Caribbean countries should be ashamed of supporting Venezuela at OAS meeting

Here’s the million-dollar question about the failure at this week’s Organization of American States’ meeting to strongly condemn Venezuela’s autocratic regime: How could a few tiny Caribbean islands defeat a resolution that was backed by the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and 15 other major countries in the region?

It sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly what happened at a June 19 special meeting of the region’s foreign ministers in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the break of democratic rule in Venezuela.

At the meeting, 20 countries voted to support a strong resolution that would have demanded Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stop his plan to convene a constituent assembly to draft a Cuban-styled constitution. It also would have asked Maduro to respect the rights of the opposition-majority National Assembly, and to allow a “group of friendly countries” to mediate in the Venezuelan crisis, which has already left 75 dead in recent weeks.

But St Vincent and Grenadines, Dominica, and St Christopher and Nevis — alongside traditional Venezuelan allies Nicaragua and Bolivia — voted against the motion. And other Caribbean countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua and Barbuda abstained, in effect killing the resolution that would have required a 23-vote majority to become mandatory.

Among the fiercest defenders of Venezuela’s regime was St Vincent and Grenadines, a country whose gross domestic product of $751 million is less than the appraised value of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

One explanation is that this and other small Caribbean islands were able to kill the US-backed resolution because of the Trump administration’s ineptitude or inattention. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to attend the OAS meeting of foreign ministers, just as he had done with a previous one on May 31 in Washington, DC.

“Unfortunately, Secretary Tillerson’s last-minute cancellation undercut US interests in the region,” US Rep Elliot L Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me on Wednesday.

My translation: If Tillerson had been there to offer incentives or twist arms, the US-backed resolution may have prevailed.

Another possible explanation is that Caribbean countries sided with Venezuela’s regime because they receive generous oil subsidies from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe plan, or are deeply indebted to it. But PetroCaribe’s oil subsidies to the Caribbean have diminished substantially in recent years, because of the Venezuelan crisis, and so have the Caribbean countries’ debt loads, experts say.

Jorge Piñon, head of a University of Texas centre on Latin American and Caribbean energy issues, told me that the United States is currently exporting much more oil to Caribbean countries than Venezuela, and that many Caribbean countries’ debts to Petrocaribe have been either paid or pardoned.

Asked why so many Caribbean countries continue to side with Venezuela’s regime, Piñon said, “I don’t know. If we look at it from a rational or economic point of view, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Others speculate that it may be a matter of corruption. The Maduro regime is known to engage in “checkbook diplomacy,” offering countries and their top officials money for their political loyalty, two diplomatic sources told me.

My opinion: It’s astounding that the United States, the biggest economy on earth, cannot offer economic incentives to win over small Caribbean islands, which are voting almost routinely in support of Venezuela. Worse, Trump’s proposed 32 percent cut in foreign aid could make the United States lose even more clout in the Caribbean.

It is also ridiculous that the OAS voting system allows a handful of tiny islands to control the organization’s agenda. Of course every country should be entitled to a vote, even if it means that a speck in the ocean can have the same political weight as the United States. But the OAS should have a Security Council, much like the United Nations, where the biggest countries can issue resolutions affecting the region’s most urgent matters.

The OAS efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela will continue, but the June 19 vote was a disgrace, for which most Caribbean countries should be blamed.

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