Venezuela’s OECS initiative
Stabroek News. December 3, 2008 @ 5:01 am In Editorial
News that the Government of Venezuela has sought membership of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) will have come as a surprise to most people. That Venezuela has had a long interest in the Eastern Caribbean islands is well known. Governments of whatever political stripe – Accion Democratica or the Christian Democratic Party, sent representatives to the islands soon after they attained Associated Statehood status from the United Kingdom, as a half-way house to the independence. With independence full embassies were established in most of the states.
In the 1970s and 1980s Venezuelan governments took an active interest in the countries, offering economic assistance of various kinds, seeking to have their private sector find a place in the countries’ import patterns, and to some extent seeking active investment opportunities. With the rise of the Windward Islands banana industries for example, a joint venture was established between the Venezuelan private sector and the Windward Islands governments to provide boxes and packaging materials for that business. The enterprise still survives. The Venezuelan national airline soon began moving through the islands, reflecting an early Venezuelan interest in gaining a part of the transport business in the anglophone Caribbean. And in 1975, it was the St Lucian Prime Minister John Compton, who, in the face of difficulty in finding regional solutions to the problems of LIAT not dissimilar to those that exist today, led a delegation to Venezuela, seeking and obtaining assistance that led to the consolidation of the airline as LIAT (1975) Limited.
The second half of the 1970s into the ’80s saw an active interest by Venezuela’s Accion Democratica’s President Carlos Andres Perez in the social democratic orientations which some of the English-speaking islands were taking, including the casting of a wary eye by Andres Perez on the People’s Revolutionary Government’s Marxist orientation in Grenada. It was no secret that, in those days, Venezuelan governments were as concerned about what was developing in Grenada in much the same manner as Dr Eric Williams was. They adopted, like the Trinidad Prime Minister a watching, though muted, eye on that country. Further, a certain dual interest of the two main political parties began to emerge in Venezuela as many Caribbean parties and governments divided themselves between the Socialist International and the Christian Democratic Party organization of Europe. And in 1990, when the attempted Muslimeen coup against Mr ANR Robinson’s government in Trinidad occurred, President Perez, into his second term of office, sought consultations with representatives of Caricom governments on the morrow of the Caricom Heads of Government held in Jamaica.
One sticky matter has, since the 1970s, stuck out in relations between governments of Venezuela and the smaller islands of the region, this being the Venezuelan assertion of ownership of Aves or Bird Island in the north-east Caribbean. This act has been seen as compromising the extent of the external economic zones of some of the islands. To the island governments, a rigidity in the Venezuelan position on this question which included the latter country’s refusal to adhere to the new United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was a deliberate attempt at creating a situation of stalemate in relation to their own negotiating positions after independence. But of course, they were aware that the Venezuelan rigidity related not only to their concerns, but to those of her neighbour Colombia.
These small countries, however, were not unmindful of the fact that the United States also had not signed the UNCLOS, but that that country, along with France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands had gone ahead and signed delimitation agreements pertaining to the Caribbean Sea with Venezuela. The fact that the elephants have delimited the turf, unmindful of the concerns of the smaller animals, has not gone unremarked by the OECS countries which, despite periodic noises about Aves Island, appear to have largely accepted the status quo. They would of course have recognized the Cold War context of that delimitation, and the NATO countries’ concerns to put their own geopolitical concerns above those of the small island-states of the neighbourhood. In that context, it is not surprising that larger Caricom states, no doubt including Guyana, look somewhat askance at the OECS’s de facto stance on this matter; and that they have been further exercised by suggestions that Dominica, for example, is prepared to turn a blind eye to the Venezuelan position, in return for much needed aid. To use a favourite phrase of Dr Eric Williams, “If the [US-NATO] sheik could play, who is me!”
The recession that struck Venezuela in the ’90s, during the regime of Carlos Andres Perez muted Venezuelan diplomatic and economic-technical assistance in the OECS islands, and most representatives in the states almost, at one time, attained a kind of diplomatic invisibility. But it is, of course the rise of President Chávez which has raised the Venezuelan profile in the islands, as a result of what he might give Caribbean Basin states.
The President will have noted the long-standing Cuban presence in the form of diplomatic and technical personnel in the OECS states. But this presence was substantially ideologically neutralized after the overthrow of the PRG in Grenada, and the consequent lessened US concern about any ideological and political effects of Cuban influence after the dissolution of the world socialist system and the Soviet Union itself. The United States indeed raised its profile and grant of largesse in the OECS after the overthrow of the PRG, but there was a rapid diminution of this after the end of the Cold War.
From that period, it has undoubtedly been the case that the OECS states have felt neglected or ignored by the major powers, a situation exacerbated by Europe’s inability to maintain longstanding levels of banana exports from the Windward Islands, and aggravated by the Americans’ insistence on support for the Latin American case on ACP banana exports to Europe. The result has been a ‘catch-as-catch-can’ stance to foreign economic assistance – a stance which has once more come to include entreaties to an assertive Venezuela (recall that in the mid-1970s Dr Eric Williams pronounced strongly on the (to him) assertiveness of Venezuela in the Caribbean – though his barbs were thrown not at the smaller islands, but largely at Michael Manley’s Jamaica) – calling the Venezuelan policies a “threat to the Caribbean Community.”
Dr Williams spoke, at the time, in the context of a certain disarray among Caricom governments – in particular Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana – over what he thought were agreed plans for the joint use of the bauxite, natural gas and hydroelectric resources of Caricom, and Venezuela and Mexico’s proposal for a similar arrangement with Jamaica in particular.
It would not be far-fetched to say that the present Venezuelan ‘join OECS’ initiative comes in the midst of a not similar, but certainly a kind of Caricom disarray once again. One need hardly refer to the significance of the PetroCaribe, and in some measure the Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) initiatives for many Caricom states – large and small. Nor to what is apparently an increasing feeling among the OECS states that the arrangements made for a Caricom Single Market and Economy do not indicate much promise as far as their own economic development is concerned, and that consequently they feel somewhat on their own in the present big, bad world.
In more cohesive times, it could (or should) have been the case that the OECS, on receiving such a request from Venezuela, would after initial consideration, have announced that they would proceed to consult within the framework of Caricom on this matter. But this has not been said.
On the other hand, few would believe that the OECS states, even though flattered and buoyed by the Trinidad & Tobago approach for some form of economic union and political integration, would for one moment accept that they can play that game with Venezuela – under Chávez or anybody else.
This is the reality. And the sooner the Caricom states as a group seriously begin to ponder the significance of moves like that of Venezuela, or for that matter the aggressiveness with which the Dominican Republic approached the EPA matter, seeking allies to, in effect, outflank Caricom, the better it will be for the development of a meaningful approach to the wider Caribbean (including Venezuela) that takes account of the interests of all – large and small – collectively. We have waited long enough to establish a task force to examine Dominican Republic-Caricom relations. Venezuela is a hemispheric middle power which will, as the residue of colonialism wanes and an incoherent Caricom (in terms of both agreed objectives and cohesive governance) marks time, seek to assert itself. Chavez’s present initiative is, perhaps, a more energetic example of this.
So it is insufficient to, as Dr Williams did thirty years ago, froth at the mouth and imagine the evils that can come from Venezuela’s assertiveness. This will periodically wax and wane. Instead, energetic Caricom discussion, based on sound professional analysis, needs to be put in gear, whether or not the present initiative sees the light of day, or fades away.
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