Seeking Caricom support

Minister of State Joseph Harmon told reporters, on Wednesday, that Guyana will be seeking a “very strong statement” of support by Caricom Heads of Government on Venezuela’s recent claim on Guyana’s maritime territory.

Apart from commentaries by the usual suspects, when it comes to regional affairs – David Jessop, Sir Ronald Sanders and Rickey Singh – as well as an interesting piece by the Trinidad Sunday Guardian columnist Mark Wilson, there has been relative silence across the English-speaking Caribbean, on the matter of the aggressive posture taken by Venezuela.

All four of the above-named commentators point out, each in his own way, that Decree 1,787 issued by President Nicolás Maduro, on May 27, 2015, creating the “Atlantic Coast of Venezuela”, establishing sovereignty over most of Guyana’s territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean off the Essequibo region and stretching east to encompass some of Suriname’s waters (the latter encroachment subsequently withdrawn in an adjustment to the decree on June 8), is illegal and, most likely, driven by domestic pressures and agitation on the part of the Venezuelan military, particularly the navy.

In addition to the implications for Suriname’s maritime space, the new law reiterates Venezuela’s claim of sovereignty over Bird Island (or Bird Rock) – with Dominica having appeared to cede its sovereign rights since 2009 – which also affects the Exclusive Economic Zone of Barbados. Neighbouring island states in the Eastern Caribbean, as well as Trinidad and Tobago which has maritime borders with Venezuela, should also be nervous.

In the absence of any official utterance emanating from any of our sister Caricom governments thus far, we can only surmise that they are awaiting next week’s meeting of Caricom heads in Barbados to make their positions known. At least, Colombia, which has a long-standing territorial differendum with Venezuela, has issued a statement rejecting the intrusion into Colombian waters also promulgated in Decree 1,787.

As Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge made clear in his maiden address to Parliament, on June 11, the decree is a “baseless and shameless” bid to usurp Guyana’s territory. It is baseless because it has no foundation in international law, in addition to being a breach of the Geneva Agreement of 1966, and it is shameless because it is the act of a supposedly friendly neighbour that can now only be interpreted as a signal of hostile intent towards a smaller country, a new government and the people of Guyana. Furthermore, it contradicts all the supposed principles of solidarity with developing countries which the Bolivarian Republic claims to uphold.

Caricom governments and civil society are currently extremely exercised over the plight of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic who face the threat of deportation and being rendered stateless. Rightly so.

But Caricom governments, with the exception of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, are highly dependent on Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil, and six Caricom states (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines, plus Suriname as a ‘guest member’ and Haiti as an observer) are also members of the Venezuela-led, Hugo Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).

The Dominican Republic is, therefore, an easier target for Caricom wrath than Venezuela. The economic dependence and ideological affinity, not to say political subservience, which Venezuela has been able to foster over the past decade and a half, should, however, not be allowed to hold sway over principles of national sovereignty, international law, friendly and correct international relations and good neighbourliness.

At issue in Barbados, therefore, as Mr Jessop has pointed out, will be “the resolve of Caricom members who rightly will wish to protect the national sovereignty of a member state, while recognising the special relationship they have with Venezuela through their PetroCaribe membership.”

As President David Granger makes his debut at a Caricom Heads of Government meeting, the challenge for both him and Mr Greenidge will be to make a strong case for Caricom solidarity and to secure a robust and unequivocal statement that goes beyond the standard, formulaic expression of support for the maintenance and preservation of Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Venezuela’s illegal and illogical action threatens not only the rightful expectations and plans for the sustainable, economic development of Guyana but also regional peace and security and the very unity and integrity of the Caribbean Community.

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