There are 192 members of the United Nations including T&T. We account for .018 per cent of the world population and less than .54 per cent of the world's hydrocarbon resources. We lack the resources to sustain even a limited military engagement. It is, therefore, both essential and sensible that we should be on good terms with our neighbours. Consequently, our foreign policy position of non-interference and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries of democratically elected governments is both sensible and prudent in this interdependent, global trading world.
This policy is the bedrock on which T&T pursues its foreign policy interests. It has stood by the test of time and many difficult situations. However, diplomacy requires nuances particularly for a small country in the ambit of the world’s hegemonic power, the United States; sometimes we must "dance nimbly" around a theme. T&T's success is demonstrated by the fact that we were one of the first countries in the region to embrace Cuba despite the longstanding policy of the US to isolate Cuba. Similarly, T&T established diplomatic relations with China at the height of the cold war in 1974. Indeed, China is now our largest bilateral creditor having financed several projects and is scheduled to finance the dry-docking facility in La Brea as well.
The policy led to some difficult moments with our Caricom partners particularly during the US invasion of Grenada. PM Rowley is correct to adhere to these principles in addressing the current imbroglio in Venezuela. The paradox is that the PM's obvious strength on a political platform, the ability to connect emotively with supporters, is not the ideal skill set for dealing with more delicate issues such as the US Ambassador's remarks last Friday.
Ambassador Mondello's statement is in sync with State Department policy and consists of 90 words. The key sentence is…"I find the official statements from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago recognising the undemocratic and illegitimate government of Nicholas Maduro to be deeply concerning." This remark was undiplomatic, causing offence and provoked an intemperate rebuke from the Prime Minister in Parliament on Friday afternoon and fuller comment on Saturday night at the PNM's 63rd Anniversary celebration. The PM is ill-advised. The decision to go to Washington was announced after the public chastisement of the "friendly country’s ambassador". What type of reception could he have expected in Washington after publicly berating the US Ambassador? Indeed, did he get to Washington?
However much the PM may have felt that T&T's sovereignty was challenged, a more nuanced approach would have been to rebut the comment directly, then have the Foreign Affairs Minister summon the Ambassador and, behind closed doors, ventilate a much "fuller" position. Former foreign affairs minister Knowlson Gift understood this methodology well. This mechanism has been lost or unlearnt, which raises many questions about the depth and incapacity of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
A fundamental pillar of diplomacy is that the language used should convey unpleasant messages in a palatable way to avoid giving offence. This skill has not been displayed by the Prime Minister, the Communications or the Foreign Affairs Ministers. T&T cannot claim to be neutral when the Communications Minister says that T&T "supports", or, is "fully behind" Maduro. Those phrases are inconsistent with neutrality or an arms-length approach to a neighbouring government, even if we are in close proximity. Indeed, it is important to be able to explain a country's position as it is fully understood that countries have interests, not friends. To "recognise" a government is a much softer proposition than "supports". What does "support" mean? No doubt, it is this which caused the Ambassador (a political appointment) "to be deeply concerned".
Caricom is divided but managed to compromise on an approach to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In addition, some members of Caricom have supported the "Lima Group" and the Lima declaration 2017 which condemned the presidential elections called for by the Bolivarian Government, describing them as "unobserved, unjust, and undemocratic". Whilst T&T takes the position that there were elections, there is enough evidence to suggest that the process was doubtful as opposition leaders were either barred from participating, exiled or jailed. Yet at Maduro’s inauguration, T&T was represented by its Foreign Minister which is the next best thing to a prime minister.
But what could the approach to the Secretary-General achieve, taking place after the meeting of the Security Council on Saturday?
In any event "democracy and prosperity require tough choices". It is noteworthy that until China opposed the US at the Security Council meeting on Saturday it had not condemned the claims of Juan Guaido or the US Government. For our part trade with the US is about $21 billion while trade with Venezuela is $126 million and falling.
Amongst other tough choices is the "Dragon deal". The Energy Minister said on TV6 on January 24 that he was confident that the Dragon deal would continue "irrespective of what is happening in Venezuela" as it was a commercial transaction between businesses. On January 28 the US state department announced sanctions against one of the commercial entities, PDVSA. The sanctions are designed to starve PDVSA and Venezuela of foreign exchange without which the country cannot survive.
This dragon can’t dance.