Monday, January 22, 2018

Staying alert on Venezuela

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Mark Fraser

As troubles in Venezuela worsen and draw increasing international attention, Trinidad and Tobago, as next-door neighbour to the Bolivarian republic, must brace for inevitable fall-out.

The arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and the expulsion of three US diplomats have highlighted disorder and unrest marked by increasingly large and violent demonstrations in Caracas and other cities, and generally deepened polarisation.

The protests which began among university students on February 12 have quickly swelled to include a growing number of disaffected citizens protesting against rising crime, food shortages, an inflation rate of 54 per cent, and suppression of free speech.

For his part, President Nicolas Maduro has dismissed the protesters as rich, spoiled youth and political opportunists. Behind it all he sees the destabilising hand of the United States, a view dismissed by the US as scapegoating.

This tumultuous situation is the sternest test to date of Maduro’s 11-month-old government. How it will be resolved is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, however, we in Trinidad and Tobago must be clear about its implications for us and stand ready to respond. Our ties with Venezuela are significant and historic. For centuries, our people have moved easily between the countries, creating a deep bond of family and community relationships, while our energy interests are intertwined with shared reservoirs of oil and gas between us. On the negative side, porous borders have facilitated a stream of illegal drugs, guns and migrants between our countries.

At this time of heightened tensions inside Venezuela, logic would suggest that T&T must now be prepared for any new wave of safe-haven seekers, through legal and other ways. Moreover, inside a Caracas government focused on internal disturbances, there may be diminished interest in security collaboration against drug trafficking and arms smuggling. With even worse long-term effects, fruitful co-operation with T&T in cross-border energy development could end up being pushed further into the background. To this extent, Venezuela’s escalating troubles could well also become ours.

The statement issued over the weekend by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggests that the Government is clued in to the situation and that the T&T Embassy in Caracas has activated its plan for ensuring the protection and safety of embassy staff and T&T nationals in Venezuela. It is to be hoped that the embassy is not alone in its planning and that all the necessary agencies that might have to act in an emergency are fully in the loop as part of an integrated response plan.

We would also hope that the Ministry of National Security would not wait for a crisis before it acts, as in the case of the recent crowd control incident at the Queen’s Park Oval. Advance planning is needed in anticipation of the possibility of refugee movement and relocation of criminal activity. Coast Guard monitoring must be stepped up at potential points of entry while Immigration authorities must be vigilant and sensitive.

In the meantime, we rest our hopes on a resolution to the current crisis and a quick restoration of peaceful conditions.