Arcaya & Asociados
January 23, 2008
Guyana daily criticizes Dominica's decision to join Venezuela's ALBA On Tuesday [15 January] we reported that Dominica had joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, generally referred to by its Spanish acronym of ALBA. Set up by President Chavez of Venezuela in conjunction with Cuba in 2004, it is intended as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The latter, of course, has been strongly promoted by the United States, although that country has had little success in bringing it to fruition, and has no hope of being able to do so in the immediate future.
In addition to the countries mentioned above, Nicaragua and Bolivia are also members of ALBA, while President Correa of Ecuador too has indicated his desire to join. As will be seen from the line-up cited above, Dominica has now joined a socialist club, and it may be followed by St Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda, if the parliaments in those territories ratify the ALBA agreements which they signed last year.
The aims of ALBA reflect an ideological position espoused by President Chavez, making it as much a political and social movement as an economic one. In an address in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, on Wednesday, the Venezuelan head of state told his audience, "Our calling is to convert Central America, the Caribbean into that great union envisioned by Jose Martial, a true world power, which can exist here if we join together.
Separated, we remain divided and condemned to misery, backwardness, colonialism and dependency." While Mr Chavez has not abandoned his grand Bolivarian dream of unifying the continent, he has clearly adjusted his focus to what he regards as achievable goals in the first instance, by concentrating on Central America and the Caribbean.
Dominica has been the beneficiary of enormous largesse from Caracas. Apart from signing on to PetroCaribe (as a member of ALBA the terms of the fuel loan are likely to be even more generous) we reported the Venezuelan information agency as saying that about 1,000 Cuban and Venezuelan experts in energy, education, health care, agriculture, tourism, housing and other kinds of construction were working on the island. In addition, Venezuela is to build a US80,000,000 dollars oil refinery on Dominica, and last week it was reported that the preliminary studies for this project had already been completed. Then there is the US10 dollars. 1M grant which Caracas says it has provided to expand the Melville Hall Airport; debt forgiveness of US1 dollars. 5M; the 2000 Cuban and Venezuelan scholarships awarded to the islanders in the fields of computer science, medicine, engineering, sports, physics, maths and agriculture; and the free eye operations given to 500 of the island's citizens. And all this, as the Venezuelan information agency was quick to mention, for a population of 72,000.
So what is the price of this for Dominica? She will find that she has relinquished her freedom of action in the political and the economic spheres, and that she is no longer a free agent within the councils of CARICOM [Caribbean Community]. She may have paid another, more sinister price as well. Last year, without warning, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt of Dominica effectively acknowledged Venezuela's claim to Bird Island, a claim which Dominica, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States [OECS] and CARICOM had rejected for years. This affects more territories than the one Mr Skerritt represents; while the islet is uninhabitable, Venezuela is using it to ground a claim to a vastly expanded EEZ, which will deprive some other Caricom territories of their full maritime rights.
As things stand, according to the Leader of the Grenada United Labour Party writing in the Trinidad Express on Friday, Venezuela has so far refused to negotiate a maritime boundary with his country. It might be added that Caracas has been careful not to sign on to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, so the CARICOM islands have no recourse to the court in Hamburg. So much for ALBA's supposed disinterested and declared objective of transferring resources to the most underdeveloped countries so they could develop.
Then there is the matter of CARICOM itself. It is not for nothing that the Venezuelan information agency boasted that this was a major step for ALBA, since Dominica would be the organization's first English-speaking member. It was expected to "shine" in CARICOM councils, gushed the agency, on account of its membership, "perhaps leading other ambitious Caricom members into ALBA." This is presumably a reference to St Vincent and Antigua, but like the proverbial dominoes, Caracas no doubt expects other small islands to fall as well. In other words, Venezuela has at last breached CARICOM via the back door, allowing President Chavez to pursue his dream of regional integration under Venezuelan hegemony. There could be no other reason for him pouring so many millions into an island with 72,000 people.
The ALBA development, of course, is not good news for CARICOM. In the first place, ALBA and CARICOM are not on the same economic wavelength, the first having a state capitalist agenda, and the second emphasizing the role of the private sector. So exactly how can the CARICOM Single Market and Economy [CSME] with its "market-driven" assumptions be implemented if one of the members (and maybe three in the not too distant future) is committed to an antithetical economic position? And where does it leave the CARICOM decision to negotiate entry to the FTAA?
For its part, how on earth can Dominica's government reconcile what in a general sense are two opposing concepts of economic development? And just which view will Dominica's prime minister be representing when he sits in the councils of CARICOM? Since there is reason to suppose that ALBA might not be compatible with CARICOM, it is nothing short of astonishing that Mr Skerritt and his colleagues from St Vincent and Antigua did not see fit to consult the CARICOM leaders before associating themselves with Venezuela's pet project.
There are other issues too. While CARICOM inevitably has problems with Washington, President Chavez's simplistic and shrill anti-Americanism sits uncomfortably with the region. And the political model of Cuba -or even Venezuela -which is touted by Caracas, is not the democratic formula which most of the CARICOM leaders would be prepared to commit to. In addition, CARICOM has traditionally operated somewhat like a club, which has depended for its functioning on a good deal of mutual trust between whichever leaders were in office. That arc of trust has now been punctured. When the leaders sit in caucus, for example, will they have the same feeling of confidence that they can say anything to one another, when Dominica's prime minister also belongs to another club whose chief member is looking towards the Caribbean Sea and Guyana with covetous eyes? How can they discuss confidential matters which might have bearing on Venezuela?
CARICOM has traditionally offered its unconditional backing to those of its members facing territorial claims from Venezuela, or in the case of Belize, from Guatemala. Where Guyana was concerned, CARICOM has always been our first port of call when under pressure from our neighbour to the west. So what happens now? Not only has Dominica to all intents and purposes ceded Bird Island to Venezuela, but she now sits squarely in the Venezuelan camp. Are we to believe that she will nevertheless offer her unqualified support to Guyana where the Venezuelan controversy is concerned, and will so argue in CARICOM summits? Dominica's move is very bad news for us too.
Before the CSME has even got under way, some of the eastern Caribbean states have ruptured the understandings which underpin it. While there has been silence from CARICOM, questions have to be asked about the future direction of the organization. In a famous speech in 1975 entitled 'The threat to the Caribbean Community,' Dr Eric Williams spoke of a "Venezuelan oil and industrial metropolis and an indebted Caribbean hinterland." His words were prophetic, although they did not come to p ass in his lifetime. The Government of Dominica, possibly to be followed by two other CARICOM states, may now be giving substance to those words.