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What is our maritime security strategy?
A week ago, members of Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional boarded a Petrotrin oil rig to determine whether it was illegally operating in the Venezuelan oil zone. It turned out that Rig 110 in Petrotrin's offshore Soldado Field was operating well within T&T’s boundaries in the Trinmar acreage. However, it was only after Petrotrin personnel provided the necessary geographical co-ordinates, which confirmed the rig was operating lawfully in T&T’s territorial waters, that the Venezuelans left.
This incident raises worrying questions about the state of T&T's maritime boundaries, given this country’s location just off the coast of South America and the many complex physical, political and social issues involving its territorial waters. How did the Venezuelan vessel slip so easily in and out of T&T’s waters without being detected and challenged by local maritime patrols?
There is a long history of problems between T&T and Venezuela over the narrow strip of water between the two countries and there is always potential for conflict over exploitation of cross-border petroleum reserves.
The matter of T&T’s maritime security can never be treated lightly. Litigation with Venezuela has been particularly complex and for decades, dating back to the colonial period, it has taken on various dimensions—territorial (maritime boundaries) and economic (fishing, hydrocarbons). Most of the contention has been over ownership of two tiny rocks, Patos (50 hectares) and Soldado (0.4 hectare), eight km off the southwest point of Trinidad and some 11 km from Venezuela.
Experiences dating back just a decade or two ago are reminders of how easily and quickly these matters can take a more serious turn. In the not too distant past the Guardia Nacional has violently boarded T&T fishing vessels, resulting in deaths and injuries. The sea between the two countries is a zone for heavy shipping traffic and it is all too easy for a climate of violence and insecurity to develop.
Incidents between T&T fishermen and the Guardia Nacional decreased to some degree after the signing of a series of fishing agreements between Venezuela and T&T in 1985, 1977 and 1990.
However, many of this country’s Caribbean counterparts believe the last—the controversial Maritime Delimitation Treaty—gives T&T an unfair edge in maritime boundaries and it is a source of contention, particularly with the Barbadian authorities. Nor are economic and territorial issues the only challenges over the country’s territorial waters. There is also the matter of criminal activities on the high seas, a situation that is getting worse.
Recent aerial surveys by the US Military’s Southern Command show that drug traffickers are shifting back to Caribbean sea routes in response to pressure on trafficking corridors running through the Central American isthmus.
Two illicit drug-trafficking hotspots in Venezuela are just a short run across the Gulf of Paria and Columbus Channel from Trinidad, providing relatively easy passage for cocaine, guns, ammunition, heroin, wild animals and even people to be smuggled into this country.
That is why it is important for the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration to have in place a fully operational plan to safeguard T&T’s maritime boundaries and assets. While there has been a great deal of hullabaloo over the cancellation of the contracts for the offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) which were intended to boost maritime security measures, very little has been said about an alternative plan.
What about the long-range patrol vessels (LRPVs) which were supposed to be used in place of the OPVs? What about the maritime security plan mentioned by Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar more than a year ago at the height of the state of emergency? Is that plan, which involved proper information and communication between radar installations, Coast Guard vessels and army and police patrols, now fully operational?
After last week’s incident in the Soldado Field, these questions must be answered.
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