Column: Venezuela may complicate Americas summit
In a few weeks, United States President Barack Obama will make a one-day visit to Jamaica. There, in addition to a number of relatively brief national encounters, he will meet with Caricom Heads of Government.
This summit is a belated follow up to a promise the US president made in April 2009, when he met in Trinidad with regional leaders in the margins of the Fifth Summit of the Americas.
Since then, there have been encounters with Vice-President Biden, at which the predominant focus has been on security and energy; exchanges that, at times, have not been easy as, to a significant extent, the US' regional preoccupations have not been those of Caricom, and the approaches discussed have lacked accompanying funding.
During the April visit to Jamaica, which comes just before the Summit of the Americas in Panama, official statements indicate that President Obama is likely to consider, with Caribbean leaders, issues relating to regional security, trade competitiveness, and energy.
For their part, Caricom leaders are expected to raise additionally, their concern about the absence of development finance, their graduation as middle income countries, and other matters that are still in the process of being agreed.
More obviously, however, the meeting will offer the opportunity to consider in advance, with 12 out of the 34 heads of government of the countries of the Americas attending the Panama summit, some of the more challenging hemispheric issues that will arise there.
That meeting, from April 10 to 11, had seemed likely to create a new and welcome spirit as a result of President Obama's and President Castro's decision to normalise relations and to meet there.
Instead, it now appears that this partial healing of the divisions within the Americas is far from complete.
Until late last year, the US' long-term desire to isolate Cuba had been threatening to marginalise Washington in hemispheric forums and had resulted in the emergence of alternative poles and political organisations; but it had been hoped that the process of dÈtente, initiated by the US last December, might begin to lessen the ideological divide after the Panama summit.
However, a seemingly ill-timed US decision on Venezuela now threatens a new divide.
On March 9, President Obama signed executive orders relating to Venezuela; one formally declaring a 'national emergency' and the other relating to 'the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States' posed by the Venezuelan government.
The measures, both legal precursors required under US law to introduce sanctions, were, according to US officials, not intended to be seen as being aimed at the country but as the necessary steps for it to take action against high-ranking Venezuelan individuals who the US deemed responsible for human rights and other violations.
However, the decision enabled the Venezuelan government to increase its rhetoric, suggest that it was under threat of invasion, and to bolster its international campaign to attribute its economic woes and internal instability to those it believes are seeking to overthrow its government.
One consequence was that on March 17, the member nations of ALBA - including Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent, Suriname, and Guyana, with Haiti participating as an observer - attended an emergency summit in Caracas to express solidarity with Venezuela.
There the eleven-nation grouping recorded their 'unconditional support' for Venezuela, and called on the US to 'immediately cease its harassment and aggression'. The statement also proposed, following an intervention by Antigua, the creation of a group of facilitators drawn from hemispheric institutions to try to resolve differences between the US and Venezuela.
Cuba's President Raul Castro was, particularly, strong in his support. In a demonstration of Cuba's stated intention to maintain its principles, irrespective of its desire to see relations with the US normalise, President Castro described the executive order as 'arbitrary, aggressive and unjustified', and suggested that the United States was willing "to sacrifice the peace and the direction of hemispheric and regional relations for reasons of domination and domestic politics". "Today", he said, "Venezuela is not alone, nor is our region the one it was 20 years ago... . As we have reiterated, threats to the peace and stability of Venezuela represent threats to regional stability and peace, as well."
The implications of the timing of the US decision on Venezuela, for the Summit of the Americas, and for President Obama's meeting with Caribbean leaders on Jamaica's north coast, are far from good.
At a hemispheric level, it threatens to disrupt the summit. In Venezuela, it has had the consequence of enabling President Nicolas Maduro to suggest a coup attempt and to have the Venezuelan National Assembly pass an enabling law allowing him to rule by decree.
From a narrow Caribbean perspective, Caricom heads who were looking forward to a more positive meeting in Panama in the light of improving relations with Cuba as well as an improved and unified dialogue with the US, the matter is diverting and potentially divisive.
How or why the US has placed itself in this position just before a key hemispheric meeting that aimed to reconcile differences and focus on cooperation and development is something of a mystery.
Maduro's support in decline
Within Venezuela, President Maduro's support has been in decline, the economy has been failing, oil prices are falling and there was the possibility that he might lose parliamentary elections due this year.
However, what now seems more likely is that the US measure - albeit introduced for quite limited reasons following the Venezuelan government's suppression of opposition protests - will strengthen President Maduro and now threatens to derail improving hemispheric relations.
Moreover, it threatens to substitute previous criticism within the America's of the US's position on Cuba for new rhetoric about its stance on Venezuela.
This is to say the least, unfortunate.
The US and the Caribbean need each other. They remain important trading partners, in effect, exchanging goods for services; they share similar values, inhabit the same space, and have common concerns about issues such as security.
At the same time, the Caribbean also continues to rely on Venezuela, which, despite its deteriorating economic situation continues to offer an energy lifeline and accompanying soft loans to most Caribbean nations.
If the Summit of the Americas is really to live up to its objective of encouraging prosperity with equity, this potentially divisive hemispheric confrontation needs to be rapidly addressed.
n David Jessop is the director of the Caribbean Council. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org