Context is everything- Venezuela's changing Caribbean
As with so much in politics it is often what is not seen, said or fully understood that drives events.
This is particularly so in the case of Venezuela's changing relationship with the countries of CARICOM.
In recent months Caracas has been deepening its sub-regional relations and has escalated its border dispute with Guyana. It has also encouraged CARICOM to be less than emphatic in its support for Georgetown's position.
At the same time it has been moving rapidly to consolidate its relationship with, in particular, the OECS, Trinidad and Suriname by offering increased levels of support or investments, largely through its concessional PetroCaribe oil and development assistance programmes.
Such generosity, however, comes against an unlikely backdrop.
On December 6 President Maduro will face challenging National Assembly elections; there are differences between powerful individuals within the ruling party; inflation is estimated by government to increase by 85 per cent this year, although external analysts put the figure at between 150 to 200 per cent; there are shortages of items such as food, medicines and basic consumer essentials; crime is at an unacceptable level; oil revenues, which account for 96 per cent of Venezuela's exports, are falling; and there are shortages of foreign exchange.
The Venezuelan Government has said that it believes that these internal problems and the turbulence it faces are being induced by the external and internal forces that oppose it. However, more likely factors are economic mismanagement, falling global energy prices, and an approach that at times appears to place internationalism above first managing and delivering efficiently much needed domestic economic and social programmes.
As a consequence there is now a widespread view that President Maduro's ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) may lose its majority in the National Assembly.
Irrespective, President Maduro has said on state television that in such a "negated hypothetical scenario" he would "govern with the people, always with the people and the civil-military union." "The revolution will not be surrendered ever," he said in answer to a question. "With the constitution in hand, we will push Venezuela's independence forward, whatever the costs, in any way", President Maduro said.
What is now clear is that despite its internal problems, Venezuela has decided to expand its PetroCaribe programme and deepen its relationship with Caricom at all levels.
Although little detail emerged from the PetroCaribe summit held in Jamaica on September 7, Venezuela proposed at that time a number of initiatives: the creation of a Caribbean economic, commercial and financial space; the consolidation of energy security and energy sovereignty for the nations and associate members of PetroCaribe; a Caribbean common system of social provision against hunger and poverty; and the creation of a civil defence mechanism against major natural disasters along the lines of Cuba's successful existing model.
Since then President Maduro and his ministers have been seeking to consolidate this approach and have visited Antigua, St Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts, Grenada, St Vincent and Suriname. A summit is also expected to take place soon with Trinidad's new Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley following a first meeting in Caracas on October 26 of the High-level committee for Venezuela-Trinidad and Tobago bilateral relations.
In St Vincent, arguably the Anglophone Caribbean nation that President Maduro is closest to, made clear that he saw PetroCaribe as "the backbone of the energy, social, economic development of our region." In an apparent reference to the US he said that the Caribbean now had before it two models; "either we work together" or continue to work in isolation of each other, he observed. Elsewhere he spoke about a plan to curb the region's high import bill; the establishment of high level bilateral commissions; a trade hub; and supporting pan-regional transport arrangements.
In Antigua a strategic alliance was formed involving Venezuelan investment, and according to the island's Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, a new economic paradigm emerged that will involve 'taking the best aspects of capitalism to generate profits for the collective benefits of the masses'.
In other visits there were further offers of Venezuelan support.
In Grenada these included prospecting for offshore oil and gas and the delimitation of maritime boundaries; in St Vincent, support for the completion of the country's new international airport; in Suriname the purchase of rice previously obtained from Guyana; and a new joint security and information sharing arrangement with Trinidad and most likely, an agreement soon on the monetisation in Trinidad of Venezuelan oil and gas in adjacent plays.
Despite this, it remains unstated where this may eventually lead or how far Venezuela's partners in Caricom see the relationship moving beyond economic support.
At one level Venezuela's regional strategy appears to be genuinely motivated by a philosophical desire to see more equitable development across the Caribbean basin in ways that reflect its social thinking and that of Cuba. However, at another it is seeking to broaden resistance against what it regards as ideological and economic pressure from the US. It also reflects a desire to counteract the influence of multinationals like Exxon Mobil, which recently made a massive find of oil off Guyana, but to which Caracas potentially owes US$1.1 billion as a result of a World Bank arbitration award relating to expropriated assets.
But beyond this, President Maduro's rhetoric in regional and hemispheric meetings seems to imply that Venezuela also sees in the expansion of its PetroCaribe related programmes the opportunity, over time, to develop new global voting blocs within the hemisphere and internationally, and change political thinking.
Such developments come at a time when the US and Europe are continuing to lessen their role in much of the region, Chinese economic engagement is increasing, there is renewed Russian involvement, and positive new sub-hemispheric political vehicles like CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) are emerging: all suggesting a rebalancing of relationships and power in a way that may take the region into a new era in its post-colonial history.
Global and geo-strategic context is everything. Venezuela knows this. However, in recent years it is an approach that has largely been set aside in Europe and North America when it comes to the Caribbean.
Whether CARICOM can survive intact or reconcile the pressures that may emerge from a process so far largely determined by economic need; what the long term effect of changed relationships on the region's already fragmented politics and foreign relations will be; and how this may relate to other regional divisions now emerging is the subject of next week's column.
(David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org
November 6th, 2015