Jamaica's conflicted relationship with Venezuela


Sunday, January 13, 2019

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IN recent times, Jamaica has wrestled with being conflicted in its position toward Venezuela. Our relations with that country go back more than 200 years when the liberator Simon Bolivar took refuge in Kingston from where he penned the famous Carte de Jamaica that laid out his vision for the independence and integration of the countries of South and Central America.

In more recent times, we have benefited significantly from the low-interest credit terms under which Venezuela has supplied us with crude oil through the PetroCaribe arrangement and, before that, the San Jose Accord in which it partnered with Mexico.


Venezuela's assistance to Jamaica is unquestioned but this cannot oblige us to turn a blind eye to the rape of democracy that has been taking place in that country and the injustice to which its people have been subjected.

The Maduro-led Government has been pursuing a path of self-destruction. The Supreme Court had been hijacked during the Hugo Chavez era and all semblance of judicial independence has been obliterated. Under Maduro, the National Assembly was stripped of all its powers after the Opposition parties won a huge majority of seats in the 2015 elections.

The prosecutor-general, formerly a Maduro supporter, who dared to challenge these excesses was summarily dismissed and fled the country after arrest warrants were issued for her and her husband. Last week, a member of the Supreme Court fled the country with his family, stating that he could not continue making rulings based on directives from the political executive. It is reported that his relatives have since been subject to harassment by security officials.

The main Opposition parties have been barred from contesting elections and several of their leaders imprisoned. Popular protests have been met with brutal repression, triggering a damning resolution last September by the UN Human Rights Council in which it cited a widespread pattern of “arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and a brutal crackdown on dissent”.

These developments have led to harsh sanctions being imposed by the US, European Union, Canada and several Latin American countries which, together with the disastrous policies being pursued by the Maduro Government, have had a crippling effect on the Venezuelan economy and people.

Inflation last year exceeded one million per cent. It took 15 million bolivars to buy one chicken and three million bolivars to buy a roll of toilet paper. Banknotes have had to be withdrawn and redenominated.

Severe shortages of food, medicine, and basic items have led to over three million people fleeing the country. Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserves in the world, but it has been forced to import fuel because of technical failures at several of its plants that it is no longer able to properly maintain.


More than 40 countries have already refused to recognise the blatantly flawed presidential elections last year in which Maduro secured a second six-year term with a voter turnout of less than 26 per cent. His isolation intensified last Thursday when the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution to that effect. Twelve of the 17 countries of South and Central America have formed themselves into the Lima Group to coordinate their response to the deteriorating situation in Venezuela and just over a week ago issued a call for Maduro to step down.

Maduro has been able to maintain power because of the support of the military and the fragmentation of the Opposition forces. He claims that he is the victim of foreign interference in Venezuela's internal politics but he has not acknowledged that there has also been foreign interference supporting his regime.


The Jamaican Government has so far walked a tightrope, not wanting to turn against a friendly country that has been so helpful to us in the past, but finding it increasingly difficult to stomach the atrocities that are taking place in Venezuela. This balancing act has guided its votes in the OAS as well as its refusal to join the more strident Lima Group as Guyana and St Lucia have done. However, it is becoming virtually impossible to sustain those acrobatics.

The Government has been accused of “dissing” a friend by its recent decision to compulsorily reacquire the Venezuela-held shares in Petrojam, suggesting that even Jamaica's national interest should be subordinated to some notion of fidelity to the Venezuelan Government.

“Despite all our shortcomings including our high crime rate, we are fortunate to live in a country with free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, a politically neutral military, a free press, systems of accountability, political tolerance and civility and the right to peaceful protest. That is not a luxury; it is a right to which all people are universally entitled. Our empathy and solidarity must be not with an oppressive Venezuelan Government but with the Venezuelan people, many of whom have never known that kind of existence.”


Our relationship with Venezuela is likely soon to be tested even more severely on a completely different issue. Last week I referred to the significant offshore oil discoveries that Guyana has made and from which it expects to start pumping oil next year. This development has reignited a more than century old territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela. The historical context and the irony of it are important to recall.

In the mid-19th century, Britain sought an agreement with Venezuela on the boundaries separating it from what was then the colony of British Guiana. Venezuela objected to the boundaries proposed by Britain and, after many years of fruitless negotiations, appealed to the United States for support.

President Grover Cleveland, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, secured the approval of the US Congress to appoint a Tribunal of Arbitration to determine the boundaries between the two countries with the provision that the US would have congressional authorisation to enforce the decision of the tribunal “by every means”.

Britain, which was at that time struggling with tensions in South Africa that eventually led to the Boer War, could ill afford to be engaged in another conflict so far away — least of all one in which the US was involved — and it accepted the US decision. This marked the first formal recognition by another major country of the “right” of the US to intervene in other sovereign states and its role as a super power.

The tribunal — which convened in Paris and was comprised of two Americans, two Britons, and a Russian — handed down its decision in 1899. Venezuela was far from satisfied with the decision but accepted it based on the written commitment it had given when the tribunal was established.


Some 50 years later, Venezuela repudiated the tribunal's decision, charging that evidence subsequently obtained indicated that there was collusion between the Russian tribunal chairman and the two British tribunal members.

In 1965, on the eve of Guyana gaining independence, Venezuela formally asserted its claim to all the territory west of the Essequibo River which constitutes approximately two-thirds of Guyana's land mass as well as its maritime rights. Prolonged efforts to resolve the issue were conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. These included the appointment of a succession of special representatives of the secretary general as mediators — Sir Alister McIntyre, Sir Oliver Jackman, Dr Norman Girvan, and Mr Dag Halvor Nylander.

With no solution having been arrived at after more than 30 years, the UN Secretary General last year referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice. However, the decision of that court is not binding without the prior agreement of the parties involved, and Venezuela has made it clear that it does not recognise the court's jurisdiction and has refused to take part in the proceedings. A resolution to the dispute, it seems, is nowhere in sight.


Over the years, there have been several skirmishes between the armed forces of both countries but, by and large, these were contained with minimal casualties. However, since Guyana's discovery of oil in the disputed offshore territory in 2015 and as recently as last month, Venezuela has conducted intimidating naval exercises, interrupting oil drilling activities and sending worrying signals to investors.

Guyana has even more reason to be disturbed by the fact that Venezuela's territorial claim is perhaps the only issue on which the Government and Opposition there are in full agreement.

As Guyana's oil discoveries expand, it is likely that Venezuela will seek to assert its claim more aggressively. Guyana's defence forces are no match for Venezuela's military and naval might. Any escalation by Venezuela is likely to trigger a US response, especially since the oil exploration activities are being led by American companies such as Exxon Mobile. The implications and consequences of that are deeply troubling and have been compounded by the arrival in Venezuela last month of Russian fighter jets and a military transport plane.


Caricom has officially and consistently backed Guyana's territorial rights while calling for a peaceful resolution between the two countries. If the situation boils over, however, Caricom is likely to be conflicted. A united Caricom, together with Cuba and with a less belligerent United States, might have been able to mediate the political crisis in Venezuela long before it had so severely deteriorated. Its inability to arrive at a unified position is one of its most notable failures.

The governments of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, and Antigua and Barbuda have aligned themselves closely with the Maduro regime. Heightened confrontation between Guyana and Venezuela, especially if it involves US military intervention, could be the biggest crisis that Caricom has ever faced.

The reacquisition of the Petrojam shares may be small potatoes in terms of Jamaica's relations with Venezuela.

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