Amid a deepening economic and political crisis in Venezuela, regional leaders have been told they need to “wake up and smell the coffee” as far as the threat to regional stability is concerned.
During a University of the West Indies (UWI) organized panel discussion that was streamed live on Tuesday night, retired director of the UWI’s Institute of International Relations (IIR) Dr Anthony Gonzales joined with other panellists in sounding a strong warning that the Caribbean could not escape the current fallout in Caracas.
Besides mass migration from the Spanish-speaking country, they cited organized crime, human and drug trafficking, an increase in illegal weapons, kidnapping, piracy and increased pressure on the region’s already challenged education and health systems.
Pointing out that the situation in Venezuela had already led to an increase in organized crime, Gonsalves further cautioned that it could spill over into the rest of the region.
In this context, he said the movement of skilled professionals, capital and entrepreneurs from Venezuela to the Caribbean could be viewed as a negative.
“The negative side is much more significant as I see it because what you are getting is a spillover of a lot of organized crime, a spillover of drug trafficking,” he said, adding that some of the crime in Trinidad was “as a result of that”.
Caracas has been plunged into economic and political turmoil, amid rising anti government protests that have already claimed in excess of 100 lives as the Nicolas Maduro administration struggles to hold on to power.
Amid the crisis, it is estimated that more than 40,000 Venezuelans have fled to Trinidad and Tobago, with close to 700 of them seeking asylum or refugee status there up to May this year.
Gonzales said given that Venezuela was a hub for crime, that alone had implications “for all of us in the region” and the threat should not be taken lightly.
“We see the consequences of it in terms of the trafficking of arms, human trafficking, piracy and all the other negative effects. So the process of this integration in Venezuela has very serious negative consequences for us,” he stressed.
Suggesting that things could get worse, Gonzales said the military was the one “holding the society together” at this point.
“I could go on a bit with the negative aspects but we know what they are. I think we as small states we have to see Venezuela as a national security threat,” said Gonzales, who perceives that “we [in the Caribbean] have a problem on our hands and we need to sit down and look properly at it and see what we can do about it.
“My view is that basically we are aware that something is happening outside there but we haven’t really properly sat down and looked at it and see what we have to do about it,” he said.
In making his contribution to the discussion, retired senior lecturer of the Institute of International Relations at UWI and University of Guyana Mark Kirton pointed to reports that some migrants from Venezuela were being treated for various diseases in Guyana.
He said this amounted to added pressure on the Caribbean’s already stressed health care system, while noting that migrants with children would also require access to education.
He said the situation called for greater monitoring of Venezuela by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
However, Assistant Secretary General for Foreign and Community Relations at the CARICOM Secretariat Ambassador Colin Granderson said CARICOM was “in a conflicted position on the Venezuela question.
“On one hand the respect for rule of law, human rights and democracy and principles of non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of states have been the fundamental tenets of CARICOM’s foreign policy position.
“At the same time it views its solidarity as a two way street and has provided political and diplomatic support to Venezuela . . . CARICOM has however expressed its concerns publicly over the Venezuela situation, particularly over the increase in violence and polarization between the government and the opposition,” Granderson said, adding that CARICOM was of the view that the problems in Venezuela should be solved internally.
However, Kirton said it was time CARICOM and Guyana, which is currently caught up in a border dispute with Venezuela, to come up with a more fundamental and “unified position” on the Caracas crisis.
Back in April, Barbados joined 18 other countries, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Guyana and St Lucia, in approving a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the deteriorating political and economic situation in Venezuela.
However, various CARICOM leaders have since taken the position that Venezuela needs to deal with its own affairs.