By Melanius Alphonse
Caribbean News Now associate managing editor
PALM BEACH, USA — US President Donald Trump’s meeting with the leaders of four Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states, along with the Dominican Republic, on Friday at Mar-a-Lago, who have been pushing to step up sanctions and political pressure on Venezuela, contrary to the official Caribbean Community (CARICOM) position on the issue of non-interference, left the meeting holding on to the carrot of promises of increased investments by US business interests.
The select group of leaders who have broken from CARICOM and joined more than 50 countries in recognising Juan Guaidó as the interim leader of Venezuela, spent most of the meeting discussing areas of mutual interest.
Trump promised that a high-level delegation from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency that helps American businesses invest in emerging markets, would visit their nations in the next 90 days.
Encouraged by prospects of promoting a stronger relationship with the region, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said, “The message from this meeting is that the United States wants to encourage and promote stronger relationship with the region. It’s absolutely important that it’s not just talk that there will be real investments.”
Holness also wrote on social media: “Our first meeting as Caribbean leaders with the US president was promising as we anticipate further discussions on energy trade, security and issues to do with peace and stability within the region.”
Prominent senior counsel and legal adviser to several regional governments, Anthony Astaphan, in describing the meeting as “cosmetic,” said: “None of the selective prime ministers who will meet with Trump has the authority or the jurisdiction to speak on behalf of CARICOM. They certainly can’t speak on behalf of St Vincent, Antigua, St Kitts-Nevis, Dominica and Grenada. They don’t have the authority.”
Prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Keith Rowley, said those attending the meeting at Trump’s private residence in Palm Beach were “the ones who have agreed to be a part of the Lima Group. And what is the objective of the Lima Group? The objective of the Lima Group is regime change in Venezuela.”
Washington’s support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim leader is aimed to oust the Maduro administration and open Venezuela’s vast oil reserves as well as gold deposits to US corporations.
While the president dangled promises of investments to the selected group of CARICOM leaders for their cooperation, Venezuela has over the years provided a reliable supply of oil to many Caribbean nations under the PetroCaribe arrangement.
On many occasions, Venezuela has been the first responder in the region, through natural disasters and other calls for assistance from CARICOM.
The Caribbean region has long relied on oil and gas from Venezuela, which gave them low-interest credit terms, but has left them indebted to Caracas. Shipments have declined in recent years because of production problems at Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA.
At the same time, while the Trump administration is pushing a strategy of sanctions and other measures of regime change in Venezuela, he wants to work with the selected leaders to “counter China’s predatory economic practices,” in the Caribbean.
Prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, credited China for its support of his hurricane-battered country, saying, “There are times when other interests, other countries will want to create a wedge between Dominica and China or a certain degree of mistrust among our peoples especially in relation to the aid and the assistance which China has been providing not only to Dominica but to more than 190 countries around the world.”
While the US-imposed economic sanctions continue to greatly reduced Venezuelan oil exports and its economy generally, Maduro has turned to China and Russia to buy the country’s oil, even if at cheaper rates.
Over the last several years, China’s geopolitical interest has viewed Venezuela as an important strategic ally and trading partner. Beijing has financed Caracas some $70 billion, mostly for development projects, in exchange for future oil shipments.
Russia also has an economic interest in Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia was helping Venezuela with 64,100 tonnes of wheat to Venezuela in the 2018/19 season.
Trump last week reiterated that “all options” are being considered in relation to the situation in Venezuela, alluding to oil sanctions, visa cancellations for dozens of Maduro’s associates, high-ranking military members, and the possibility of military action.
Amid economic collapse and the expected regime change in Venezuela, Guaidó has also taken control of US refiner Citgo, a PDVSA subsidiary and the country’s most important overseas asset. His team is evaluating “all the options” to possibly make a payment of some $72 million on PDVSA bonds that come due in April. The bonds have shares in Citgo as collateral, and a failure to make payment could allow creditors to seize part of the company.
On Friday, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan economic development bank Bandes, Uruguay-based Banco Bandes Uruguay; Venezuelan banks Banco Bicentenario del Pueblo and Banco de Venezuela; and Bolivia-based Banco Prodem SA.
US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin said Maduro and his enablers had distorted the original purpose of the bank in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.
The Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a statement Friday, “This illegal coercive measure will affect 23,950,280 clients (individuals, as well as state and private companies) in Venezuela.”