Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

GUYANA: U.S. “Mercy Mission” Viewed With Scepticism

Bert Wilkinson

BRIDGETOWN, Nov 13 2008 (IPS) - Earlier this week, a U.S. assault ship on the final leg of a mission to five Latin American and Caribbean countries anchored off Guyana’s northeastern coast in what the Pentagon says is a humanitarian mission.

However, few here doubt that its operations – mostly in the country’s northwestern border region – are designed to send a tacit political and military signal to neighbouring Venezuela.

Should anyone ask Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy or other top Guyanese officials why U.S. military helicopters are flying around communities as close as 16 kilometres from the Venezuelan border, the answer would be that local authorities wanted the U.S. medical team to extend its outreach to remote interior communities.

But observers like Wazir Mohamed, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, say it is no coincidence that the U.S. military is in this part of the world at the same time Russian nuclear warships are preparing for military exercises with Venezuela in waters just off the north coast and just three hours by air from Florida on the U.S. mainland.

If that is not enough, a fairly large contingent of British troops is also in the English-speaking South American nation of 750,000 people, conducting jungle and river training with local troops. For most watching geopolitical developments in the Caribbean, this is more than a passing coincidence.

Before coming to Guyana, the USS Kearsarge was in Trinidad, one of the biggest natural gas suppliers to the U.S. and a key Caribbean trade bloc ally. Trinidad is just 11 kilometres off the Venezuelan coast and is separated by the very narrow Gulf of Paria.

“The timing of these exercises is not an accident and [Venezuelan] President Hugo Chavez must be aware of this,” said Mohamed. “No one [in Washington] wants the type of social revolution that has spread in other countries to come to places like Guyana.”

He argued that U.S. politicians are well aware of expansionist plans by oil-rich Venezuela to build a highway through interior Guyana, a gas pipeline and even a railway through a country whose land space it has always claimed as its own territory, and even occupies a small portion of.

“The money is there for all these projects. There is no doubt about that but everybody is watching what is going on,” Mohamed said.

No one in Venezuela has so far publicly commented on the U.S. and British presence, even when British military helicopters ventured near the Venezuelan border as part of multi-agency team searching for a U.S. geophysical survey plane that disappeared in western Guyana earlier this month.

However, U.S. embassy officials say they are well aware of recent comments by the Nicaraguan government accusing Washington of deploying the ship for spying and other covert operations, charges officials deny.

Rolf Olson, the spokesman for the embassy in Guyana, says Washington “has no desire to respond to allegations that we are engaged in activities other than humanitarian”.

Ramsammy, for his part, was quick to point out that “we are not getting caught in the middle of anything. In fact, we are the ones who requested that interior residents benefit from the treatment as well. We are developing a good relationship with the Americans in the field of health care and this was planned long before and with nothing else but health in mind,” he said.

Chavez has been a fierce critic of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and has not hidden his glee at being able to host the Russian military to counterbalance what Venezuelan officials say is the unbridled U.S. influence in the region since the Cold War ended.

He has consistently accused Washington of trying to either kill or oust him from power for allegedly spreading social revolution in the hemisphere, having links with leftist FARC rebels in Colombia and maintaining warm ties with retired Cuban President Fidel Castro.

On shore, U.S. troops and civilians aboard will assist in a number of civil projects, repainting public buildings and building fences among other tasks.

No politically savvy politician in Guyana has ever hidden the national desire to use the U.S. as a counterfoil to Venezuelan military and economic ambitions in Guyana and the Caribbean.

This is a large part of the reason why the former administration had allowed notorious U.S. evangelist Jim Jones to set up a religious and agricultural mission in the jungle 40 miles from the border, in the event that Venezuelan tanks were ever to appear on Guyana’s soil. The plan backfired horribly.

As it turned out, the People’s Temple was actually a cult led by a deranged reverend who forced his followers at gunpoint to drink a cyanide-laced Kool-Aid brew that killed more than 920 people, 11 of them local. It was one of the worst mass suicides in living memory. Ironically, Nov. 18 will mark the 30th anniversary of the deaths even as the jungle has overgrown the area.

Still, many Guyanese share the view of experts about Washington’s intent, given the fact that Venezuela and Cuba have collaborated to use their wealth and expertise to treat nearly 20,000 hemispheric residents for basic eye ailments at Cuban hospitals free of charge.

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