Johnson Smith responds to Opposition concerns about embassy closure in Venezuela

Friday, March 22, 2019

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KINGSTON, Jamaica — Minister of Foreign Affairs and foreign Trade Senator Kamina Smith says the temporary closure of the Jamaican Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela is not due to a break in diplomatic relations.

Johnson Smith's clarification comes on the heels of concerns expressed by the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) Shadow Minister on Foreign Affairs Lisa Hanna.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry, in announcing the April 1 closure on Tuesday, said that it was due significant challenges being faced in operating the post for some time.

Hanna in response said she found the latest move by the Government shocking, stating that it appears to halt diplomatic relations with Jamaica's long standing ally.

However, Johnson Smith, in a statement this afternoon, challenged the assertions by Hanna, saying that she felt it important to respond to the “ill-informed and irresponsible” comments and to facilitate public understanding of the issues related to the temporary closure of the Jamaican Embassy in Caracas.

See Johnson Smith's statement in full:

Dear Fellow Jamaicans,

To facilitate public understanding of the issues related to the temporary closure of the Jamaican Embassy in Caracas, I feel it important to respond to the ill-informed and irresponsible comments made by the Opposition Spokesperson regarding the ministry's announcement. In trying to score political points, Ms Hanna has done a great disservice to her country and our Foreign Service. Jamaica will always remain friends of the people of Venezuela and wish for them peace and prosperity.

For clarity however, I must underscore that:

1. The closure is not a break in diplomatic relations. Jamaica has diplomatic relations with 162 countries and only has a diplomatic presence in 21. The two things are not the same. Simply put, having diplomatic relations is not the same as having an Embassy or High Commission. As stated in the release, we will continue to engage between ministries which have been the case for some time.

2. This is not a sudden decision. We have been having difficulties over an extended period and have advised the public on more than one occasion that we have been monitoring the situation there, in the interest of the staff, as well as other matters especially since the violent protests began in 2017.

3. This is not a decision influenced by political pressure from any other country. It might be helpful for the public to better understand some of the difficulties affecting our ability to effectively operate the Embassy – such as the ability to remit funds to pay salaries of locally recruited staff and to pay for goods and services which form part of the operations of the Embassy.

It would shock Jamaicans at how difficult it has been to make simple payments and to maintain proper accounting. As the responsible ministry, we have to consider these matters dispassionately. The public should also note daily realities already in the international news. Availability of food and supplies is limited. Some Airlines have ceased operation of flights to Venezuela. Utilities are unreliable, acquisitive crimes are high and foreigners believed to be in possession of money are likely targets, these are not matters of media propaganda - they are real.

4. Several other countries have either closed or scaled down their presence significantly. Barbados had scaled down their staff to one person and that officer left last week. The majority of missions, some far better resourced than Jamaica, have either sent home dependents, or non-essential staff, and some have fully closed.

5. The final point I want to address is the concern expressed about Jamaicans in Venezuela. While the well being of Jamaicans is always a priority for the Government of Jamaica, the reality is that for some time now, we have had very few requests for consular services – certainly not at a level which could justify the maintenance of a resident mission, especially in these difficult circumstances.

The Jamaican public might be interested to know that in the last 6 months for example, we have had only five queries and one application for citizenship and less than five visa applications. The last passport application was made in November 2018.

These matters can be addressed by consular support from other locations including Kingston and the Embassy in Colombia. We use to have 50 Jamaicans registered at the Embassy, but many of them have already left Venezuela and are not in contact with the Embassy or seeking any services. There are two prisoners of which the Embassy is aware.

For 2018, the Embassy collected some US$1250.00 for consular services. The issue here is not the limited revenue, so much as its reflection of the low level of activity to be undertaken by staff, in relation to the cost of operating a mission overseas.

The Embassy costs millions of dollars annually per year for this level of activity. It would be poor management to continue at this time in the totality of the circumstances and would not reflect value for money or a proper consideration of the well-being of staff present.

At what point therefore, does the Opposition think it appropriate for Jamaica to take a responsible decision in the interest of staff and tax payers' resources?

Yours truly,

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade

Senator Kamina Johnson Smith

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