Jamaica, Venezuela, OAS and Caricom

BY STEPHEN VASCIANNIE

Saturday, May 28, 2016

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Many
years ago, I came across a University of the West Indies Scholarship Examination question which called upon candidates to comment on the role of geography and history in determining Caribbean development. I was struck by the broad sweep of this question, and by the fact that it allowed students to pull together various strands of intellectual thought in the assessment of Caribbean development.




GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY


This question came back to me in recent days following the visit of President Nicholas Maduro to Jamaica, and in light of Prime Minister Holness’s promise to establish a commission chaired by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, to consider Jamaica’s relationship with the Caribbean Community (Caricom). Both developments may be viewed through the prism of geography and history.


To begin with, Jamaica’s geographical location and our historical ties, taken together, present us with a conundrum in relation to Venezuela. Our location in the northern Caribbean, firmly between North and South America, and 90 miles from Cuba, requires us to be mindful of hemispheric relations largely addressed by the Organization of American States (OAS). We respect the sovereign decisions of our regional neighbours, but we encourage each of them to respect principles of the OAS such as adherence to individual rights and recognition of human dignity.


At the same time, our history — involving anglophone colonialism, migratory patterns, cold war connections, anti-imperialist sentiment, democratic values and traditional economic relationships — has sometimes prompted us to look in various directions in determining Jamaican foreign policy. Here again, we respect sovereign decisions of our neighbours, but encourage them to respect strictures arising from international law.


The conundrum arises when friends in our neighbourhood disagree with each other. Geography and history tell us that we must try to be friendly with both sides to a disagreement, and if we cannot be, then we may have to mind our own business. Sometimes, however, this type of fence-sitting is not an option.




VALUABLE PETROCARIBE


The Government of Venezuela has been a magnanimous friend of Jamaica. The PetroCaribe Agreement, which is the economic centrepiece of Venezuelan assistance to Jamaica, is built on the principle that we shall have access to Venezuelan petroleum products at concessionary rates. The website of the PetroCaribe Development Fund indicates the main elements of the arrangement
(www.petrocaribejm.org/overview).


In essence, when the market price of oil exceeds $40 per barrel, the monetary value representing between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of each sale is loaned to the Government of Jamaica. This loan is to be repaid over a period of 25 years at the rate of 1 per cent per annum. Where the market price of oil is below $40, the monetary value representing between 5 per cent and 25 per cent of each sale is available to the Government of Jamaica as a loan for 17 years at 2 per cent. In either case, therefore, Jamaica receives a loan from Venezuela on concessionary terms.


The funding derived from the PetroCaribe arrangements may be used for a variety of socially useful purposes, through the PetroCaribe Development Fund. These include, among other things, infrastructural improvement, promoting economic growth and refinancing public sector debt.


In the area of education, the PetroCaribe Fund reports, for instance, that it has contributed more than J$1 billion to the Students’ Loan Fund and over $200 million to scholarships for 50 students. Given Jamaica’s social needs, the country’s energy situation and its skewed debt-to-GDP ratio, PetroCaribe has promoted stability in the midst of choppy waters.




INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM


Magnanimous though it has been to Jamaica and some other Caribbean countries, Venezuela has been vulnerable to international criticism in recent times. For one thing, some opponents of the Government of Nicolas Maduro have been imprisoned — at least apparently — for political reasons. The Venezuelan Government has also opposed an amnesty for certain political prisoners passed by the Venezuelan National Assembly in March 2016, and, in the view of some critics, the Supreme Court has simply rubber-stamped the position taken by the Maduro Administration.


For another, the widely publicised economic hardships now faced by the Venezuelan populace have — again at least — prompted allegations that the president’s management style and his political pronouncements are not always suitable for the challenges. The Venezuelan economy has been severely undermined by falling oil prices, and this, together with water problems and other difficulties, has brought about widespread shortages and exacerbated deficiencies in the delivery of social services.


In some respects, it is difficult to ascertain precisely what is happening in Venezuela. The Maduro Administration has, from time to time, suggested or implied that the Government has had to contend with Western imperialist pressures, and there have been high profile charges and countercharges between Washington DC and Caracas. We may take it as given, therefore, that the USA and Venezuela will seek to ascribe blame to each other for a variety of matters.


But, even if we conclude that the USA is strongly opposed to the Maduro Administration, this does not tell us whether the criticisms are wrong or right. And, over the last two weeks or so, President Maduro has added to his challenges by entering into a rhetorical fight with the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro Lemes.




OAS ARGUMENT


Secretary General Almagro has called upon the Venezuelan president to respect the decision of the Venezuelan National Assembly to hold a referendum later this year concerning Maduro’s tenure in office. In response, Maduro has argued that the referendum is not obligatory, and could take place in 2017. To some extent, this is an issue for the Venezuelan political arena.


Significantly, though, Secretary General Almagro has argued that if Maduro does not respect the will of the people, he will be akin to a "petty dictator, like so many this hemisphere has had" (quotation from the
Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2016). And in a further response, President Maduro has condemned the OAS secretary general: "Almagro is a long- time traitor… a CIA agent."


Naturally, Secretary General Almagro, who was, until last year, foreign minister of Uruguay in a government with leftist inclinations, hit back: "You, Nicolas Maduro, betray the political ethics with your lies" (quotation again from the
Wall Street Journal, May 18).


None of this can be positive for Venezuela or the Organization of American States, but this is not my main point. My main point is that Jamaica will almost certainly be called upon to take sides in the political conflict which revolves around developments in Venezuela. What should we do? Geography, history and economic circumstances have placed us in the midst of a conflict that is not of our own making.


Our friends are quarrelling, and if, as could possibly happen, there is a vote concerning whether Venezuela is acting in breach of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Jamaica may be required to defend or oppose Venezuela — the source of substantial PetroCaribe funding for our benefit. We sit quite close to the horns of a serious political dilemma.




HUMAN RIGHTS


Incidentally, the Venezuelan conundrum is not the only dilemma now being faced by the Organization of American States. As the
Jamaica Observer noted last Tuesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, is facing profound financial challenges.


The commission has indicated that, unless it receives an unanticipated infusion of funds, 40 per cent of the staff members of the commission will not have their employment contracts renewed.


Clearly, this will have a serious, negative impact on the work of the commission in promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas. We may take it as a matter of course that this would be a bad thing.


The commission is mandated to hear petitions from persons from Canada in the North to Argentina and Chile in the South, and all nations in between.


On the positive side, the commission has been fervent in its defence of human rights, and has served, in some instances, as the conscience of the Organization of American States.


Still on the positive side, the commission works to guide countries to bring their laws and other governance arrangements in line with modern, liberal and humanitarian sentiment.


So, for example, the commission influenced Jamaica in the direction of establishing an independent agency for the investigation of alleged criminal actions by members of the local constabulary.


PORT IN A STORM


By exercising scrutiny with respect to children’s homes and places of detention for children, the commission has also helped to ensure, to some extent, that Jamaica meets its international obligation to refrain from exposing persons within our jurisdiction to inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment.


So, too, has the commission been active in monitoring whether the accused in Jamaica have access to lawyers when they are in detention.


We should also recall that the commission has special value for Jamaica today because, owing to decisions made in the 1990s, Jamaicans have no access to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for individual petitions.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is, indeed, our only international port in a storm. So, it must be a matter of regret that the commission — which includes the distinguished Jamaican attorney- at-law Margaret McCaulay among its seven members — may be substantially scaled down in a few weeks’ time.


To be sure, the commission has its detractors, and indeed, the criticisms concerning the commission may help to explain its funding challenges.


Our position Critics argue, for example, that the commission is not always unbiased in its assessment of the political and human rights realities in particular countries.


It is also suggested that the commission is sometimes too keen to impose its reading of human rights on some societies, without fully justifying its positions by reference to international law.


In addition, some countries (including Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others) openly argue that the commission should not be located in Washington DC, given that the USA is not a party to the American Convention on Human Rights.


Also, Caribbean countries have justifiably argued that the commission’s secretariat needs to do much more to enhance the number of Caribbean nationals who help the commission to fulfil its mandate.


Two Caribbean nationals in a staff complement of 34 is decidedly unrepresentative for an organisation that promotes non-discrimination, among other rights.


Even if these criticisms may be valid to one degree or another, they do not justify the closure, or reduction in the work, of the commission.


Secretary General Almagro has promoted the idea that the Organization of American States should represent "more rights for more people in the Americas"; if this idea is to be meaningful, the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights will need to be saved. Which takes us to the question of Jamaica’s foreign policy position on the commission.


We consistently maintain that we are committed to the work of the commission, even though we reserve the right to be critical of the Commission on particular issues.


My hope is that Jamaica is working fervently with other OAS member States to give effect to our stated commitment.


Caricom Commission As regards the Caricom Commission to be set up by Prime Minister Holness, there are, for the moment, several questions.


But one aspect of the Caricom Commission is clear: it has been established at least in part to address the flow of complaints about Caricom which have recently emerged from Jamaica’s relationship with Trinidad and Tobago.


In this regard, there are at least two sets of issues. One concerns the question of arrival and entry of Jamaicans in Trinidad and Tobago.


There are rules under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas on these issues, and, as the much-heralded case of Shanique Myrie reminds us, the treatment of travelling Caricom nationals throughout the region is a justiciable question.


In the view of many Jamaicans, the treatment we receive does not conform to the requirements of Caricom law.


Presumably, this essentially legal question will be addressed by the Caricom Commission as a matter of priority, though arguably the Attorney General’s Chambers should have the first shot at this issue.


Secondly, the treatment of Jamaicans in Trinidad and Tobago has prompted efforts by some Jamaican business leaders to have a boycott of certain goods from that country.


The boycott proposal has therefore been articulated primarily as a response to an immigration problem.


More recently, it appears that the boycott proposal has also obtained a head of steam from the revelation that some energy prices in Trinidad and Tobago may be subsidised for local benefit but not for the benefit of other Caricom nationals.


This may raise questions of fact, and if so, I wonder whether the Caricom Commission is the best means of ascertaining the relevant facts.


But, thirdly, assuming arguendo that Jamaicans have been barred entry to Trinidad and Tobago on unlawful grounds, or that there has been discrimination to the detriment of Jamaicans in energy pricing, the commission will need to come up with an appropriate response.


Depending on its composition, the commission may be the ideal body to formulate a response to guide the prime minister. Again, however, the commission will need to inform itself of the relevant rules of law in the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas.


The commission should also be mindful of the rules concerning countermeasures which may be taken pursuant to international law. Should we leave?


But you may well conclude that by concentrating on the factors that may have precipitated Prime Minister Holness’ decision to set up the commission, I am missing the wood for the trees.


More specifically, all indications are that Prime Minister Holness wishes to have a comprehensive assessment of Jamaica’s place in Caricom, a review that goes well beyond arguments about the expulsion of Jamaicans and the pricing of energy, important though these issues happen to be.


Prime Minister Holness may want a recommendation on whether Jamaica should leave Caricom, and if we do, what should be put in its place.


In the epilogue to John Mordecai’s magisterial book, The West Indies: The Federal Negotiations (1968), W Arthur Lewis, Caribbean luminary, listed at least 11 "avoidable errors", which, had they not been made, could have saved the federation.


One such error noted by Lewis was the decision not to place the capital of the federation in Jamaica, "the island whose emotional commitment to federation was least secure" (page 455).


This geographical reason with emotional overtones may well be a factor worthy of consideration for the Golding Commission when it takes up its work.


Commitment levels More to the point, if Caricom is to work properly, the respective states will need raise their commitment levels. But commitment cannot be raised by rhetoric alone.


We need to face up to the reality that Caricom, to most Jamaicans, is remote: the headquarters far away, the leaders somewhat unfamiliar, and the initiatives not carried out with any great degree of zest.


A significant part of the problem may relate to contiguity (as noted by Dr Franklin Johnston in the Observer last week); Jamaica, in the north, is quite far removed from its nearest Caricom counterpart, Antigua and Barbuda.


We are, so to speak, a politically displaced part of the Caribbean archipelago, and with distance comes lack of "emotional commitment". There is also a certain sense that Jamaica is not at the fulcrum of Caricom.


Another set of factors that will have some bearing on the viability of the Caricom enterprise relates to attitudes at the leadership level.


The general — though apparently divided — perspective of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) on the question of the Caribbean Court of Justice, and former Prime Minister Seaga’s scepticism about the Caricom Single Market and Economy, suggest a certain antipathy towards economic union.


If the JLP is not fully on board, it is difficult to see how Caricom will work for Jamaica.


COLLECTIVE POWER


Finally, it is important to recall that Jamaica may punch well above its weight in international relations owing to its Caricom connections.


Certainly, within the Organization of American states, where Caricom counts for 14 of the 34 active member states, this is a bloc to be courted.


And if, as is often suggested, Jamaica is one of the leaders of Caricom, then the Caricom link may be used as part of our foreign policy calculations in this hemisphere.


By the same token, Caricom constitutes a strong voting group within the United Nations General Assembly.


Bearing in mind that on several significant issues at the United Nations Caricom countries share similar perspectives (arising no doubt from our common history), there is a case that we should seek to preserve, and take advantage of, our common links when we present ourselves to the wider world.


History may help to keep us together, even as geography could pull us apart.


Stephen Vasciannie, CD, is Professor of International Law,
University of the West Indies, Mona, and a former Jamaica Ambassador to
the USA and the Organization of American States.


   


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