By Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah has offered political commentary for several Trinidadian newspapers since the 1980s, and now writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Express. His articles and other commentary, including his reflections on the Black Power period in 1970s Trinidad, can be found at http://www.trinicenter.com/Raffique/

This article originally appeared in the Trinidad Express on March 25, 2019.

Diaspora Column Editor’s Note: One could be forgiven for wondering what foreign policy co-ordination, one of the pillars of regional integration in CARICOM, really means in light of last week’s decision by the heads of four CARICOM countries – The Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica and Saint Lucia – plus the Dominican Republic to meet with US President Donald Trump at his private resort in Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Perhaps it is not so surprising, given that on January 10, 2019, the governments of the same four countries along with Guyana followed the US position by voting with most of the members of the permanent council of the Organisation of American States not to recognise the second five-year term of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. But it does make one wonder what goes on behind closed doors at CARICOM meetings, given the statement issued by the Heads of Government two weeks later (the Government of Guyana was not present at the meeting but later endorsed the statement), that “reaffirmed their guiding principles of non-interference and non-intervention in the affairs of states, respect for sovereignty, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for human rights and democracy…called on external forces to refrain from doing anything to destabilize the situation and…called on all actors, internal and external, to avoid actions which would escalate an already explosive situation to the detriment of the people of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and which could have far-reaching negative consequences for the wider region.” Or the fact that in early February, along with the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, CARICOM signed on to the Mechanism of Montevideo, signalling that “the most appropriate way to address the complex situation that prevails in Venezuela is through dialogue for a negotiation, from a position of respect for International Law and Human Rights.”  Given what appeared to be a clear regional position, what are we to make of the decision by these four CARICOM countries to accept the invitation extended by the US administration for a meeting in Florida at which President Trump reportedly remarked, “I have a feeling Venezuela will come up”? Nothing concrete was gained by CARICOM PMs at the meeting, mind you. Just promises of follow up meetings to suss out potential US investment and trade deals (were those promises, or a warning to stay in line?). It was telling that, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of the Grenadian revolution, Allen Chastanet, prime minister of Saint Lucia would reportedly remark, according to the Miami Herald, that “there hasn’t been this level of engagement since Ronald Reagan engaged with former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in the early 1980s.” A level of covert and overt engagement in the region’s affairs, we might recall, that culminated in the removal of Michael Manley from office in a bloody election in 1980 from which Jamaica has yet to recover, and in the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.  Now, criticised by the Prime Ministers of Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines for accepting Trump’s invitation, given CARICOM’s position on the crisis in Venezuela, Prime Minister Chastenet reportedly retorted, “At the end of the day, I was elected by Saint Lucians to represent Saint Lucians. At the end of the day this was not a meeting for CARICOM, this was a meeting by invitation by the President of the United States of America which is Saint Lucia’s largest trading partner.” What does this say about regional unity? About a Caribbean commitment to declaring and maintaining a zone of peace in the region? And most importantly right now, precisely what are we to make of the fact that the incoming Chair of CARICOM is the Prime Minister of St. Lucia himself, whose government has lined up behind the Lima Group, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) that actively support and recognise Juan Guaido as Interim Venezuelan President?

I find it incomprehensible that supposedly-intelligent persons, many of whom have been around for as long as I have, and who ought to know the bloody history of American interventions in the politics of Latin American countries, routinely regurgitate the propaganda emanating from Washington by referring to Venezuela’s besieged president Nicholas Maduro as an “evil dictator”.

When such description comes from the mouths of the lying US president Donald Trump and his close associates, or from Venezuelans who oppose Maduro (and his predecessor Hugo Chavez), I understand that. They have to paint the man as a monster to rally support and political and economic ostracism that they hope will hasten his demise.

But you’d think intelligent persons they are seeking to convince will ask a simple question: where is the evidence of Maduro’s evil, dictatorial designs? How many Venezuelans who have reportedly fled their country were gunned down in cold blood at the borders, either while exiting or re-entering the country? How many of the alleged majority (total population is 30 million) who politically oppose the “evil dictator” are rotting in dungeons or in sub-human conditions in concentration camps? How many children have died from starvation or even malnutrition, or diseases like cholera that are linked with destitution? How many have disappeared, presumed dead, murdered by Maduro’s maniacal soldiers?

The answers to these pertinent questions, my friends, are blowing in the wind…outright lies or grossly exaggerated propaganda.

Which evil dictator who controls military forces as mighty as Venezuela’s will allow opposition forces to assemble, protest, disrupt traffic in the capital city and not brutally strike back? In ‘civilised’ France, comparatively fewer numbers of protestors are bombarded by the police with tear gas, water cannons and batons.

Which dictator, evil or benign, would allow a pretender to the presidency to parade publicly, and not have him arrested and charged with treason?

To those who use the term loosely and freely, I ask: tell me precisely what makes Maduro an evil dictator?

Oh, there is no doubt that the country’s economy is in grave crisis, for which the government must shoulder the bulk of the blame. But I also have no doubt that ever since Chavez came to power, winning the presidential election in 1998, Washington has been working overtime to undermine Venezuela’s oil-based economy which, like so many other countries’, is linked with trading with the USA.

Maduro may be incompetent—I don’t know. He is probably not well educated. And since the Chavez era, the government will have made some poor decisions with respect to the country’s oil industry—again, I don’t know for sure because of the devious minds at work in Washington. But many other governments and leaders fall in these categories, including successive governments here in Trinidad and Tobago. Do we brand our prime ministers “evil” for their mishandling of the economy? Dr Eric Williams was seen by many, including members of his own party, as being dictatorial. Was he also evil?

It is so easy for people to sit before television cameras, radio microphones or their computer keyboards writing newspaper columns (as I am doing now), and cast aspersions at public officials. It is even easier when the targets are in foreign jurisdictions: early in this article I dubbed Donald Trump a liar (a charge I can support).

Those who brand Maduro an evil dictator are parroting the Trump administration’s characterisation of the Venezuelan president without considering that the US has a long history of creating such monsters in many Third World countries, but most of all in Latin America.

You want to talk about evil dictators? Talk about Anastasio Somoza and his family dynasty (two sons) that was installed in power in Nicaragua by the USA and ruled that country for 50 years. According to a biography, “…Anastasio was a cruel, crooked despot who was nevertheless supported by the US government because he was staunchly anti-communist…”

Talk about Chile’s General Augosto Pinochet who murdered elected president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup in 1973. “…Over the course of almost 20 years, he ruled Chile with an iron fist, ordering the deaths of ​thousands of suspected leftists…”

Talk about General Jorge Videla who overthrew the elected government of Isabel Peron in Argentina in 1976. “…resulting with around 30,000 victims ‘missing’…the coup and the following authoritarian regime were eagerly supported by the US government… Among the many human rights violations committed during the period were extrajudicial arrests, mass executions, torture, rape, disappearances of political prisoners and dissenters…”

Write about the military junta in El Salvador, fully backed by the USA, which, besides murdering thousands of citizens, committed one of the most heinous crimes (from The Guardian, UK). “…March 24 1980, a car stopped outside the Church of the Divine Providence. A lone gunman stepped out, unhurried. Resting his rifle on the car door, he aimed carefully down the aisle to where Archbishop, Oscar Romero, was saying mass. A single shot rang out. Romero staggered and fell. The blood pumped from his heart, soaking the little white disks of scattered host…”

Talk about the notorious Rafael Trujillo who ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 years, committing atrocities against his own people, massacring Haitian migrants by the thousands. Speaking with the BBC in 2011, one of the men who assassinated Trujillo in May 1961, said with pride: “I shot the cruelest dictator in the Americas.”

Washington validated the notorious Duvalier duo, Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, who terrorised Haitians and plundered that poor country for 30 long years.

I can continue ad nauseam about evil dictators across the world who were manufactured by the USA. But why bother when commentators can beat up on Maduro like a Good Friday “bobolee”? There are none so blind as those who will not see…

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