Last week all the talk in the region was about refugees, although not the Syrians, it must be noted, but Venezuelans ‒ possibly. Two weeks ago it was reported that the Red Cross of Curaçao had asked the government on that island about preparations for a possible influx from Venezuela, given the food crisis there and the proximity of Curaçao to the Venezuelan coast; while on Wednesday, the Mayor of Chacao, an affluent suburb of Caracas, was quoted as warning that the Caribbean islands and Colombia “may suffer an influx of refugees from Venezuela if food shortages continue in the country.” He also was reported as saying that people were now hunting cats, dogs and pigeons to eat, and while that might be a bit of hyperbole at this stage, certainly there are many people who are hungry.
For the nations of Caricom, which accepted the late Hugo Chávez’s oil largesse and other assistance, this is nothing less than astonishing. How could a country of around 29 million people with the largest known oil reserves in the world, that only a few years ago was a political force of consequence, be reduced to being unable to feed its own population? The answer is, in brief: a misconceived economic path, mismanagement and corruption. That Venezuela is unable to emerge from this crisis is in large part to do with President Nicolás Maduro’s mental paralysis or, perhaps, his obduracy. John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote that politics was not the art of the possible: “It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” Mr Maduro has chosen the disastrous.
It is not that the hemisphere is not alarmed by events in the state to our west. Last week former prime minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero led a three man mission to Caracas to look at avenues for mediation between the government and opposition. At the press conference on Thursday Mr Zapatero said that all the electoral options should be regarded as scenarios for mediation between the Venezuelan opposition and the government. “Our task involves dialogue nationwide on significant topics such as coexistence, institutions, reconciliation, and [the] social and economic situation,” he was quoted by El Universal as saying. Well this fluff notwithstanding, the expression on his face as well as on those of former Dominican president Leonel Fernández and former Panamanian president Martín Torrijos was grim. Clearly they did not believe that any breakthroughs were likely in the immediate future, and they know well that time is not on their side.
Yesterday, the Foreign Ministers of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay also raised their voices, being reported as calling for “urgent” talks in Venezuela, and declaring themselves prepared to participate in any mediation process.
On Friday, a statement initialled by 23 former Latin American presidents of a mostly right-wing persuasion, under the auspices of another former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar refers among other things to the Venezuelan government’s “continued violation of the fundamental principles of the rule of law and democracy.” This group will, of course, have no impact whatever on the occupant of Miraflores, but it is difficult to know who would, other than the Cubans, who surely can’t be happy about the current turn of events, given that they have an economic stake in the situation, among other things. President Maduro has been accused in the past of being guided by Havana, so what, one wonders, is President Raúl Castro’s government advising him to do in the present circumstances.
On Friday it was announced in Trinidad that President Maduro would be making a state visit to the twin island republic for a few hours tomorrow. He would be accompanied, the public was told, by his petroleum ministers, his industry minister, representatives of the National Gas Company, and of course the Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez. One must assume that another oil and gas deal is in the works, but no one believes that that could be the only reason Mr Maduro is taking himself out of Miraflores at a time like this for a state visit. What is it that is so important that he has to go to Port of Spain in person to speak to the Trinidadian government?
Whatever the reason, T&T was not insensitive to the possible consequences of chaos on the other side of the Gulf of Paria. National Security Minister Edmund Dillon was reported by the Trinidad Guardian on Friday as commenting on the possibility that Venezuelans might seek refuge in Trinidad and Tobago, and said that the government was monitoring the situation in Venezuela and “preparing systems for any worst-case scenario.” The country had a Disaster Preparedness Management plan, among other things, he told the media.
Newsday quoted Mr Dillon as saying that, “Under international humanitarian law, one cannot turn back people [from] your country. If they come in as refugees, then you have to be able to take care of them.” However, the newspaper reported him as qualifying this by adding that while people can apply under international humanitarian law to any country for refugee status, “it is up to the receiving country to grant that status.”
As for Guyana, no one outside this country has mentioned it as being a possible destination for Venezuelan refugees. Even within the country the administration appears unconcerned, the Guyana Chronicle on Friday reporting President David Granger as saying that his government had not given any consideration to accepting refugees, although we would be obligated to accept any Guyanese returning from Venezuela. Yesterday the same newspaper quoted Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge from a release as commenting, “The Cabinet and Government have been alerted to these events… but we are not of the view that you are going to get a massive flood of people.”
The truth of the matter is that no one knows exactly how the situation to the west will play out, and there are various possibilities. In the first place, it should be noted that the current attempts at mediation centre on the political impasse, with the opposition insisting on a recall referendum as their bottom line, and President Maduro refusing to give way. As things stand, there is no room for political manoeuvre, always an unhealthy development.
However, the violence so far has not really been associated with the opposition as such – the police throwing tear gas at opposition protestors apart. It has all taken place spontaneously in connection with the food shortages, with stores being looted, etc. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that even if a political accommodation were to be found the violence might still run out of control if the food situation and inflation were not ameliorated at the same time. As it is, the two things are becoming conjoined.
The real question is, of course, what the Venezuelan military will do, although some commentators are already predicting that if things deteriorate any further they may well intervene. Since the officer corps was thoroughly purged by Mr Chávez, they may be prepared to confront the opposition – although the Caracazo riots of 1989 stand as a warning if too much violence is used – but it is hard to see them indefinitely employing brute force against food rioters, since the families of ordinary ranks are also suffering. There are, of course too, civilians who were armed under Chávez and who are assumed to be loyal to the government, and they are a further unpredictable – and dangerous – element in the mix.
Certainly, where refugees are concerned, the first choice of most Venezuelans would be Curaçao, and then possibly Trinidad. The better off would try to go to the United States, or if not some Spanish-speaking territory, and could use Caribbean island airports in the first instance as their jumping off points. We would, of course, have returning Guyanese, but they would presumably bring their Venezuelan spouses (and children) and perhaps their extended Venezuelan families or even their friends as well.
Whether, despite what the cabinet thinks, there would be more than that, is not something which can be predicted. Given the spurious claim against our territory, even a modest number of Venezuelans who are perceived to be opposition supporters (in the view of whatever government is in power to the west) could be used to denounce us as conspiring against Caracas along with other assorted allegations.
Even if we don’t think it’s likely that we will be faced with Venezuelan refugees, since we are not in possession of a crystal ball we should at least do like Trinidad, and plan for a variety of possible scenarios.