Trinidad counts the cost of being Venezuela’s neighbour

Trinidad Prime Minister, National Security Minister and High Commissioner meet Trinidad nationals

As the official count of Venezuelan refugees in Trinidad got under way, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, was in London explaining his country’s position on its once-mighty neighbour’s economic and political turmoil – and how his administration planned to tackle the crisis on its doorstep.

The disorder in Venezuela and the spillover effect in Trinidad became a major topic of the evening when Dr Rowley met UK-based Trinidadian nationals in London at the end of May. He was in town as part of a series of visits to Europe and the US, having talks with what he called “the decision-makers” of the oil and gas companies who do business with Trinidad and Tobago.

As Caribbean Intelligence© readers will know, these diaspora audience events can be lively occasions. This one definitely lived up to expectations.

Topics raised included a brutally honest assessment of the country’s energy future, social welfare support, tourism development, domestic issues, offers of diaspora support, national security, crime and future economic plans. However, the surge of Venezuelan migrants in Trinidad was a favourite area of questioning, even after the prime minister had provided a clear-cut explanation of his government’s stance.  

On the very day that Dr Rowley met nationals, Trinidad and Tobago started official registration of Venezuelans now living in Trinidad.  The Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform (R4V), set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has estimated that 40,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants had travelled to Trinidad & Tobago by February 2019. Prime Minister Rowley said his government would know the real number two weeks into the official registration.

Dr Rowley rejected emotive terms such as “swamped”, but insisted there was “no way” that little Trinidad & Tobago could be the solution. The twin-island republic, with a population of 1.3 million people, could not become “the place of relief” for a country of 33 million people.

Caricom divided

Despite a CARICOM position to push for negotiation between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, there have been signs of possible division in the Caribbean Community grouping. In March, US President Donald Trump met five CARICOM leaders, in an apparent bid to get some Caribbean buy-in to Washington’s position that Mr Maduro is an illegitimate leader who should not be recognised. 

Despite Washington’s stance and its ability to win support to recognise Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader, the situation remained unresolved into June, as Mr Maduro maintained the support of the military, as well as backing from Russia and China. In the stand-off created, the people of Venezuela have borne the brunt of the impact of US sanctions and continuing shortages, while their exodus to neighbouring countries in Latin America and the Caribbean has continued.

In early June, the possibility of division within CARICOM prompted Jamaican ex-Prime Minister PJ Patterson to call for unity, stating that “we live in our own Caribbean space, not in anybody else’s backyard”. The former Jamaican leader said that the region had “to assert a united voice as sovereign nations singing from the same hymn sheet if we are to make our voices heard in the global din”.

At his London meeting with Trinidad nationals in late May, Dr Rowley spoke of the “geopolitics on our doorstep”, insisting that his government would govern in the “interests of all” and stick to principles of non-interference and non-intervention.

Those were principles “that small countries have to stand by”, Dr Rowley told his audience, adding that “it can’t be that I don’t like you and I have to fix it”. The Trinidad leader said his country would abide by any United Nations decision for intervention, but that his government could not buy into the approaches of the Lima Group and the Organisation of American States (OAS). He added that the OAS “became partisan and became useless” when negotiations could have taken place.

Trinidad joins CARICOM representatives pushing for non-intervention and for negotiations between representatives of the Maduro and Guaidó camps. “We’re in that forefront as we are seven miles from Venezuela,” the Trinidadian leader said. Pointing to the talks which had been taking place in Norway between the representatives of the warring Venezuelan factions, Dr Rowley said: “Today, I think a bit of sober reflection is taking place... that was the CARICOM position from day one.”

Migration cap?

Despite his clear outline of the situation in terms of registration of Venezuelans and non-intervention, nationals at the diaspora event continued to raise concerns during the Q&A part of the evening. They wanted to know about the potential level of crime involving Venezuelans in Trinidad and what sort of cap his government might place on the Venezuelan exodus.

“We will remain a humanitarian society,” Dr Rowley told the Trinidadian audience. He added that his country would manage its affairs to make sure that Venezuela’s problems did not become Trinidad and Tobago’s problems. “We cannot just become a refugee camp,” he said in answer to another query during the Q&A session later. The Trinidad leader added, on being asked about a possible refugee camp, that “we said we [are] not doing that... If we do that and open a camp and can’t close it...”

On the possibility of Venezuelan’s criminal gangs moving in under the registration, he said that his country would deal with registration on a case-by-case basis.

Under the proposed guidelines for this current registration session, instead of the usual 90-day stay in Trinidad, those applying will be given permission to work in Trinidad and Tobago for a year when there will be a review of the situation.

“We can help a little, but we have to manage the assistance [to] benefit us both,” Prime Minister Rowley told his audience. “We don’t expect it to overwhelm us.”

Related articles:

NY Carib News: CARICOM calls for dialogue

Barbados Today: Divisions within CARICOM would be suicidal