Trump’s Venezuela Policy Is Causing Turmoil in the Caribbean

In May, accounts emerged in local media that authorities had closed the southern port of Cedros, one of the main arrival points for passenger boats from Venezuela, and where many people arrive legally to buy food and supplies that have become scant and overpriced amid the turmoil. There have been reports that Trinidad and Tobago’s Coast Guard has prohibited vessels from crossing the country’s maritime border, sending passengers back to Venezuela, and detentions of migrants seem to be on the rise. In a video uploaded to Facebook on June 3, a group of Venezuelan men held at the Immigration Detention Center announced that they were on a hunger strike because they lacked access to proper medical care and had not yet been told by officials when they would be released. While conducting research at the country’s maximum security prison, University of West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine Law Dean Rose-Marie Belle Antoine told me she discovered the government was using the facility to house an overflow of immigration detainees.

Xenophobia seems to be rising. The Venezuelan “issue” has consumed the news cycle. Some Trinidadians fear that the new arrivals will threaten their job security and pull down already stagnant wages. In 2015, Trinidad experienced a recession due to falling oil and gas prices, and the current unemployment rate sits at 4.8 percent. On Facebook, comments from concerned citizens range from cautious optimism to blunt racism. “If you organise and coordinate the process properly there would be no problems. The system you put in place is inadequate,” one Facebook user wrote. “Back them up and send them back home we have more than enough of them already,” wrote another.

Althea La Foucade, head economist at UWI St. Augustine, believes the government should adopt a measured approach. Recent arrivals could be instrumental in revitalizing industries like manufacturing that have struggled to retain workers, but too many foreign nationals competing for jobs against local employees could raise the unemployment rate and adversely impact the economy. UWI economist Roger Hosein believes the islands could stand to absorb at maximum 54,000 low-end workers. “If we could increase employment in the agricultural sector,” he told me, “by having a biased work permit program that sends Venezuelan workers into the areas that generate foreign exchange or prevent the use of foreign exchange, by import substitute production, then these workers can add tremendous value to Trinidad and Tobago’s economy.”

Constructive ideas for how Trinidad and Tobago should respond to the influx, as well as increasing pressure from the U.S. to isolate the Venezuelan regime, are complicated by the countries’ relationship. The neighbors share oil and gas reserves and cooperate on hydrocarbon exploration. “The current prime minister wants to maintain that relationship [with Maduro] and it comes at a time when the U.S. administration is doing whatever it can to isolate Venezuela from its Caricom allies,” University of Alberta political scientist Andy Knight told me.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018.Jason Lee/AFP/Getty Images

Last August, the two countries inked a deal that would allow Trinidad to purchase and export natural gas from Venezuela’s state-owned Dragon field at a rate of 150 million cubic feet of gas per day. But as turmoil in Venezuela delays the process, opposition parliament members have questioned whether the government’s continued liaisons with Maduro are wise given that the U.S remains Trinidad’s largest trading partner. Rowley’s opponents fear the island could be left hat-in-hand after green-lighting a billion-dollar infrastructure investment to pipe the gas, should the deal fall through.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues its attempts to sow division within Caricom—a regional body that promotes cooperation and economic development among Caribbean communities. Caricom members have overwhelmingly advocated for “non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela,” while calling on “all actors, internal and external, to avoid actions which would escalate an already explosive situation.” The U.S., hoping to isolate Venezuela as much as possible, has promised Caricom members financial investment to back opposition leader Guaidó. “The Caricom countries have become sort of a chessboard in this hybrid war the U.S. is trying to carry out,” University of California Riverside Research Associate Jeb Sprague told me.

Only four of 15 member states: the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, and St. Lucia, have either denounced Maduro or recognized Guaidó as interim president. The majority, including Trinidad and Tobago, has backed the Montevideo Mechanism—a diplomatic initiative endorsed by Mexico, Uruguay, and the EU.

It’s a mark of independence from the U.S. that Knight says marks a waning of U.S. power in the region. Most Caribbean nations are dependent on tourism and rely heavily on imports, trading extensively with the United States. But, said Knight, “the Chinese government is actually beginning to raise its profile in the Caribbean and Latin American region, not unlike what it’s doing in other parts of the world with its Belt and Road initiative.”

Despite some well-deserved criticism, small Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Tobago have attempted to do their part to aid those seeking refuge, and have mobilized their countries’ resources to do so. Central Bank Governor Alvin Hilaire announced in May that it would cost the island an estimated $92 million ($620 million TTD) per year to host Venezuelan refugees and migrants—a large sum for a tiny country. Leaving smaller allies to shoulder the burden of American imperialism has both humanitarian and strategic risks. Island nations may turn against the refugees they are currently taking in. And Chinese partnerships may look more appealing as small states struggle with the fallout of U.S. actions.

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