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After-shocks in T&T fromChavez political tremors

The dire condition of Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, hospitalised in Cuba after episodes of cancer-related surgery, has shaken the neighbouring republic constitutionally and politically. The extended absence of the charismatic leader of Chavismo, with latest reports suggesting multiple afflictions arising, have had inevitably destabilising effects, likely to be escalated by a big opposition demonstration planned for Caracas on Wednesday.

Re-elected last October for a fourth consecutive term, Chavez returned to Cuba for treatment in December and has maintained such an unusual silence as to give rise to grim speculations about his capacities. His inability to attend his own inauguration set for January 10 precipitated a constitutional dispute barely resolved by a Supreme Court ruling. Ceremonies and celebrations went ahead anyway, attended by leaders from Latin American, Caribbean and other allies.

So far the only sign of notice being taken by Venezuela's closest Caribbean neighbour has shown in the offering in church of prayers for Chavez' recovery. Historically, however, T&T has always been directly affected by the after-shocks of Venezuelan political tremors.

Present troubles include economic ones faced by a country dependent on shrinking oil export income, while being unable to increase production, but committed by a self-declared socialist administration to high-level social spending. Again, corruption, violent crime and drug trafficking take place on a scale that dwarfs any related T&T experience.

With concern and even dread, Caricom neighbours dependent on Caracas energy-related aid under the Petrocaribe programme, must view the present uncertainties about the future of the Bolivarian leader and the state shaped in his own image and likeness. T&T is, however, subject to other potential anxieties that include security, illegal immigration, and interdiction of drug and arms trafficking and piracy in the waters shared by the two republics.

Above all, T&T retains serious interest in such stability prevailing across the Gulf of Paria as would keep Venezuela a reliable partner in energy developments along the two countries' shared maritime borders. Negotiations long stalled toward exploitation of shared gas resources in the Plataforma Deltana stand to be endangered by changes of personnel or policy in Caracas, amid disorders likely to arise from the permanent absence of President Chavez.

As ever, in self-absorbed T&T, the tendency is to look north, before glancing south to the mainland republic actually visible from points along the Trinidad coast. On foreign affairs, more enlightened leadership is much in need.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, from whom hardly anything is ever heard in this portfolio, should be making ready to reassure Parliament and T&T that the government has an adequate handle on the unfolding Venezuelan crisis. The country is entitled to have some authoritative analysis of the likely impact of unfolding crises affecting its closest neighbour, so as to enable a timely and informed response as and when needed.

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