On the evening of Wednesday, September 25, the University of the West Indies’, Cave Hill campus and the Venezuelan Embassy facilitated a public forum on Petrocaribe.
Its main aim was to allow PVD Caribe’s general manager, Luis Rivas, to present a detailed overview of the main aspects of the Petrocaribe arrangements, to answer key concerns and to clarify areas of doubt.
A panel of four Barbadians was constituted as immediate respondents and as a bridge to the participation of the wider audience.
While the evening was, by most accounts, a success, it was disturbing that there appeared to be a degree of ideological blockage standing in the way of Barbados’s exploration of Petrocaribe’s possibilities.
This ideological barrier was symbolised by the Barbados Nation’s misleading headline summary of the night’s discussion, “Oil deal not good for Barbados”, which highlighted dissenting voices while ignoring the more positive commentary and the beneficial features of Petrocaribe, such as the far more benign arrangements for purchase of oil, plus the inclusion of a development component.
During the public feedback, one individual focused on the “tremendous profits for Venezuela”, as if Venezuelan profit-making was inherently evil and traditional Anglo-American profits after centuries of colonial advantage and global exploitation was perfectly normal.
Other respondents appeared victim to the “myth of Barbadian exceptionalism”.
This weakness has been effectively criticised by one of the panellists, David Comissiong, who has objected to the claim that while Petrocaribe might be good for the “smaller” islands of the Caribbean (including Jamaica, incidentally), Barbados should stay out of it since it could afford to pay for all of its oil imports.
Significantly, this “Barbados superiority” assumption exists blissfully oblivious to the unprecedented global economic crisis.
Instead, an educated awareness of the crisis would have resulted in greater openness to new south-south relations and a movement away from traditional sources.
Other concerns revolved around the marginalisation of the role of Trinidad and Tobago as the Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) leading oil producer. However, recent Trinidad-Venezuela joint exploration ventures should have cautioned against using the Trinidad and Tobago stick to beat Venezuela.
Indeed, given Trinidad and Tobago’s failure to develop more progressive trade relations with Caricom, a more positive reading of the Petrocaribe initiative would have seen it—not as undermining Trinidad, but as creating the conditions for a more regionally conscious Trinidad and Tobago to emerge.
However, the deep and enduring crisis of the existing order should have been the most significant issue shaping public attitudes toward Petrocaribe.
Indeed, this is the context of my own advice to the government of St Lucia in my capacity as a member of a Foreign Policy Review Task Force. It is perhaps this advice which partly explains St Lucia’s recent intention to participate in Petrocaribe.
Barbados, obviously, is not excepted from the global crisis.
It is perhaps time to reject ingrained ideological conditioning and embrace new, practical development options.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political
scientist at the University of the
West Indies, Cave Hill campus,
specialising in regional affairs.
—Courtesy Barbados Nation