Recently, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, convened a supposedly CARICOM conference to discuss issues relevant to the Trump Administration and the nations of the Caribbean. Included in the agenda was the upcoming Organization of American States (OAS) elections and the Venezuela crisis. The Pompeo invite pointedly excluded a number of CARICOM nations resulting in a careful cherry-picking of invitees all expected and confirmed to tow the American line.
However, CARICOM chairwoman Barbadian prime minister Mia Mottley, a fiercely independent and unabashedly pro-CARICOM advocate, rejected the invite precisely because of its cherry-picking of certain CARICOM nations historically favorable to its positions, and the shamelessly "get in line" unuttered dictum by the Trump Administration. Mottley was openly supported by Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a few others making the conference in Jamaica a monumental flop that has embarrassed Jamaica's JLP-led government, long a staunch and reliable doer of United States bidding, a position crystalized and strengthened by the late Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who was born in the United States, during his contentious tenure.
But the political dithering of some CARICOM nations and a failure to speak with one voice also underscored the treacherous pitfalls facing the regional integration movement and how bi-lateral, state-to-state relations and negotiations trump, pardon the pun, a united regional foreign and economic policy. To be sure, the Jamaican position was expected. But again, the U.S. political chess play was predicated on excluding those CARICOM nations seen as moving closer to China and hawkish when it comes to Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. For me it also exposed the fragile political nature of CARICOM and the "every-man-for-himself" practice when dealing with foreign nations. Its take what you can get without regard for CARICOM. In essence, the Pompeo visit underscored the deep hypocrisy that exists between member nations of CARICOM especially when it comes to Venezuela.
For more than a decade now an energy alliance with Venezuela guaranteed a steady and stable flow of cheap oil to desperate CARICOM and Central American countries. They purchased millions of barrels on preferential payment terms that they could never get anywhere else. The deal, 50 percent upfront payment and the balance spread over 25 years a quarter of a century allowed CARICOM nations like Haiti, Jamaica and others to use the savings realized from this arrangement to fund social projects for their poor and, more importantly, control prices at the pump when United States and other oil-producing countries were charging $100 a barrel for oil.
PetroCaribe, the name of the CARICOM/Venezuela oil agreement, also helped some cash-strapped CARICOM nations to use some of that money to pay civil servants and other things. I do not think that CARICOM's leaders are under any illusions that the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela were also designed in part to kill PetroCaribe and make their nations re-engage with unfavorable fuel and energy regimes with the United States.
Take St. Vincent and the Grenadines for example. Prior to the U.S. sanctions that CARICOM nation used to get about $30 -$35 worth of long-term financing from Venezuela. Now, due to U.S. sanctions that has dried up and the island has not received fuel from PetroCaribe for months now. So, rather than pay the 50% upfront this small, poor Caribbean nation now has to find all the money to pay for fuel that's resulted in a drastic cut back in programs that helped alleviate poverty.
Then there's Haiti. Literally at the mercy of United States diktat, it was very instructive that it was one of the invitees to the Pompeo conference in Jamaica, and one of the Caribbean nations that voted with the United States to declare Venezuela's Maduro an illegitimate president packing the usurper Juan Guido. But here's the thing: even as Haiti jumped on the U.S.-Jamaica bandwagon and embraced a political position that would cause massive violence in BOTH countries if the U.S. tried to foist a hand-picked, unelected president on their people, the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere was feeling the effects of sanctions that all but killed the CARICOM PetroCaribe deal.
So, while Pompeo, Jamaica's Andrew Holness et. al were yucking it up in Kingston, a ship with more than 150,000 barrels of gasoline was moored of the coast of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, for over 23 DAYS unable to unload its cargo because the cash-strapped Haitian government was unable to come up with the $58 million in over due payments. This overdue payment NOT to PetroCaribe is part of what's driving or drove the recent violent Haitian unrest high gasoline and cooking gas prices and erratic and constant electrical blackouts. Haitians are now selling gasoline for a much as $12 a gallon on the black market.
And even as Jamaica supports the U.S, government's position on Venezuela and has all but hijacked the PetroCaribe deal in a high-handed and crass way, last December the country's finance minister told the Parliament that a $115 million check/payment towards its PetroCaribe debt was returned by a bank reluctant to run afoul of United States sanctions. Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have also faced a similar problem. Antigua's debt under the PetroCaribe arrangement now stands at $90 million payable at 1 percent interest over 25 years. Prime Minister Gaston Browne put this in context saying that his country now has a $500 million trade deficit with the United States.
So, all of this begs the question: Why are some CARICOM nations abandoning a friend and cannot stand together and speak with one, united voice to the United States? The answer is simple: fear of punitive, retaliatory sanctions by the Trump Administration if they dare to buck its policies on Venezuela or not vote in lock-step for its hand-picked leader of the Organization of American States (OAS) in upcoming elections.
Was the Pompeo Conference aimed at dividing CARICOM? Yes, without a doubt. Geopolitically, while the U.S. foreign policy in respect to CARICOM appears to be about Venezuela and the OAS barely under radar is Cuba. The United States sees Cuba as a hinderance to its maximum pressure and sanctions campaign in Venezuela and has also leveled new sanctions against Havana. By counting those CARICOM nations "in its column," it can then focus on those vulnerable ones that can either be coerced individually or through those that support the U.S. position like Jamaica. Of course, the United States is helped by the hypocrisy and slavishness of some leaders of CARICOM who speak regional integration and unity from one side of their mouths while simultaneously singing quite another tune to the contrary - from the other side.