Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

UNITED States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo passed through Kingston last week, meeting Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and a mixed bag of five Caribbean foreign ministers. Why? Venezuela again.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guiadó was on his own whirlwind tour. After Pompeo in Colombia on Sunday, he met Boris Johnson in London on Tuesday, the EU in Brussels on Wednesday, and on Thursday addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Also on Tuesday, Guaidó’s Caracas office was raided by black-clad, hooded and armed members of Nicolás Maduro’s security and intelligence service.

Since January last year, Guaidó has been recognised as Venezuela’s president by the US and more than 50 other countries.

But where it counts, which is in Caracas, Nicolás Maduro remains firmly in control. The economy is in collapse – a cup of coffee costs 60,000 bolivars, up from just 800 a year ago. Working class families struggle to find food. Refugees pour across the borders – a trickle to T&T and Guyana, a flood into Colombia. US sanctions have cut oil exports by one-third.

But Maduro clings on, supported by his security forces, by Russia, and by China.

As for Guaidó, frequent flier miles do not a president make. Indeed, perhaps the opposite. He defied a court-ordered travel ban to start his overseas trip, and may have difficulty getting back into his own country.

“Recognising” a would-be government can create difficulties. The US refused to “recognise” China’s communist government for 30 years after it took control in 1949. We know how that ended. Maduro runs the show in Caracas. Day to day, we have to deal with him. How long will he stick around? My guess would be anything between five minutes and five years. Who takes over? It may not be Guaidó.

Talking of China, one product of Pompeo’s Jamaica jaunt was another row with Beijing. He cautioned Caribbean countries against “easy money from places like China,” which “feeds corruption and undermines your rule of law,” investments which “ruin your environment and don’t create jobs.”

Jamaica’s Chinese ambassador hit back: “Some US politicians cannot go anywhere without attacking China, tarnishing China’s reputation, starting fires and fanning the flames, and sowing discord.”

Back to business. A key aim of the Kingston meeting was to line up support for OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who has taken a strong line against Maduro and is up for re-election in March. Caricom members hold 14 of the 34 votes. But Antigua and St Vincent have already backed Almagro’s Ecuadorian rival, María Fernanda Espinosa.

It’s not clear who was invited to Kingston. Holness implied on Wednesday that the meeting was open to anyone signalling a wish to attend. Besides T&T, some star players were absent. From Barbados, Caricom’s current chair, Prime Minister Mia Mottley scented an attempt to split the grouping. She said “I don’t look to pick fights, but...if this country does not stand for something, then it will fall for anything.”

Guyana, Caricom’s emerging Abu Dhabi, was not there – after shipping its first million-barrel oil cargo on Monday. Guyana has a long, porous land border with Venezuela, and a territorial dispute.

Also absent was St Vincent, which this month started its two-year stint on the UN Security Council – and whose Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves is a staunch Maduro ally. Antigua, Dominica, Grenada and Suriname were not there either. Belize was listed in Jamaican media as attending, but I have seen no reports that they went. Belizean Nestor Mendez is currently Assistant Secretary General under Almagro, and also up for re-election. Netherlands St Maarten, oddly, was on some attendance lists.

Playing host, Jamaica’s Andrew Holness received star billing last year for his successful IMF programme. Pompeo talked positively of US-Caribbean links, and Jamaican leadership in “the economic, prosperity, security zone that is this region.” But Jamaica’s US relations do not always run smooth. Daryl Vaz, minister for land, environment, climate change and investments, had his US visa cancelled last year. Asked about this, Pompeo just said “I can’t respond in the specific.”

Who else was there?

Haiti’s foreign minister Bocchit Edmond had a one-to-one. Ten years on from the January 2010 earthquake, his country has its own problems with democracy. Elections due in October last year were postponed indefinitely, while President Jovenel Moïse and his allies dream up a new constitution with increased presidential powers. He faced a storm of protest last year over alleged misuse of Venezuelan PetroCaribe funds.

The St Kitts-Nevis foreign minister dismissed Mia as “unnecessary noise,” and went to Kingston – with a smaller population than Sangre Grande, but a full vote in the OAS. St Lucia was there too. Oddly, both remain members of Venezuela’s ALBA alliance, on paper at least. The Bahamas was also represented. So that was five from Caricom, including Jamaica.

And there was the Dominican Republic – unquestionably a Caribbean country, but not a Caricom member.

Venezuela is in deep trouble. The outcome of the current crisis could be a worse mess.

For T&T, it’s right next door, and we want that cross-border gas. The US wants Maduro out, but can’t seem to get there. Caricom needs one clear strategy, not 14. This week’s meeting leaves us far from those goals, and with time running out.


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