Dominica should keep a keen eye on the protests in Venezuela
From February, Venezuela has witnessed protest after protest against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. There are verifiable reports that at least 20 people have died in the ensuing conflict and hundreds have been arrested. Lately, the Maduro administration begun a series of peace conferences to address some of the issues protesters have raised but the opposition has shunned these overtures.
Blaming the United States for fermenting the endless mayhem, President Maduro first expelled two US embassy officials, declined an invitation from the Organisation of American States (OAS) to mediate the conflict and, just recently, turned around and invited the Obama administration to a meeting to talk.
Given the mutual feeling of mistrust between Venezuela and the US, it is therefore not surprising that Maduro is accusing the US of trying to overthrow his legitimately elected government. That point was made rather forcefully in a recent OpEd by Jose Gomez, Ambassador of Venezuela to Barbados published by the Sun at www.sundominica.com.
"It is obvious to keen observers that a coup d'état is being attempted in Venezuela", he wrote.
So Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and other heads of government in the region should be watching unfolding events in Venezuela with keen interest and some wrinkled brows. After all, the late President Hugo Chavez and Venezuela virtually propped up Dominica's feeble economy for many years with direct and indirect financial assistance. In fact, Caribbean islands from Cuba to Grenada lost not only a friend in Chavez but their major aid donor when Chavez died of cancer in March 2013.
It is certainly not an extravagance to say that since the protest escalated in 2014 many Caribbean heads of government, who have imbibed in the sweetness of the Bolivarian crude, in all likelihood, are now having nightmares and wakeful nights. If the government in Caracas changes will Venezuela's new president nullify Petro Caribe and claim payment for the loans provided to Caribbean countries on concessionary terms?
Portia Simpson Miller the Prime Minister of Jamaica, for example, must be an extremely worried woman. Her country has been receiving more than half million barrels of oil per year from Venezuela. Under the terms of the Petro Caribe programme, when the price of oil goes beyond US$40 per barrel up to seventy percent of the value of the product becomes a loan from Venezuela that would not become due for up to 25 years. When the price falls below US$ 40 per barrel between five and 25% of the value is financed by Caracas for about 17 years at two percent interest. Jamaicans worry that if Petro Caribe is stopped anytime soon the country will have to cough up more than US$500 million in foreign exchange to purchase oil, a sum Jamaica's economy can ill-afford at this time. Most Caribbean countries share Jamaica's predicament.
In Dominica's case, the debt owed to Venezuela appears to be a State secret; we do not know how much we owe Venezuela and how we intend to pay the debt when Venezuela sends in its debt collectors.
Cubans are very concerned. However, they appear to be better off as far as an assessment of Venezuela's contribution to their economy is concerned; but, on the other hand, the Raul Castro Administration in Cuba is certainly worried sick about the uncertain future of Venezuela. Remember that almost singlehandedly, Chavez kept the Castros, Raul and Fidel, in power with Venezuelan largesse, valued at US$2.2 billion per year; thus Cuba's future is now intricately linked to the direction of Venezuelan politics. But Cuba is not alone. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, for instance, whom Chavez resurrected, is probably experiencing the nightmare of the door to a secure future firmly slammed in his face.
Most of Venezuela's opponents have blamed Chavez for the situation affecting Venezuela at the moment. On the one hand, Chavez left that nation of 29 million in an economic and social mess. Yet, his regime reduced poverty by more than fifty percent though Venezuela is still an extremely poor country in spite of its vast oil wealth. In addition Chavistas can legitimately boast that millions of Venezuelans now have access to free health care and admittance to education has increased significantly (college enrolment has more than doubled in recent years) while the number of persons eligible for public pension has more than tripled. Additionally, over the last few years the government has built thousands of houses for the poor.
On the other hand, at 56 percent in February 2014, according to the Economist Magazine, Venezuela's inflation is one of the worst in Latin America; a couple years ago Transparency International ranked the country at 165th on the Corruption Index, among the most corrupt regimes in the world; violent crime is soaring and oil is virtually the only engine of growth although production has not grown since 1999.
Unquestionably, Chavez improved the standard of life of poor Venezuelans by diverting some the country's oil wealth. But Chavez, like his protégé Skerrit (who has adopted some level of Chavism in Dominica) has been accused of gross wastage; he directly issued hand-outs to the poor instead of improving the economy so that, eventually, everyone can earn a decent living. Chavez's international philanthropy cost Venezuela more than US$30 billion.
Ultimately it is left to Venezuelans to determine the path to their future. And apart from highlighting human rights abuses during the present crisis it is unwise for the Americans to attempt an overthrow of the elected government of Venezuela. In fact, given the history of the country's struggle against "imperialist forces" any overt or covert action by the US may be counter productive.
As far as Roosevelt Skerrit and other Caribbean leaders are concerned, we hope they will review their policy of dependency on charismatic dictators of oil rich countries in Venezuela or elsewhere. This is definitely not a sensible or sustainable way to develop a region.