While the world’s energies are distracted by the fight against COVID-19, the geopolitical agenda of the United States is unfolding on our doorsteps in the Caribbean Sea.
In Washington last week, the Trump administration announced that it was sending US Navy warships to the region on a drug-interdiction mission. This was no ordinary patrol but a massive deployment that included destroyers, littoral combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, reconnaissance and patrol planes. Not lost on anybody was the connection to the previous week’s US indictment of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and 14 members of his team on charges of drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, corruption and money laundering.
The US State Department followed up with a US$15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s capture and prosecution and US$10 million for each of four senior Venezuelan officials.
With the Caribbean in lockdown, the US calculation of an opportunity for military action in an area described as a “zone of peace” is chilling. Caribbean leaders managing the COVID-19 pandemic will be hard-put to protect their countries against the threat of becoming casualties to superpower interests and ambitions. Even without COVID-19, however, it is doubtful that the Caribbean is in any position to defend the sovereignty of the Caribbean Sea. That right was surrendered over two decades ago when several Caribbean countries, including the Basdeo Panday administration of T&T, bilaterally signed on to the Shiprider Agreement, waiving their countries’ primary right to jurisdiction by granting to the US the right to enter the region in pursuit of drug traffickers.
Accused by critics of surrendering T&T’s sovereignty to the US, Basdeo Panday argued the need for a modern 21st century definition of sovereignty and famously quipped, “where is your sovereignty when the drug barons are in charge?”
What little semblance of unity existed within Caricom fell apart as Caricom countries lined up to sign the agreement which some argued was in breach of Articles 12 and 16 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. Only Jamaica and Barbados resisted although they, too, eventually signed after negotiating somewhat different terms.
Today, Shiprider is back in the news and stirring new controversy following the US Coast Guard’s arrest of four Jamaican fishermen under the agreement, and amid signals that the US is about to move on Maduro on the basis of drug interdiction. The Jamaican case centres around whether individuals lose their rights when they are prosecuted under a government-to-government arrangement.
Faced with public outrage over the fishermen’s allegations of human rights abuses by the US Coast Guard the Jamaican government has promised to review the protocols and procedures for implementing the Shiprider Agreement.
More urgent, however, is the gathering storm over the Caribbean Sea as the US Southern Command sets its sights on Venezuela just next door to Trinidad and Tobago. The surrender of sovereignty under Shiprider puts the Caribbean at a scary disadvantage against the military muscle of any superpower intent on having its way. With the odds against us, a united Caribbean speaking to the world with one voice may be our only chance to avoid getting dragged into a dangerous situation. However, for that, the Caribbean will have to achieve the rare feat of unity.