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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Venezuela running out of excuses


BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Venezuela running out of excuses

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BARBADOS’ TOP DIPLOMAT in Washington, Selwin Hart, was frank while remaining within the bounds of diplomacy.

“We want an urgent and peaceful solution. That’s what we are working on,” he told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY a few days ago. “The situation in Venezuela is worsening. The political, social and economic and humanitarian situation in Venezuela is not sustainable. We need a solution that is peaceful but also urgent to avert a crisis.”

By “we,” Hart, a career diplomat, was not simply referring to the 280 000-plus people of Barbados but to their neighbours across the Western Hemisphere.

The “situation” he had in mind was Venezuela’s collapsing economy; the increasing likelihood that inflation may hit the unbelievable rate of 1 600 per cent this year; the widespread shortage of food in the supermarkets in Venezuela’s poor neighbourhoods; the bloody demonstrations on the streets of Caracas and elsewhere that have taken dozens of lives in the past three years.

The absence of urgently needed medicines to treat the sick; the monstrous debt of US$110 billion which the country must service; the grab for power by the Venezuelan Supreme Court which sought to take over the authority of the opposition controlled legislature; and the fact that the government led by President Nicolas Maduro was allegedly abusing the democratic traditions that once made Venezuela the envy of Latin America.

“We are trying to find a solution to the problems in Venezuela that are consistent with the values of Barbados and the Organisation of American States,” said Hart.

What an awful fall from grace by a country that less than a decade ago was seen as a paragon of democratic virtue, the sugar daddy for a region that stretched from Cuba, St Lucia, Grenada, Jamaica, Haiti and Honduras to Peru, St Vincent and Argentina to The Bahamas; and a place that’s blessed with the world’s largest oil reserves.

The nightmare that Venezuela has become was crystalised last month when the Organisation of American States (OAS), urged on by its Secretary General Luis Almagro, approved a resolution that called for a foreign ministers meeting to discuss what’s happening in Caracas.

“It’s a very extraordinary step for the organisation to take and it reflects the deep concern of the OAS member states,” explained Hart.

“The resolution that was adopted last week had the support of 19 countries including Barbados. Four other CARICOM countries – Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia and The Bahamas – also supported it.”

To the consternation of several Caribbean and Latin American states, Barbados among them, Maduro, whose popularity at home has plummeted to an estimated 20 per cent, responded to the passage of the resolution by repudiating the OAS Charter and triggering the process for withdrawing from the body under Article 143 of the charter.

Barbados regrets Maduro’s stance.

“It is very unfortunate that Venezuela has taken this unprecedented step. It is the first member of the organisation to renounce the charter and initiate withdrawal proceedings,” Hart pointed out.

“We are of the view that isolation will not help the urgent and peaceful resolution of the situation in Venezuela. Members of the organisation were duty bound to ensure that Venezuela lived up to its duties and obligations under the charter, especially those relating to the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

Tragically, democracy is under assault in Venezuela and the culprit is the government’s action which can be traced to 2015 when the opposition gained control of the legislature.

Angry young people fed up with skyrocketing inflation, food shortages and the government’s high-handedness have taken to the streets, especially near parliament, to voice their worries using sticks and stones in a stand-off with soldier who used guns and rubber bullets to quell the disturbance. And when the Supreme Court, long considered Maduro’s hand-maiden, sought to reduce the legislature to a toothless body, all hell broke loose.

“I have never seen a country going down so fast,” Luis Almagro, a former Uruguay foreign minister told the Miami Herald. It was happening at “every level: politically, economically, and socially.”

Almagro was probably thinking about last December’s suspension of Venezuela by Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. The reason: Venezuela’s failure to live up to the group’s democratic demands. But many CARICOM nations kept their powder dry, if you will, as they contemplated how to respond to United States demands that Maduro, who was handpicked by Hugo Chavez, the founder of the Chavismo movement should leave.

Chavez, who ruled Venezuela for more than a dozen years before he died of cancer in 2013, had endeared himself to many Caribbean states by providing them with “revolutionary aid” at a time when global oil prices were sky-high and filling Venezuela’s coffers. A key part of that policy was PetroCaribe, which was launched in 2005 with most of the CARICOM states participating in it.

“At its peak five years ago PetroCaribe sent more than 200 000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day to such energy-starved countries as Honduras, Jamaica and especially Cuba, which gets about half the programme’s exports,” Tim Padgett, Americas Editor at Miami’s National Public Radio WLRN, wrote in an analysis. “The recipients pay less than half the price upfront and finance the remaining cost at low interest.”

Sensibly, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago were among the handful of Caribbean countries that didn’t sign the PetroCaribe pact because they argued it was not in their best interest to do so.

Barbados, in particular, was vilified by some of its neighbours for staying out of it but now that PetroCaribe is on life support, those critics are worried about paying Venezuela the huge oil debt they have accumulated and are worried that the government which succeeds Maduro may end it.

Venezuela blames Washington for its economic ills but the truth is that the country under Chavez and Maduro mismanaged the economy. It sought to buy off some of its neighbours and inflicted pain on its people.

Barbados was right not to join PetroCaribe. The dramatic fall in oil prices, going from US$100 per barrel in the first decade of the 21st century to US$50 today means that Venezuela is living beyond its means and needs to take drastic steps to trim its financial sails, something many Venezuelans are reluctant to do.