The PPP/C administration has never given the impression that it sets much store by foreign affairs, as a consequence of which it has never invested the kind of resources which would have allowed it to frame a policy reflective of this country’s longer term interests, or build up the expertise which would allow it to respond in anything other than an ad hoc way to unanticipated situations. In the earlir days as an independent nation the bedrock of foreign policy was the matter of territorial integrity, and other issues were considered in the first instance through that prism. In addition, considerable proficiency was developed in relation to this department of government.
Those days have long since gone, however, and this administration has few resources at its disposal to deal with crises or even respond rationally and consistently to world issues when called to vote at the United Nations, for example. The PPP/C when it first came to office in 1992, was committed to “lean, clean and mean” government, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was seen as an unnecessary drain on resources that produced little in the way of benefit for the people. Its officers, for example, were rather naïvely perceived as doing little more than tippling at diplomatic cocktail parties, and as a result, Takuba Lodge experienced not just a dramatic cut in funding, but also a purging of personnel, leaving the ministry denuded of skills in critical areas.
There was another reason too. The position of the PPP/C has always been that the border controversy with Venezuela was a Cold War problem; that is to say it was part of the whole US scheme in association with the British – the colonial power − to remove Dr Cheddi Jagan from office. While there is some truth in this, it is unlikely that it originated in Washington; almost certainly, it had its provenance in Caracas, where President Betancourt had been fighting a left-wing insurgency − some Cuban troops had even landed at one stage – and who was not about to tolerate a ‘communist’ government in Guyana.
When Dr Jagan acceded to office in 1992, therefore, the assumption in Freedom House was that the problem would just evaporate because the Cold War was over, and with regard to the PPP itself, historical justice had been achieved. Unfortunately, what was not taken into account was that in the intervening thirty years, the border controversy had taken on a life all its own in Venezuela, and no government there could just abandon the claim despite the fact it was completely spurious, without paying an unacceptable political price.
In more recent times, with the late President Hugo Chávez doing a complete volte face on the matter of the boundary, and now with President Nicolás Maduro seeming to follow in his footsteps, the ruling party’s old position on the western frontier appears to Freedom House to be vindicated. As a consequence, when Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett makes the trek to Trinidad to meet with her Venezuelan counterpart, she does so unaccompanied by an entourage packed with experts to guide her. This is in contrast to the delegations sent by our western neighbour who also have the advantage of operating in a context of continuity; that is to say they are the beneficiaries of the legacy left on the issue by all the previous administrations in Caracas.
It is not just where policy approaches to our territorial integrity are concerned that the government is displaying an atavistic tendency, but in its foreign policy leanings overall. The character of the PPP was forged in the Cold War, and it seems quite incapable of shaking off that inheritance. Since in the early days its instincts were to turn to the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, it has reverted to that stance, although the countries with which it still feels comfortable, while they may not be democratic, are a long way from being ‘communist’ – with the exception of Cuba. We have also joined the Latin American club, which while it is necessary at one level, will not bring us any joy where our boundary controversy on the west in particular is concerned. For their part nations like China and Russia have enormous investments in Venezuela, while we are very insignificant in their scheme of things, and can easily be sacrificed. They will not be our friends, in other words, on the most critical issue of our western frontier.
And our territorial integrity should still be the bedrock of our foreign policy; where that is concerned not much has changed in the almost fifty years since independence. One might have thought that the government would have woken up to that fact following the 2000 fiasco, when the CGX eviction occurred, but apparently not. And now, lulled by President Maduro’s soothing words in Georgetown last year, the government appears to have been taken completely off-guard by the arrest of the oil exploration vessel in our waters by the Venezuelan navy. It was followed by a statement during a visit to Caricom countries by the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua that Venezuela had not relinquished its claim to Essequibo. This was in direct contradiction to what was said – or at least strongly implied – by Mr Maduro.
And if the administration thinks that anything positive is going to come out of the talks which are supposed to be held before the end of this month in Trinidad on the matter of oil exploration and the eviction, they are being way beyond overly optimistic. The Venezuelans will want to secure some very major advantage (Maduro needs it to sell to the public and quiet the opposition), and if our government shows even the slightest preparedness at all to negotiate on the land terminus of our maritime boundary (Punta Playa), it will have abandoned the sanctity of the 1899 Award, and opened the whole question up again. In other words, the Venezuelans could potentially use the maritime issue to undermine our half-century stance on the 1899 Award, and we should be acutely conscious of this.
One might have thought too, that our government would have recognized that whatever position President Maduro might wish to adopt in relation to our common border, he is constrained by the traditional Venezuelan position and far too weak politically to take measures that depart from it. Furthermore, one might have thought that our government would have looked a little further down the road than it appears disposed to do, and seen that whoever comes after Mr Maduro – whether from his own party or the opposition – will cleave to the traditional position. In fact, the opposition shows all the signs of being very bad news for Guyana. Is the administration prepared for this? Has it done any contingency planning?
In the meantime, the ruling party is hell bent set on alienating those whose support it will need in the future – more particularly the US and the UK. It has taken an inexplicable stand over the Falkland Islands, especially considering that that particular case has direct bearing on ours, and Argentina is going to give Venezuela unequivocal backing. (Venezuela was Argentina’s main backer on the South American continent during the Falklands War, not just in terms of vociferous support, but also, it was reported, in terms of matériel.) One can only think this has something to do with the simplistic assumption that a former colonial power must by definition always be in the wrong.
And then there is the United States, which now that the governing party does not need it any longer for election purposes, has once again assumed the unsavoury characteristics of the early 1960s in PPP eyes. But we have to recognize that now we have no friends where our borders are concerned; even Caricom, as is well known, has deserted us. The government will have to go back to the drawing board, and begin with cultivating nations like France, a heavyweight player in the EU; accomplish a 180o turn on the Falklands issue, which Britain itself aside, could be an entry to securing the support of key Commonwealth nations; and generally undertake an overhaul at Takuba Lodge.