Venezuela, CARICOM and the Muddle in the Periphery

When it comes to OAS voting blocks, CARICOM is not as monolithic as you may think.

“Just as surely history is the product of those forces which seek to dominate in the name of glory or profit, equally is history the product of the forces of those who rebel.”

Michael Manley

Venezuelans have long struggled to get their heads around the goings-on at CARICOM. While the hemispheric media and the Venezuelan press (such as it is) have so far ignored the significant efforts the majority of CARICOM (Caribbean Community) members have made to get on the right side of history, a lazy narrative of chulerismo – wherein Caribbean countries are bought and sold has prevailed, especially on social media.

Though the coordination mechanisms to promote their insertion into global political and economic affairs have been a boon to Member States, they hardly make CARICOM a foreign-policy quasi-monolithic block like, say, the European Union. CARICOM does have an institutional mechanism for foreign policy, known as the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR). Tasked with coordinating the foreign policies of the Member States and seeking to ensure, “as far as practicable”, the adoption of Community positions on major international issues, historically the operative phrase has been in fact “as far as practicable.”

While countries like Guyana and Jamaica have tried to pursue a more principled and politically viable line on Venezuela, over the last few weeks loud calls for both the OAS and CARICOM to “stay out of the internal affairs of Venezuela” continue to be issued by Prime Ministers Gaston Browne, of Antigua and Barbuda, and Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, both ALBA Members. The friction created between Heads came out in the open recently, when Jamaica’s attempts to push for a stronger line led to public friction between Prime Minister Holness of Jamaica and Gonsalves.

Shortly before the first OAS Consultation in Washington, on May 26th, the Bureau of CARICOM Heads of Government held a virtual meeting which then requested COFCOR to draft a proposal. However, a small group of Members prevailed upon CARICOM to adopt the very vague and non-committal position endorsed by Heads on May 29th. None of these documents are public domain but vary very little from the non-committal COFCOR Statement of May 19th. The Heads’ May 29th endorsement has now become Gospel to some.

The OAS Ministers’ objective in Cancún is to draft a binding Resolution able to garner, if not full consensus, at least the affirmative vote of two thirds of the Member States. Failing that, Ministers may choose to propose a non-binding Declaration which, while requiring the vote of only a simple majority, would not carry the necessary weight and would be viewed as the expression of just over half the membership.

On the eve of the Cancún Meeting, the CARICOM Ambassadors to the OAS have continued to try to make good on their commitment to flexibility and to enabling a consensus in Mexico. Though they’ve been charged with presenting a fresh proposal, some of the more vocal CARICOM / ALBA Members have made clear their view that the position endorsed by Heads on May 29th is close to Holy Writ.

The media has largely ignored the very significant efforts by many CARICOM Members to be on the right side of history.

In short, CARICOM’s collective position has been hijacked by pressure from Venezuela and Cuba, exerted through a vocal minority of CARICOM/ALBA member governments. Arguments for sovereignty and nonintervention, so dear to both the OAS and CARICOM and enshrined in their constituent legislation, have been turned on their heads and weaponized against democracy and human rights, incidentally two of the other Holy Grails of both organisations.

The stakes are very high for CARICOM: on one hand; the defense of sovereignty, non-intervention, democracy and the rule of law and the looming shadow of an unstable Venezuela almost within swimming distance. On the other; the very real threat to Caribbean unity posed by the posturing on the part of Gonsalves et al. For example, countries like Guyana, who have thus far defended a strong OAS role in Venezuela, depend greatly on that unity for the defense of their most vital aspirations as a country; in particular, their very territorial existence. The Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both know and exploit this.

On another vein; the specter of precedent is one that haunts the halls of every multilateral organization, particularly when faced with a novel crisis. In this regard, the attitude and actions of Secretary-General Almagro have also played an important role in the failure to reach a consensus. Just as Venezuelans are justified in admiring and being grateful for the Secretary General’s very open militancy on behalf of regime change, many in the OAS and particularly in CARICOM, consider him to be in contempt of the Permanent Council and going well beyond his mandate. Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley has gone as far as to propose the SG’s removal.

Sources close to the negotiations believe that the differences between Non-ALBA CARICOM and the OAS-14 seem to be less on substance than on form. But a solution that is both principled and politically viable will require first that major continental powers neutralize Venezuelan-Cuban pressure on those smaller States in ALBA. That would free the Ambassadors to engineer a proposal that defends democracy and the rule of law while strictly recognizing the formalities of sovereignty. On the sidelines, it will also require that the Secretary General assume a subdued posture, more in keeping with his statutory remit. This combination of requirements, as our CARICOM brothers would say, is a “sticky wicket”.

Luis Carpio

Venezuelan diplomat who also served as Director at the Association of Caribbean States and Head of Projects at SELA.