Jamaica, Petrojam and a beleaguered Venezuela


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

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With his country in economic shambles and facing an uncertain political future, Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as president of Venezuela for a second term last Thursday. A significant number of countries, including Jamaica, have criticised the elections, charging that it was rigged in Maduro's favour. Eighteen members of the Organization of American States (OAS), including Jamaica, declared his second term illegitimate and voted not to recognise his Administration.

I find it curious and disturbing that having voted against the legitimacy of the regime the Jamaican Government should send a representative, albeit a low-level representative, to the swearing-in ceremony for Maduro. This has sent mixed messages as to what game the Andrew Holness-led Administration is playing with Venezuela. It wants to play tough, while at the same time maintain the veneer of a relationship with the regime.

Of course, it cannot have it both ways. Such manoeuvrings are the kinds of bullheaded stupidity that make governments look bad — and Jamaica did look stupid by this kind of vacillation.

Let us be clear that over the years Jamaica has enjoyed a traditionally good and friendly relationship with Venezuela. This goes as far back as when Jamaica provided refuge to that great Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. Under President Andres Perez this fraternal relationship continued under the Michael Manley Government, from which we benefited in the San Jose Accord. Later, under Hugo Chavez, the PetroCaribe arrangement was arrived at and the country continued to benefit from concessionary arrangements for oil. This has served the country well.

Sitting on the greatest proven reserve of oil in the world, Venezuela has become an economic basket case under Maduro. Inflation is running at over 10 million per cent. Basic foodstuff and medicine are not getting to the majority of its people, and many are on the verge of starving. Over two million Venezuelans have fled the country and there are signs of worse to come.

What Maduro has failed to grasp, and what certain elements in the People's National Pary (PNP) are failing to grasp, is that socialist experimentation has never successfully given a country the critical economic advantage for which it yearns. Chavez, and Maduro after him, meant well in decentralising the resources of the country to help the poor masses. But, as happened in Jamaica in the 1970s, socialist ideology was used to abrogate economic pragmatism. So, while there was a kangaroo-like leap in social spending, there was a frog-like jump in economic growth. The mistake of Chavez and now Maduro is to believe that the flow of petrodollars could continue interminably; that the necessary fiscal prudence and accountability did not have to be adhered to. Now Venezuela sits on a vast reserve of oil and its people, especially the very poor, are sitting on the doorstep of starvation. This is a signal lesson for Jamaica.

Western societies could learn a great deal from the economic pragmatism of the Chinese. Under Deng Xiaoping China came to the realisation that socialism or communism as practised under Chairman Mao would never pull China's vast population out of poverty. This epiphany led to the opening up of the country and the use of capitalist tools to build an economic powerhouse that has made the Chinese economy the second largest in the world. China's global footprint may soon be unmatched by any country, especially if America continues on its present path of international isolation under Trump. China is more than willing to fill the void. What it has not done with military force it is doing with capitalist economic principles in building international goodwill.

As Venezuela totters into chaos, the Holness Administration has been forced to reassess its relationship with the country, especially in the matter of Petrojam. The Government believes that it has now become urgent to buy back the 49 per cent share that Venezuela has in the refinery, citing its unwillingness or inability to honour its commitment to pay its share in improving the refinery. The Opposition is opposed to this move. Amidst the noise and confusing signals coming from both the Government and the Opposition we hope that Jamaica's interest is not underserved in this critical matter.

What is clear is that we cannot allow political sensibilities about Venezuela's generosity to us to cloud our judgement. It is no slap in the face of Venezuela for the Government to reassess and, if necessary, take back the shares in Petrojam by legislation. We have to consider what is best for the country at this time, especially when Jamalco and the Jamaica Public Service will soon be saying “ta ta” to Petrojam. I do not think it is lost even to the Opposition that we are grateful to the Venezuelan people for their help through the years. We must still do what we can to assist them, but we cannot stay tethered to a principle of friendship with a brutal regime that is doing so much harm to its own people, simply because they have been helpful to us in the past.

Here the PNP's moral logic is not clear. They are hell-bent on supporting Maduro despite the corruption and incompetence of the regime and its tyrannical hold on the lives of Venezuelans. They seem to believe that because we have benefited from Venezuela's oil generosity that we can turn a blind eye to the excesses of that regime in denying their people their basic fundamental human rights. It must be made clear to them that the oil resources of Venezuela are for the people of Venezuela, and it is to them that we owe any gratitude, not to a murderous regime. Maduro will pass on, as he certainly will, but it is the goodwill of the people that will last. That is what we should cultivate as a people.

It is foolish to ask politicians not to politicise the matter of the share buyback, but we would ask both sides to cool the rhetoric and do what is best for the Jamaican people. Everything must be done to ensure a fair and just outcome in the matter both for Jamaica and Venezuela.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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