As with so much in politics, it is often what is not seen, said, or fully understood that drives events. This is particularly so in the case of Venezuela’s changing relationship with the countries of CARICOM.
In recent months Caracas has been deepening its sub-regional relations and has escalated its border dispute with Guyana. It has also encouraged CARICOM to be less than emphatic in its support for Georgetown’s position.
At the same time, Venezuala has been moving rapidly to consolidate its relationship with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Trinidad, and Suriname by offering increased levels of support or investments, largely through its concessional PetroCaribe oil and development assistance programmes.
Such generosity, however, comes against an unlikely backdrop. On December 6th, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will face challenges with the upcoming National Assembly elections. There are differences between powerful individuals within the ruling party, and inflation is estimated by government to increase by 85% this year (although external analysts put the figure at a less conservative estimate of 150-200%). There are also shortages of items such as food, medicines, and basic consumer essentials. Crime is at an unacceptable level, oil revenues (which account for 96% of Venezuela’s exports) are falling, and there are shortages of foreign exchange.
The Venezuelan government has said that it believes that these internal problems and the turbulence it faces are being induced by the external and internal forces that oppose it. However, more likely factors are economic mismanagement, falling global energy prices, and an approach that appears to place internationalism above the efficient management and delivery of much needed domestic economic and social programmes.
Consequently, there is now the widespread view that President Maduro’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) may lose its majority in the National Assembly. Irrespective of this, President Maduro has said on state television that in such a “negated hypothetical scenario” he would “govern with the people, always with the people and the civil-military union”. “The revolution will not be surrendered ever”. “With the constitution in hand, we will push Venezuela’s independence forward, whatever the costs, in any way”.
Now, despite its internal problems, Venezuela has decided to expand its PetroCaribe programme and deepen its relationship with CARICOM at all levels. Although little detail emerged from the PetroCaribe summit held in Jamaica on September 7th, at that time Venezuela proposed a number of initiatives: the creation of a Caribbean economic, commercial, and financial space; the consolidation of energy security and energy sovereignty for the nations and associate members of PetroCaribe; a Caribbean common system of social provision against hunger and poverty; and the creation of a civil defence mechanism against major natural disasters along the lines of Cuba’s successful existing model.
Since then, President Maduro and his ministers have been seeking to consolidate this approach and have visited Antigua, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname. A summit is also expected to take place soon with Trinidad’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley following a first meeting in Caracas on October 26th of the high-level committee for Venezuela-Trinidad and Tobago bilateral relations.
In Saint Vincent, arguably the English-speaking Caribbean nation that President Maduro is closest to, he made clear that he saw PetroCaribe as “the backbone of the energy, social, [and] economic development of our region”. In an apparent reference to the United States, he said that the Caribbean now had before it two models: “either we work together” or continue to work in isolation of each other. Elsewhere he spoke about a plan to curb the region’s high import bill, the establishment of high level bilateral commissions, a trade hub, and supporting pan-regional transport arrangements.
In Antigua a strategic alliance was formed involving Venezuelan investment, and according to the island’s prime minister Gaston Browne, a new economic paradigm emerged that will involve “taking the best aspects of capitalism to generate profits for the collective benefits of the masses”.
In other visits there were further offers of Venezuelan support. In Grenada these included prospecting for offshore oil and gas and the delimitation of maritime boundaries. In Saint Vincent, this included support for the completion of the country’s new international airport, while in Suriname the offer was of the purchase of rice previously obtained from Guyana. In addition, a new joint security and information sharing arrangement with Trinidad, and most likely an agreement soon on the monetisation in Trinidad of Venezuelan oil and gas in adjacent plays.
Despite this, it remains unstated where this may eventually lead, or how far Venezuela’s partners in CARICOM see the relationship moving beyond economic support. At one level, Venezuela’s regional strategy appears to be genuinely motivated by a philosophical desire to see more equitable development across the Caribbean basin in ways that reflect its social thinking. However, at another level it is seeking to broaden resistance against what it regards as ideological and economic pressure from the United States. It also reflects a desire to counteract the influence of multinationals like Exxon Mobil, which recently made a massive find of oil off the coast of Guyana, but to which Caracas potentially owes US$1.1 billion as a result of a World Bank arbitration award relating to expropriated assets.
Beyond this, President Maduro’s rhetoric in regional and hemispheric meetings seems to imply that Venezuela also sees in the expansion of its PetroCaribe related programmes the opportunity, over time, to develop new global voting blocs within the hemisphere and internationally, and change political thinking.
Global and geostrategic context is everything. Venezuela knows this. However, in recent years it is an approach that has largely been set aside in Europe and North America when it comes to the Caribbean. Such developments come at a time when the United States and Europe are continuing to lessen their role in much of the region, Chinese economic engagement is increasing, Russian involvement is renewed, and positive new sub-hemispheric political vehicles like CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) are emerging. All of these suggest a rebalancing of relationships and power in a way that may take the region into a new era in its post-colonial history.