Considering that as far as the public was concerned Venezuela has not been on the foreign policy radar for so long, last Wednesday’s visit by President Bharrat Jagdeo to Caracas came as something of a surprise. As it was, the outcome of the meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart covered a wide span. There were, of course, the usual trade agreements, including one for the supply of Jet A1 fuel and the revivification of the dredging project for the Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary Rivers, which dates back to 2005. The proposal now is to update the hydrographical data preliminary to this. There was also mention of the social project involving a centre for the homeless and the obligatory meeting of the high level bilateral commission; however, none of this is exceptional. Some of the other announcements, in contrast, were a source for greater unease.

The one which stands out in particular, was the communication from President Chávez in the first instance, subsequently confirmed in Georgetown, that Guyana is to become an observer in ALBA. As we reported on Friday, the Venezuelan head of state added that he would discuss Suriname joining the organization with President Bouterse of Suriname. Where Guyana is concerned, one can only presume that observer status is a prelude to full membership in due course, but either way, it has huge implications for this country.

In the first place, it puts President Jagdeo’s jaunts to nations like Iran in context, and corroborates an earlier suspicion held by some that Guyana’s foreign policy had changed direction in a fairly radical way. The ALBA grouping espouses socialism, and counts among its members countries not noted for their commitment to democratic principles. While some Eastern Caribbean states have been seduced into joining for economic reasons, it could hardly be claimed that the aims of the organization are compatible with the Treaty of Chaguaramas or that membership of it does not undermine Caricom at some level.

There is nothing very socialist about the Co-operative Republic at the moment, but no nation which becomes a full satellite of our western neighbour while Miraflores’ current incumbent is in office, will be allowed to operate in defiance of the doctrines which ALBA espouses. So is the government’s long-term intention to resuscitate the economic mantra of an earlier era, and move in the company of those of a like mind, never mind how undemocratic they might be? At the very least, if Guyana ever became fully entrapped in the ALBA system, it will eventually lead to it having to vote with its fellow members in all international fora and to following the lead of Mr Chávez, whether that means condemning the ‘evil empire,’ or supporting Iran on the nuclear issue. In other words, certain critical aspects of our foreign policy would be set in Caracas, not in Georgetown.

As an observer at meetings of the grouping, Guyana will be able to join the ALBA bank, and in the words of the Venezuelan President which we quoted in our Friday edition, “seek funding and solutions to scourges such as poverty and hunger.” Was it the prospect of possible new funding sources which induced President Jagdeo to take the first step to locking this country into orbit around Venezuela, or are there other things in play as well?

It is worth remembering that islands like Dominica have paid a heavy price for accepting Venezuelan largesse, not the least of which is relinquishing the claim to Bird Island, which expands Venezuela’s exclusive economic zone considerably, and diminishes not just Dominica’s, but that of other Caricom territories as well. It has allowed Caracas to challenge  Barbados’s  earlier declared intention to issue exploratory licences in a part of its EEZ, although admittedly the present Barbadian government has indicated it will not be pursuing oil exploration there now. As it is, however, some of the islands which are being assisted under the PetroCaribe arrangements have been effectively prevented from potentially exploiting hydrocarbons in what could otherwise have been their own waters. One would have thought that helping them develop their own resources might have been the more genuinely socialist approach, rather than making them dependent for fuel on Venezuela.

The problem in Guyana’s case is that all agreements with our western neighbour occur within the context of the spurious Venezuelan claim to Essequibo. This is not to suggest that there should be no trade deals and cultural exchanges, etc, with Caracas; far from it. However, it does mean that a long-term view has to be taken of all accords, to see how they could affect us down the line if the situation becomes less benign than it is at present. President Jagdeo’s government seems to have been lulled into a sense of security because as far as can be seen, President Chávez appears to have done a volte face, and abandoned the belligerence of his early years of office. However, the opposition in his country takes the traditional view of the claim, as do, no doubt, even some of those in the head of state’s own party. Bilateral pacts cannot guarantee change to the context for the longer term; at some point, Mr Chávez will have to leave office, and neither Guyanese nor Venezuelans have any idea who might succeed him or what their position on the border controversy would be.

But there are many ways for Miraflores to try and achieve its ends without sabre rattling or things of that ilk. First there is the proposed pipeline project to supply oil to Guyana and Suriname, which the Venezuelan President indicated he was anxious to advance. Again one has to wonder, if the objective of this government is to develop a local oil industry, why should we be seeking to make ourselves dependent on Venezuela for fuel?  It is not as if once a pipeline is constructed at enormous expense, we could then abandon it some years later because we were in a position to exploit our own hydrocarbon resources; that would surely precipitate a major crisis with our neighbour. Leaving aside the environmental implications – which are enormous – if we intend to accept a pipeline, we are attaching ourselves to Caracas for the long term and placing an instrument for pressuring us in Venezuelan hands.

For good measure, Mr Chávez offered to supply all Guyana’s oil needs; at the moment Caracas provides about half. The current arrangement is sensible, since it reduces our level of dependency and makes it more difficult for the neighbouring government to use fuel as a lever at some future point.  As for Venezuela, its economy has been experiencing difficulties, and its oil production has been declining in recent times, so even although Guyana’s fuel needs are small, it is significant that the Venezuelan head of state should choose to be so generous at this point when he has been unable to fulfil all the earlier promises he made to some other countries.

And then of course, there is the road between Tumeremo and Georgetown, which the two Presidents in their joint statement demonstrated they were very anxious to expedite because it was important for “development and integration.” The Georgetown-Brazil artery, which has not yet advanced from being a trail to a road, must nevertheless be a source of irritation to the Venezuelan President for a whole range of reasons. As has been said more than once before in these columns, a road to the west would bring us within the ambit of Venezuelan influence, and we would be unlikely at this point to be able to manage the consequences. Again, in addition the environmental impact would be enormous.

In the end, it is all about President Chávez’s Bolivarian project to integrate South America and make the Caribbean Sea a Venezuelan pond. He must be aware by now that the former is a challenge too far, but that does not prevent him from trying to integrate the small states in the neighbourhood under the ALBA umbrella. Why quarrel about Essequibo if the whole of Guyana can gravitate to the Venezuelan sphere?

Finally, there was one slightly curious inclusion in the joint statement, and that was the acknowledgement at point 8, that “regional and sub-regional organs can offer [help] for the pacific resolution of local controversies, and for preventive diplomacy…” At the same time in their final point, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Good Offices process in seeking a resolution to the Venezuelan border controversy, seeming to rule out the possibility that point 8 referred to that. Moving the resolution process out from under the protection of the UN would undoubtedly be a huge mistake, but assuming that that was not intended, why would this point be included in a bilateral declaration unless it pertained to one of the two parties issuing the statement?  Was it an allusion to a possible border settlement route for Guyana and Suriname perhaps, or was it just simply a bit of verbal fluff?

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