed by a major crackdown on protest. Following the election, the Honduran security services killed, detained, and intimidated scores of activists.

As Labour MP Lloyd Russell Moyle, who sits on the Westminster committee for arms export control, told Alborada Magazine:

“The British government has sold Honduras monitoring and decrypting technology expressly designed to eavesdrop on its citizens, months before the state rounded up hundreds of people in a well-orchestrated surveillance operation. British law is unambiguous. It says that the government cannot licence arms to nations that repress their own people. Before the government licensed these weapons it knew that the security services of Honduras were killing environmentalists, gay people and anyone in general who disagreed with them with impunity. It knew that the country had no independent judiciary, and it knew that Honduras’s deadly prisons are filled with people who have not faced justice, and many of whom are unfree due to their political beliefs.”

In Colombia, too, where right-wing death squads have played a notorious role in politics for decades, the Tories have a worrying record.

In 2016, Theresa May held talks at Downing Street with Colombia’s then-president Juan Manuel Santos about a post-Brexit free trade agreement. During his stint as Colombian defence minister some years earlier, Santos presided over the “false positives” scandal: the state security forces murdered an estimated 10,000 civilians in cold blood and dressed their bodies in guerrilla uniforms so that they could be presented as battlefield kills.

In June of this year, May met with the current Colombian president Iván Duque, for talks about “strengthening trade and investment”. Under Duque, a hard-right extremist, Colombia still has one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.

Since 1989, British government support for Colombia has included training from the SAS and substantial arms sales to military forces responsible for major atrocities. A 2011 foreign affairs committee report on the FCO’s human rights work concluded that “oil exploration and extraction in undemocratic countries almost invariably leads to increased human rights abuses, escalating conflict and repression, and entrenchment of undemocratic regimes.”

It referred to Colombia as an example. Until 2010, BP had major oil investments in the country, and was shown to have cooperated with a Colombian army unit responsible for massacring civilians. 

A Fatal Choice

The last decade of Conservative policy towards Latin America shows that no coup is too violent, no regime too repressive, and no business venture too destructive for the British government to support. We can identify the development of a foreign policy that has contributed to the destruction of human rights, a habitable climate, and sovereignty across the continent — harking back to a colonial mentality that refuses to die in the corridors of Whitehall. The harm done by this policy is inversely proportional to official transparency about it.

The coming election thus offers us a clear choice: complicity in a wave of human suffering with the Conservatives, or the potential for an internationalist and anti-imperialist policy with Labour. To be sure, winning the election will only be the start of the battle for Britain’s foreign policy. Yet for many, it may very well be a fatal choice.

About the Author

John McEvoy is an independent journalist whose work has featured in Jacobin, Brasil Wire and the International History Review.

Daniel Hunt is a founding editor of Brasil Wire.

Nathália Urban is a Brazilian journalist who writes about Latin America for the website Ungagged.