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Tough love needed with our closest neighbour

Published: 
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Masked anti-government demonstrators stend to a burning barricade during a protest against the installation of a constitutional assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. Defying criticism from Washington to the Vatican, Venezuela's ruling party on Friday installed a new super assembly that supporters promise will pacify the country and critics fear will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The apparent rebellion by military personnel in Venezuela yesterday looks like another step into the unknown for our neighbours. Even if the actions in Valencia were isolated and did not represent the mood of Venezuela’s military, the events are another indication that the country is further moving away from any hopefully peaceful and democratic solution to its problems.

Although President Maduro’s regime has confounded its critics in the past, the situation in Venezuela seems to be fast deteriorating, not helped by the election of a highly-questionable assembly to redraft the country’s constitution and whose members’ first actions included the firing of the country’s Chief Prosecutor, Luisa Ortega.

Mr Maduro’s actions over the past few weeks have further isolated Venezuela in the Americas, with the United States announcing sanctions against the president and Mercosur—the trade bloc formed by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay—suspending the country’s membership. More isolation is likely to follow.

It’s about time we also pay more attention to what is happening in Venezuela. Its situation not only matters to us because no one wants Latin America and the Caribbean returning to a cycle of political instability but also because a deepening of the political and economic crisis there can spell trouble to us as well.

From one side, Trinidad and Tobago and Caricom—in line with its commitments at Caribbean and continental levels—must side with freedom, democracy and the rule of law across the region.

Many of our neighbours may have benefited from Venezuela’s largesse when oil prices were high but, if the government that succeeded the late Hugo Chavez had any claim left to any democratic legitimacy, that claim has completely gone now, following the controversial setting up of the new assembly, continuing pressure on the opposition and the sacking of Ms Ortega. There is a real risk that our government looks weak and unprincipled if it remains silent as Maduro’s regime appears determined to destroy the little that is left of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

It may also look simply opportunistic, prepared to ignore key democratic principles for the sake of economic pragmatism. The problem is, quite often this approach backfires.

We understand the challenge. If conditions in Venezuela deteriorate further (as it almost certainly will) and total chaos ensues (which is a lot less certain), the proximity between us and our South American neighbour can lead to a wave of illegal immigration and an increase in illicit trade—after all, drugs and people traffickers thrive in failed states.

In reality, anecdotal evidence suggests more Venezuelans are already entering T&T illegally, and other countries that share land borders with them have also seen a sharp increase in the flow of Venezuelans seeking to escape the country’s chaotic economy and unstable politics. As conditions deteriorate further, the outflow is likely to increase.

And to make matters more difficult for T&T’s government, the deepening of Venezuela’s crisis comes just as our oil and gas production falters and we look desperately to Venezuela as our choice suppliers if we are to fulfil our domestic and international supply obligations.

Making these plans a reality amidst a deepening crisis in Venezuela will require considerable effort and ability by our political leaders and senior public servants.

Given the challenges, our government must consider carefully how it should engage with Venezuela, but this should never translate into omission.

Good neighbours and friends are those who speak frankly—but respectfully—when things are not right. Hiding behind the usual diplomatic-speak of not getting involved in internal affairs is not good enough. Internal matters have the bad habit of becoming international problems if left unchallenged.

We would strongly encourage our government and Caricom to become more vocal on what is happening in Venezuela and more engaged in initiatives to help bring our neighbours back to a democratic solution to its problems. Looking the other way is no longer an option.