By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
The Heads of Government of the independent member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), who met by video conference on January 24 to consider the fast-moving events surrounding Venezuela, demonstrated an independent and principled stance. Absent from the meeting was any representative of the Bahamas and Haiti.
It was clear that, collectively, the remaining 12 governments were not allowing themselves to be urged to support any other position than one that they took themselves.
The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, summed-up the position of CARICOM governments when he said: “We don’t want to end up in the situation where there is conflict and it results in consequences for our region”.
The moment was a shining light in Caribbean history. Small though Caribbean countries are, the participating government leaders showed strength and courage in upholding principled positions that were entirely consistent with international law and the Charters of the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), although the latter has been ignored by several hemispheric governments.
The effectiveness of their position was clearly manifest when, four days later, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, met a representative group of CARICOM leaders, including Prime Minsters Mia Mottley, Timothy Harris and Keith Rowley (of Barbados, St Kitts-Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago) and agreed to offer his good offices “to facilitate dialogue and negotiation” between the parties in Venezuela.
The UN Secretary-General’s position is a far cry from that of the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, who, in a marked departure from the role of a Secretary-General, has promoted external intervention including military intervention in Venezuela.
The position taken by the 12 CARICOM governments was vindicated on January 30 when the governments of Uruguay and Mexico declared that, “by virtue of their neutral position” toward Venezuela, they are organising an international conference for February 7 in Uruguay “to lay the foundations for establishing a new mechanism for dialogue that, with the inclusion of all Venezuelan forces, will contribute to restoring stability and peace in the country”.
It is good that Mexico and Uruguay have taken this initiative. They have since issued invitations to many countries and international organisations to participate. Undoubtedly, several CARICOM governments will participate in the meeting. It would be good if they did so in a unified way, responding to what is in the best interests of the region.
CARICOM leaders on January 24 already laid down a few of the markers that should guide their contributions to the Uruguay meeting. These include: concern about the plight of the people of Venezuela and the increasing volatility of the situation which could lead to further violence, confrontation, breakdown of law and order and greater suffering for the people of the country; respect for sovereignty, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for human rights and democracy; and commitment to the tenets of Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter which calls for Members States to refrain from the threat or the use of force and Article 21 of the Charter of the Organization of American States which refers to territorial inviolability.
The “neutrality”, about which the new Mexican government and the government of Uruguay refer, includes not taking sides in the political conflict between the government and opposition parties in Venezuela. I have advocated that position within the Permanent Council of the OAS, as recently as January 24, when I said publicly: “My delegation discourages each member state and every official of this body, at all levels, from taking sides in the internal political situation in Venezuela by any public statements, including tweets. In our view, taking-sides emboldens one side or the other to eschew dialogue and to intensify conflict. It simply prolongs and worsens the situation that now exists”.
A search for a sustainable and peaceful settlement to the political impasse in Venezuela, from which everything else has flowed, demands that those governments that decide to gather in Uruguay on February 7, do so with open minds; a willingness to listen to all participants, including every political party in Venezuela; no pre-conceived notions of which Venezuelan group they want to be in power; and with a firm understanding that peace and stability will only emerge and be sustainable from a settlement reached by the Venezuelan parties themselves – and it is such a settlement that they should want to facilitate, advance and help to implement.
No one should assume that the Mexico-Uruguay proposed meeting will not attract hostility and efforts to undermine it. Such strong positions have already been taken by several governments, including declaring the Nicolás Maduro government to be illegitimate and recognising Juan Guaido as interim President, that it is difficult to see how they can stand back and allow a neutral process to take place.
The pressures under which “neutral” governments will come was evident when, on the same day that Mexico announced joining with Uruguay to convene the Uruguay meeting of neutral states, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, on a state visit, invited Mexico’s new President López Obrador to join an ‘international contact group’ formed by European Union (EU) countries to discuss the organisation of free elections in Venezuela. Obrador declined the invitation, but Spain has already joined leaders of other EU countries in stating that they would recognise Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president on 4 February if Maduro does not agree to new elections before then.
Unless all those who have made strong statements or threatened or imposed measures, including sanctions, decide to step back from the brink and give the Uruguay meeting a chance to achieve a means to restore peace and stability in Venezuela, the gathering will be blighted before it starts. It is unlikely that there will be any such stepping back.
Nonetheless, the Uruguay meeting must proceed. For, accepting that dialogue no longer proffers solutions to a crisis is a most dangerous development; the alternative is deeply troubling.