Thursday, January 18, 2018

Venezuela, a 2018 priority

The disaster unfolding in neighbouring Venezuela is ­entering a new and even more troubling phase as the economic noose tightens on its people while the government of President Nicolas Maduro continues to lose the support of one-time friendly governments.

Just in the past week alone, Venezuela has been involved in diplomatic tit-for-tat with Canada and neighbouring Brazil after both countries criticised the Maduro government's decision to block opposition parties from competing in next year's election. Exactly how Maduro intends to weather the coming phase of the storm is anybody's guess. Not even the extreme deprivation being suffered by his people appears able to sway him away from the rigid pursuit of confrontation and subjugation of political opposition in his quest to remain in power.

Like all authoritarian leaders, he has convinced himself that he alone knows what's best for Venezuela and its people, and that views to the contrary constitute treachery and threats to the state.

Inevitably, as the axis of its diplomatic relationships tilts away from hemispheric allies, references to Russia and China have been increasingly cropping up as identifiable supporters and ­investors in Maduro's Venezuela.

Trinidad and Tobago cannot afford to be naive about the geo-political implications of Venezuela's shifting alliances. More than ever, T&T needs foreign-policy clarity based on accurate information on developments in Caracas, an understanding of global politics, and clear-headed thinking about the ramifications of both for this country. We cannot afford to muddle our way on the basis of poor intelligence and limited understanding.

For all its troubles, Venezuela is of global importance, given its distinction of having the largest proven reserves of oil in the world. The fact that state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, Pdvsa, is reportedly teetering on the brink of collapse with production in steady decline, and now down to a fraction of previous production levels, makes little difference. Despite its deep troubles, Venezuela remains a powerhouse that is attractive for the world's power brokers.

As this giant to our south continues to unravel, Trinidad and Tobago has the dubious privilege of a front-row seat to the misery being levied upon its people. We do not have to follow international news to know what is happening just south of our border. The Venezuelans who are arriving here in droves, seeking refuge among us, are bringing their tales of woe and political oppression. Many have been driven from their homes by the sheer impossibility of making a living in a country where the exchange rate has fallen so low that it has become meaningless.

With the International Monetary Fund projecting Venezuela's inflation rate to jump by over 2,300 per cent in 2018, reportedly a historic high for inflation tracking by the IMF, the humanitarian impact can only be expected to get severely worse.

Trinidad and Tobago must not sleep-walk into the overflow of the Venezuelan crisis. We need to focus, prepare ourselves and be ready for the coming waves of refugees and for the geo-politi­cal undertow into which this country can expect to be dragged.