By Raffique Shah
December 24, 2019
At the beginning of this year, the economic and political crisis that had gripped neighbouring Venezuela from almost a decade earlier exploded on the streets and other public places as hundreds of thousands of people participated in colourful, noisy, and sometimes violent protests, many against, some supportive of, the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Little did we know then that the fire next door would impact tiny Trinidad and Tobago the way it did, and continues to do, spawning a spillover that shook this country’s demographics in a way we had not experienced for generations. Most of us alive today will know little about the steady flow of migrants from the Eastern Caribbean islands and Guyana, that spanned almost half of the 20th Century, and coincided with the growth of the oil industry here.
In the current crisis that was, in part, fuelled by the geopolitics of the region, US President Donald Trump intervened through the Organisation of American States (always the OAS in this part of the world) and some powerful, distant NATO countries in a bid to remove President Nicolas Maduro and his leftist regime from power. By February, they had unearthed an obscure right-wing member of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, and proclaimed him interim president of Venezuela. They also amassed the military might of common-borders-countries Colombia and Brazil to both intimidate Maduro and oversee the flight of an estimated three million economic refugees.
The drums of regime-changing war, used in the new millennium with murderous efficacy in far-off countries like Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, could be heard here in T&T, echoing across the Gulf of Paria, accompanying thousands of refugees fleeing our way, a mere seven miles from the mainland at some points. Oil, the commodity that launched hundreds of conflicts and skirmishes in countries large and small, insignificant and strategic, was also a root cause of this showdown, although the principal purveyor of mindless bloodshed has attributed the threat of war to a seemingly simple issue: democracy vs dictatorship.
As one of the pawns on the hemispheric chessboard, we in T&T were expected to rally behind America without so much as thinking, even if that meant sacrificing our national sovereignty and human dignity. After all, countries far mightier than ours had readily surrendered to Washington’s whims. It mattered not that we were being summoned to ignore the charters of international bodies like the United Nations regarding the legitimacy of governments that must be recognised by their member states.
Maduro had won the presidential election, albeit by a narrow margin. Unless the elections were annulled by a court of law, he remained the lawful president of Venezuela.
Guaido had no such standing. In fact, he came to the fore by a series of bizarre occurrences that saw the USA and several OAS heads of governments refusing to recognise Maduro. They manipulated the crisis that had by then threatened to destabilise several neighbouring countries, Colombia and T&T being overwhelmed by so-called refugees who were fleeing Venezuela because of dire economic circumstances, hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods.
Guaido himself must have been shocked when, in February, he received orders from US Vice President Mike Pence to seize leadership of the anti-Maduro movement, create as much mischief as he could, and the US would back him all the way to the presidency in Caracas. It was a done deal, he will have been assured—and the kid took it very seriously.
To demonstrate just how easily Guaido was duped into believing that he would occupy the presidential palace, Mira Flores, in short order, Pence and Trump had duped other leaders of stature, among them Canada’s Trudeau and most of the European Union heads of government.
To his credit, T&T’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley maintained a level head in the midst of the madness when torrents of abuse were hurled at him for not going with the flow, not recognizing Guaido, staying with the duly-elected Maduro. Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, displaying that she was out of depth in international affairs, called on Rowley to pledge support for the US puppet.
In fact, the chorus for toeing the US line was deafening: political commentators almost to a man (and woman) mindlessly chanted, “Guaido! Guaido!” My colleague Mariano Browne gave Maduro two weeks to ride out of town, presumably dead or alive. And Ralph Maraj led the pack that branded the besieged president an “evil dictator” without a shred of evidence of him having committed atrocities such as mowing down anti-government protestors with machine guns.
Indeed, if anything, I thought the troops who faced masked protesters who hurled firebombs at them, exercised remarkable restraint. Also, there were no attempts by Venezuela’s security forces to prevent nationals from leaving or re-entering the country through border crossings, ports and airports. In fact many “refugees” who routinely enter T&T to work, legally or illegally, frequently return home to repatriate their earnings.
And the Rowley government, which faced very vocal criticisms from ingrates like Yesenia Gonzalez and other Venezuelans who have enjoyed nothing but Trini-hospitality here, recently received plaudits from the Vatican for the systems it used to treat with refugees who chose to regularise their status and comply with our laws and immigration regulations.
Further, Rowley’s stance on Guaido has proved to be the correct path: we are at the end of the year, Maduro is still in office as the official president, and the 50-odd countries that ditched him in favour of Guaido are wondering where their man is. The Washington Post reported last week that members of his cabal face allegations of corruption. He hardly attracts attention, far less crowds, and speculation is rife that Washington will soon ditch him, presumably for some other fool.
Oh Ye of great faith in men of little substance…