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British MPs visit Bolivia in support of closer relations

In early March 2016, I led a cross-party delegation to La Paz, Bolivia, for a week-long visit. Our delegation comprised of myself, Chairman of the Latin American APPG, Diana Johnson MP (Labour), Shadow Foreign Office minister responsible for Latin America, Mark Menzies MP (Conservative) and Nic Dakin MP (Labour), Shadow Minister for Schools. We were accompanied by BGIPU staff member Anja Richter. The arrangement of our programme relied a great deal on the able and helpful support of the British Embassy led by Ambassador James Thornton and DHM Chris Wall. Though a small team with just two British diplomats, the embassy punches above its weight.

In terms of national politics, Bolivia’s parliament is relatively weak. Real power lies with the President Evo Morales and in the vast network of social movements (for everyone from entrepreneurs to miners, coca farmers and teachers) which the governing party MAS (Movement for Socialism) seeks to absorb but which influences government more by street protest than parliamentary debate. When the miners had marched through La Paz with dynamite aloft, concessions were quickly made.

Evo Morales’ Bolivia is a country transformed for the better since he took office in 2006. Buoyed by the commodities boom and after nationalising much of the energy sector he has been able to invest heavily in infrastructure, sustain the highest economic growth in Latin America and deliver dramatic reductions in poverty. Debt is just 17% of GDP. As the first indigenous president he has championed rural communities and coca farmers like himself. Fiercely anti-American he expelled the US ambassador in 2008 along with the Drug Enforcement Agency. Much of government rhetoric is Marxist although the MAS is more a vehicle for President Morales than a true alliance of the left.

Arriving at the airport of El Alto on 5th March at 4,100 metres, we quickly felt the severe impact of the altitude, but thankfully the whole delegation coped well throughout the week in La Paz, which is only slightly lower at about 3,600 metres. Lack of capacity at the Bolivian parliament meant that the main responsibility for arranging most of the programme was in government hands. This was echoed in our first meeting on Monday, when we met with the President of the Senate, Jose Gonzalez Saramiego, who explained to us the “close relationship” of the legislature with the executive and the overweening influence of President Evo Morales.

In the afternoon we headed uphill to El Alto, once part of La Paz but today Bolivia’s second biggest city (after Santa Cruz) with an overwhelmingly indigenous population of about a million inhabitants. There we met the young mayor Soledad Chapetón, who is from the main opposition ‘National Unity Front’ party. Just weeks before our visit El Alto’s town hall had been attacked during a social movement protest, firebombed and seen six staff killed.

While in El Alto we also met with Save the Children, who took us to the Commandante Ernesto Che Guevara school, where they encourage healthy eating and better standards of hygiene. On arrival, hundreds of children, including some in Che Guevara berets, waved the Bolivian and Union Jack flags and gave us a tumultuous and warm welcome.

Back in our hotel in La Paz, we hosted a dinner for NGO representatives from Christian Aid, Plan International, UN Women and Fundacion Construir. We learned that foreign NGOs are treated with suspicion by the government and at least one Danish NGO had been expelled, with the result that NGOs appear to engage in self-censorship.

On Tuesday morning we met the Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca and his two vice ministers. The minister said that he hoped that this visit could presage the rekindling of the flame of friendship between our two countries. He was also keen to explain the importance of native wisdom and the fact that Bolivia is home to more than 400 varieties of potato. He was less clear on Bolivia’s priorities if, as seems likely, it becomes a member of the UN Security Council next year. Other topics included Bolivia’s longstanding call for sovereign access to the sea through Chile. Such is the level of dispute between the countries over this issue that they have no formal relationship. I joined the Foreign Minister for a press conference after our meeting and both of us expressed our hope for closer relations between Bolivia and the UK, not least in trade and investment.

Following that we met with the fluent English speaking Planning minister, Dr Rene Orellana, who is responsible for the government’s six year $48 billion investment plan. Here we discussed opportunities for UK companies to tender for infrastructure contracts in health, transport, education and energy. He suggested that he would visit the UK in June and would welcome opportunities to meet UK companies and universities who could contribute to Bolivia’s social and economic development. After lunch at the British Embassy, where we had the opportunities to engage with staff members, we spent the afternoon meeting with the Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee and parliamentarians from both Houses, with whom we talked about a broad range of issues.

On Wednesday morning we had a series of meetings with representatives of the social movements, the state-owned petrol company YPFB, and an official from the education ministry. We had lunch with the US Charge D’Affaires and his economic advisor, with whom we discussed the differing assessments of coca production in Bolivia, among other topics. In the afternoon we met with the Chamber of Commerce to get a better insight into the private sector in Bolivia, followed by a briefing by Timothy Torlot, Head of the EU mission to Bolivia. The EU is the biggest donor to Bolivia, and the mission is often regarded as a model for other EU representations. The day was rounded off by a well-attended reception at the British residence, where we had the chance to engage further with civil society, business representatives, and the diplomatic community.

An early start on Thursday took us to the Yungas region near La Paz, where the EU mission had organised for us to see some of their supported projects encouraging coca farmers to grow alternative crops. Despite continuous pouring rain, we met with bee-keepers and coffee growers, and were fascinated to see the changing landscape going down from about 4,000 to about 1,700 metres in the village of Coroico, where we learned about the various projects in the region and engaged with the local community.

The long journey home from La Paz included a 9 hour stopover in Bogota, Colombia, which I used to meet with the President of the Andean Parliament, while the rest of the delegation was hosted by Ambassador Peter Tibber in his residence, who gave them an excellent overview of the current situation in Colombia and the bilateral relationship with the UK. Tired but with many new valuable impressions and an enhanced knowledge about Bolivia we arrived back in London on Saturday. Our thanks go to the British Embassy in La Paz and BGIPU for all their efforts in arranging the visit.

Graham Stuart MP