IN Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, the late Jamaican historian Colin Palmer was reviewing the atmosphere in 1961 around discussions for a freedom of movement principle as part of the West Indies Federation.
He said the country’s premier, Dr Eric Williams, was nervous and opposed to the idea, fearing what he saw as unnecessary “population pressures” on the local economy and society. He cited figures produced for the years between 1958 and 1960, in which 6,046 Grenadian nationals had moved to Trinidad, compared with 3,083 who had gone to the UK. From St Vincent and the Grenadines, 4,106 nationals came here, while a quarter of that amount, 1,452, went to Britain. Overall, Palmer said, Williams estimated that 7,500 West Indians migrated to Trinidad in that period. As was the case then as it is now, the matter became a political issue, the opposition propagating the narrative that Williams imported people from those islands to strengthen his voting base.
A significant departure, strictly on the issue of political posturing, is in effect now, with the current Government inappropriately applying an immigration law in a largely failing attempt to shut out desperate Venezuelans. This is in the face of an expanding humanitarian crisis brought on by international sanctions against galloping dictatorship and brutal curtailment of civil rights and liberties.
The T&T government’s mantra is that the country just cannot absorb the numbers of Venezuelans who keep coming, literally, through hell and high water, risking everything in their quest for a presumed better life.
Under unrelenting pressure from local and international humanitarian agencies, the Government mounted a registration exercise in June 2019, under which it said more than 16,000 displaced Venezuelans had signed up. This was originally to have been for a period of six months but it turned into one year and counting. It is much more than a bet that as the boatloads keep coming, the numbers of Venezuelans in T&T more than quadruple those who have been accounted for.
Now a move by Colombia to offer residency status to one million Venezuelans is said to offer a new template for others in the region to make even better use of the opportunities said to be inherent in such a gesture.
Rather than choking the social system, overwhelming the economy and overburdening the delivery apparatus, the “Colombian model” is being heralded as what can be a win-win for the refugees and migrants, equally as for the host country.
Luisa Feline Freier is an assistant professor and researcher on migration at a university in Peru. Writing in the current issue of Americas Quarterly, she says the Colombian decision could be a template for other countries in the region. The principle calls for a registration and regularisation programme covering ten years.
This will allow those in the programme to establish proper residences, create businesses which will boost employment, lessen the burden on the state and increase tax collection. In putting her finger into the wound on this issue, she points to a fundamental indicator that can be applied to the posture of T&T. Prior to coming to this juncture, she says, Colombia had “refused to recognise the crisis in Venezuela for what it is, for political reasons, and this made it impossible to recognise migrants as refugees in need of protection.”
How many times have we been encouraged to accept that there are no refugees in T&T, “only economic migrants”?
Take the case of Manuel Romero, a former judge of 15 years’ experience at the High Court of Industry in Venezuela. In a webinar discussion organised by the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights in Port of Spain last week, I asked him to describe the situation which led him to flee with his family. He referred to instances in which he would be called by someone purporting to be an agent of the government. He would be asked to deliver a judgment in a matter in accordance with what the government wanted. “If you think differently, you have plenty problems with the government. The government has a secret service.... They would call you, they would tell you they know where members of your family are. The government has taken a big mall in Caracas and converted it into a kind of court, and they use it for killing people. You need to have good relations with the government, if you want to stay in Venezuela,” he said.
Meanwhile, the issue in Haiti, where opposition forces have moved to topple the current president, cries out for urgent attention. The Gleaner newspaper has called on Caricom to take urgent steps to address it. The latest Caricom update is dated February 11. The opening sentence reads: “The Caribbean Community continues to monitor very closely, and views with deep concern, developments in Haiti.”
The current Caricom chair is the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago whose Government is on record as having popularised the notion that “whoever answers the phone” is the person in charge.
• Andy Johnson is
a veteran journalist