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POLITICS: Caribbean Backs Venezuela Over U.S. Objections

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Sep 27 2006 (IPS) - The crucial vote for the Latin American and Caribbean seat on the powerful United Nations Security Council is set to take place in two weeks, and Caribbean Community (Caricom) nations are still making it clear they remain in the corner of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela rather than Washington’s favourite, Guatemala.

Several issues are at stake for the region, not least the hatred and seeming disdain for Guatemala for joining with the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s to dismantle a lifeline preferential trade scheme to the European Union for bananas produced mostly in the smaller Eastern Caribbean islands.

The dismantling has led to significant declines in production in some islands and economic hardships in areas that were banana-dependent.

They are also upset with Guatemala for having dozens of families living on land Guatemala claims as its own from neighbouring Belize, a Caricom member and former British colony despite its geographic location deep in Central America. Additionally, prime ministers frown on the country’s previous human rights record compared to a region that is largely free of such accusations.

Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa argues that Guatemala has failed to adhere to every agreement aimed at settling the land claim through various proposals made by hemispheric bodies like the Organisation of American States.

He said it was “my spirited presentation to other heads of government” at the most recent Caribbean leaders’ summit in St. Kitts that helped to cement the vote against Guatemala rather than in favour of Venezuela.

Owen Arthur, prime minister of Barbados, also contends that the region would never consider the U.S. favourite because it has voted against “every effort by Caricom” to be designated as a region with special and differential needs given their members’ small size, limited population and they fact that they are prone to natural disasters like annual hurricanes, volcanoes and floods.

Venezuela sent former Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton to lobby. Guatemala never showed up but depended on U.S. backroom prodding, a fact that particularly irked Arthur.

In the last week, two prime ministers, Kenneth Anthony of St. Lucia and Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, reiterated the region’s support for Caracas in spite of the political furor caused by Chavez calling U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week.

Hinting that he thinks Guatemala would be a U.S. lackey, Anthony contends that the Security Council needs strong independent voices that would stand up on principle.

“Caricom countries have agreed that they are going to vote for Venezuela but there is a fundamental reality as well. In matters pertaining to the Security Council, you need strong independent voices. The world may not have found itself with the problems that now exist in Iraq, or for that matter Afghanistan,” he said.

Gonsalves, normally more outspoken than most of his Caribbean colleagues, was quoted by Caribbean as saying that his island nation’s “position is not influenced one way or another on the basis of what was said in the General Assembly. St. Vincent and Venezuela have strategic interests and we have pledged our support to Venezuela from before. We will continue to support Venezuela for the Security Council.”

Analysts say the strategic interest he is clearly talking about is the Petrocaribe oil deal that Venezuela offered to the region in the last year, under which countries pay a portion of the bill and are allowed deferred payments over an extended period at concessionary interest rates, or pay portions through export commodities like rice, sugar and bananas.

With oil prices soaring up to 70 dollars per barrel at the time, governments jumped at the deal, saying the deferred payments eased serious balance of payment problems and allowed them crucial leeway in diverting spending to health and education, among other sectors. Still, David Robinson, the U.S. ambassador to Guyana and soon to be accredited as the envoy to Caricom, wants the region to think twice before lining up behind Chavez.

“We think it is important that countries look at the global perspective. UNSC [U.N. Security Council] would have to look at terrorism and nuclear proliferation among other important issues, and it is important that the body of consisting countries is committed to stemming the growth of nuclear weapons and putting up a solid front against terrorism. It is not clear that both of the candidates have the same perspective on that,” he told IPS.

Other U.S. officials have acknowledged that Guatemala is a hard sell, but Robinson says “these votes are not symbolic. It is a real vote that would matter to our children and it is important that we take these votes in that vein. It is not a symbolic vote against the U.S. This vote matters and is one we should take seriously with the future in mind and not try to signal symbolic displeasure.”

Whoever wins will hold the non-permanent seat for two years on behalf of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The U.S. says it does not want Venezuela on the Council because it will most likely back Iran on its alleged effort to develop nuclear weapons and also because it will give Caracas an additional outlet to attack Washington on such an important world stage..

For the Caribbean, diplomats say the U.S. left them with no choice whatsoever by offering a candidate country so disliked by the region. One top Caricom official said recently that the problem is that “we hate one and don’t love the other”, meaning a third choice might well make it easier for some countries during a secret vote.

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