Why Latin America matters to Britain

London 2012 will be remembered as an event that created pride and excitement in the UK, and gave us the chance to show what we do best. Now it is Brazil’s turn, and it is the turn of Latin America. The first Olympic Games on this continent may be overdue, but it is certainly a sign of the region’s growing international influence.

And Latin America really matters to the UK. During my visits to Brazil and Central America I have witnessed countries increasing in confidence, integrating themselves into the world economy, and willing to take the tough political and economic decisions necessary to boost competitiveness and growth. This is something that the UK welcomes and wishes to support.

That is why we are expanding our diplomatic network by establishing new Embassies – like the one I re-opened in El Salvador last year, the two we will open in Haiti and Paraguay later this year, and the Consulate General in Recife opened in 2011.

This growing network is evidence of what the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, announced would be the end of Britain’s diplomatic retreat from Latin America, and it helped create an 11% increase in UK exports to Latin America and the Caribbean during the first eleven months of 2012.

With growth rates of around 4% forecast for the next five years and a projected 8% share of the world economy by 2020, this region has a significant role to play in the global economic recovery. This is a market that British – and European – exporters cannot afford to ignore and that is why the UK Government and our business leaders have made Latin America a priority destination.

On foreign policy and global challenges we are increasing our engagement with partners in Latin America, as well as strengthening our traditional alliances. That includes working with Latin America countries on the UN Security Council. From climate change to UN Security Council Reform, the Middle East and international development, we are collaborating ever more to achieve common objectives.

But increasing our engagement does not begin and end with trade. It also encompasses education, science and innovation and tourism.

For example, 10,000 Brazilian students will come to the UK under President Dilma Rousseff’s flagship Science Without Borders programme, laying the foundations for relations with Brazil’s leaders of tomorrow.

In Mexico an English language teacher training programme, jointly funded by the British Council and Mexican state governments, will reach over two million children. And with Chile we have strong cooperation on science, innovation and the transfer of technology.

Strong and mutually-beneficial relations must be honest and open. There will always be areas where we choose to differ, but these are eclipsed by areas where we share interests and values. Human rights, for example, remain an important part of our dialogue and we applaud the effort of governments in the region to enhance these.

This dialogue is vital if we are to place UK relations with Latin American states on a stable foundation which supports universal values as well as mutual growth.

But we cannot ignore our relationship with Argentina, a country with the potential to be one of our strongest partners in the region. We should be able to work together, on issues from the G20 to climate change, counter proliferation and advancing human rights, and we are looking forward to working together on the UN Security Council.

But a full and friendly relationship cannot be at the expense of the human and political rights of the Falkland Islands’ people.  The UK will always support these rights, including the decision they make in their March referendum, and we hope others will too. Even if we disagree with Argentina on this, we should still be able to work together constructively on other regional and international issues, as we have done before.

I am proud to be the British Minister responsible for Latin America, and to be representing the UK at this week’s EU-CELAC Summit in Santiago.

It will be the 7th such Summit and the largest held between the EU and the region, with 27 European countries and 33 from Latin America and the Caribbean. I am excited to be visiting Chile for the first time, and am sure the Government of President Piñera and the people of Santiago will demonstrate the friendship and hospitality for which Chileans are famous.

This Summit is just one element underpinning the UK’s growing engagement in Latin America. Our relationships are strong and they have bound us together for centuries through trade, cultural and political links. I have no doubt they will continue to do so in the years to come.

Latin America’s growth benefits its people, it benefits the global economy, and it also benefits the UK.

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