Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Editorial | Did Holness play a good Venezuela hand?

Published:Wednesday | June 21, 2017 | 6:00 AM

Bruce Golding offers a flaccid moral equivalence between South Africa's apartheid and Venezuela's political problem. Yet he is right to lament the failure of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to arrive at a consensus for dealing with the latter's crisis, thereby forfeiting any opportunity to be an honest broker between the parties to the conflict.

The extent of the Community's bungling in this matter is exposed by the earlier public debate between Jamaica's prime minister, Andrew Holness, and his Vincentian counterpart, Ralph Gonsalves, on their differing interpretations of the issues; the current spat between Mr Golding, himself a former prime minister of Jamaica, and Gaston Browne, the leader of Antigua and Barbuda; and CARICOM's inability at the Organization of American States' (OAS) ministerial meeting in Cancun to cobble together an agreement.

Ultimately, the session of hemispheric foreign ministers ended in disarray, with the region no closer to a solution to the Venezuelan issue.

With regard to CARICOM's botched opportunity to fashion and execute an important foreign-policy initiative, Mr Golding rightly lays much of this blame, as he suggested in a radio discussion yesterday, on the absence of rigorous exchanges on the issues between regional leaders - such as was urged by former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson when the Holness-Gonsalves contretemps became a public issue.

The various sides on this matter will, of course, insist that their positions are founded in principle: respect for sovereignty and the canon of non-interference, on the one hand; and respect for democracy and human rights on the other. We question whether the chasm in CARICOM was ever so wide that the two sides couldn't be bridged.

In the circumstance, Jamaica, in retrospect, even as it holds fast to its position, may concede that it perhaps made strategic errors in how it approached this matter, to the cost of regional unity.

The Venezuelan crisis, essentially, is the result of a badly faltered economy and the socialist experiment attempted by President Nicol·s Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. When the price of oil was high and cash flowed, the government spent heavily on projects that benefited poor Venezuelans, on whose support that government rested.

Oil prices have collapsed, as has the economy, and in a febrile ideological environment, declined support for the government has spurred political tensions, to which the Maduro government has been accused of responding with an erosion of democracy and repression, including the undermining of institutions and the jailing of opposition leaders. More than 70 people have been killed in recent weeks in ongoing demonstrations.

But objective analysts concede that the fault of the government notwithstanding, this is not a one-sided affair, perpetrated only by those who hold power. Indeed, Maduro believes that his administration is subject to external destabilisation, led chiefly by the United States and hemispheric allies opposed to his leftist ideology. The government believes that the aim, ultimately, is regime change.

 

DIVIDE AND RULE

 

It is in this context that some regional governments, including Messrs Gonsalves' and Brown's, their fears exacerbated by the anti-Maduro rhetoric of the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, are suspicious of proposals by some member states, led by the USA, for a "contact group" of countries to help resolve the problem, which would including holding early presidential elections. It didn't help that some of these held informal meetings among themselves, to which some CARICOM members were not invited. Mr Gonsalves referred to it as a "divide and rule" strategy.

The larger point here is that Jamaica is considered not only CARICOM's political leader, but has lead responsibility in the community for trade negotiations/external relations. In that context, Kingston would be expected to be alert to foreign-policy developments that impact the group.

An experienced foreign-policy establishment would, if invited, be expected to be careful about how it accepted invitations to private meetings and would perhaps seek to coordinate approaches with regional partners. If Jamaica received such invitations and how it responded to them remain an opaque element of this matter.