A devilish problem: The Caribbean between Bush and Chavez
By Sir Ronald Sanders
February 25, 2007
(The writer is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)
BATTLE lines appear to be firmly drawn between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the George W. Bush administration in Washington.
It is a battle from which small Caribbean countries would do well to distance themselves.
President Bush is not a favoured person in many Caribbean societies.
His election to office in his first term on the strength of ballot boxes in Florida when many African-Americans were said to be disenfranchised set him off on a wrong foot. The invasion of Iraq without UN Security Council approval and the subsequent catastrophe that Iraq has become, together with his poor handling of the disaster in New Orleans that left poor people – many of them black – homeless and distressed increased Caribbean distrust of him.
But, more than anything else, it is his ideology that the U.S. is the policeman and law enforcer of the world with the right to stomp around the globe imposing upon other countries the limited and jaundiced vision of his neo-conservative advisers that has worried Caribbean societies the most.
Against this background, there are more than a few persons who enjoy the barracking that Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, doles out to President Bush.
However, President Chavez is a very volatile man whose policies toward a number of Caribbean countries should be analyzed beyond his anti-American rhetoric and the supposed largesse of his Petro Caribe initiative to supply oil to several countries.
Chavez’s government has not moderated the claim to a large tract of Guyana, and maps of Venezuela, paraded to school children, continue to show the disputed Guyana territory as part of Venezuela.
Similarly, Venezuela continues to claim Aves Rock, near the island of Dominica, as its territory and, in this connection, can measure its exclusive economic zone not from the Venezuelan coastline but from Aves Rock, depriving many Caribbean islands of their maritime entitlements.
The Petro Caribe initiative is itself worrying. For, while it has the veneer of a good deal, all that it offers is deferred payment of a portion of the world price for Venezuelan oil. It may help the governments with immediate cash-flow problems but it is increasing their national debt and mortgaging the future of their countries to Venezuela.
And, Chavez has been in the forefront of the effort in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to keep oil prices high.
Indeed, it is the high price for oil and the earnings from the industry that have compensated Venezuela for his high spending and largesse. If oil prices fall, the Venezuelan economy will decline and whichever government is in office, will not be rescheduling or writing-off Caribbean debt.
Mr. Chavez may be able to get away with his anti-American rhetoric while his surplus oil dollars last. But it is not a productive game.
The governments in Brazil and Bolivia claim to be as socialist as Chavez’s regime but they have maintained a civilized relationship with the U.S. while being critical of those aspects of its policies with which they disagree.
For his part, although the U.S. government is the number one purchaser of Venezuelan oil and the links between the two countries have been strong at the levels of commerce, investment and people, Mr. Chavez judges it desirable to maintain a high profile and very personal anti-American stance.
He is doing so at a price.
Foreign investment in Venezuela is down 81% up to November 2006 in comparison with 2005. And, according to its own analysis, Venezuela needs $50 billion in foreign investment in the oil industry through to 2012.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is stepping up its efforts to lure Latin American support away from Chavez. They have accused him of links with North Korea, supplying arms to the Colombian FARC guerrillas, funding the "subversive" MAS in Bolivia, forming an axis of evil with Cuba's Castro, starting an arms race in Latin America.
Now President Bush plans a March visit to several Latin American countries including Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
Mr. Bush can be his worst Ambassador but if he carries off this visit well, he may indeed succeed in convincing some of these Latin American leaders that the Chavez course of a return to socialism, nationalization, control of central banks and autocratic government is not the way to go.
However this relationship between the present administrations in the U.S. and Venezuela turns out, it is not in the interest of small Caribbean countries to side with either of them or to give them a platform which may be interpreted as support.
Caribbean countries have suffered for decades from the imposition of the will of the United States, it is right that they should try to resist it. But, they must also be careful of the ambitions of another potential hegemon.