Commentary - Guyana and Regional Issues

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The Venezuelan crisis: Offers of help from neighbors

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted June 16th. 2016

Much has already been written about the political, economic, financial and social crisis engulfing Venezuela. Despite having one of the world's largest oil reserves, the country has been in crisis since the onset of the decline in oil prices on the world market. The most pressing impact is the severe shortage of consumer goods, particularly food items and medicine, in all parts of the country. Added to this are the escalating violent crime rate, economic recession, hoarding of consumer goods by some big merchants, looting, power-cuts and water rationing.

The contraband trade in consumer items is rampant and the black-marketing of these goods has pushed prices to skyrocketing levels-a situation compounded by currency controls, an inflation rate of over 700 percent, and the steadily rising "informal" exchange rate of the US dollar and other foreign currencies. Prices are routinely determined by this informal exchange rate and they continue to rise since the currency has declined drastically in the past month to 1,000 bolivars per dollar. The government currently maintains three official rates of 6.3, 13.5 and about 200 bolivars per dollar for authorized purchases of "essential" items.

The Guyanese enclaves

In the eastern states of Bolivar and Delta Amacuro, many among the thousands of Guyanese migrants who settled there during the Guyanese economic crisis of the 1980s, currently face intense suffering and some are contemplating returning to Guyana. While food items to that region are smuggled in through Brazil and Guyana across the porous borders, residents complain that members of the Venezuelan National Guard routinely seize most of these goods unless they are paid off by the smugglers.

Map showing the location of Puerto Ordaz

Guyanese nationals in the municipalities of San Felix and Puerto Ordaz (in the city of Ciudad Guayana) say that their regular diet is sardines, ground provisions and vegetables. Many of them, like those in Delta Amacuro, maintain kitchen gardens and rear poultry and therefore do have some additional food resources on which to subsist.

Generally, there is a shortage of supply of food items-a situation which has jacked up prices by more than 400 percent since January on unsubsidized items in supermarkets. At the same time, due to this scarcity, black-market items available in local markets may be obtained at 10 to 15 times more than their normal price.

Interestingly, the government does not admit that there is a shortage of consumer goods and, therefore, does not welcome humanitarian aid. With respect to food items sent by private sources from Guyana and elsewhere to individuals and social organizations, a reliable source in Puerto Ordaz explained further: "It's very difficult to get goods coming into Venezuela; all the borders are under strict customs check and goods coming in large amounts are confiscated even if they are coming legally, e.g., through a shipping service."

Re-migration and refugees

Some Guyanese nationals have indicated that they want to re-migrate to Guyana. At the same time, it is felt that many other Venezuelan citizens in the border regions may move into the Guyana, Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad as refugees. But President David Granger has firmly stated that Guyana is not currently considering accepting refugees but would welcome returning Guyanese.

According to a Kaieteur News report on May 20, Granger said Guyana has special interest because of the territorial question between the two countries. He was adamant that the Venezuelan economic crisis could affect the security of the region, and thus Guyana was hoping for an orderly resolution to the situation. He also expressed concerns over the involvement of the Venezuelan armed forces in the current crisis-an action Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has explained as a means to deal with the growing crime situation and protests.

One week later, on May 27, Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge amplified on the president's statement by expressing the view that Guyana would be prepared to lend support to the Venezuela should the need arise. He explained that Guyanese would, if they deem it necessary, try and provide humanitarian or other assistance to Venezuela. He added that Guyana's concerns over the Venezuelan crisis "extends to the point where Guyana would try to ensure that it does not contribute to the problems, including through comments which are inimical to a peaceful resolution of the crisis."

With regards to Guyanese residing in Venezuela, he said that if some Guyanese decided to return home "we have an obligation to accommodate them." However, he did not feel that there would be an influx of Venezuelan refugees into Guyana and stated that "the people on the border are not the ones chronically affected by the shortages; those people are in the city, and they will find it easier to go to either Trinidad or Colombia; so that doesn't worry us."

Help from Trinidad

Meanwhile, President Maduro has been making some efforts to garner economic support from within the region. On May 23, on a visit to Trinidad and Tobago, Prime Minister Keith Rowley agreed to supply manufactured consumer and food items to eastern Venezuela trade through the creation of a "rotating" Venezuelan US$50 billion fund. Rowley hoped that this arrangement could provide "some significant relief to the people of Venezuela." The Trinidad Guardian later reported that food items such as chicken, black beans and ketchup were among the items that Venezuela had requested. The paper added that the Venezuelan government was also expected to send a request for "eight priority items" which would be shipped as soon as they are ready.

Many people of Trinidadian heritage reside in eastern Venezuela, particularly in the state of Sucre, and during this year arrival in Port of Spain from there have been an unusually high.

Efforts to reach political compromise

While these efforts are being made to alleviate the food problems in Venezuela, diplomatic endeavours are underway to reach a compromise in the political crisis gripping the country. On June 1, the Organization of American States (OAS) approved by consensus a declaration in which the member states made an offer to Venezuela "to identify, by common accord, a course of action that will assist the search for solutions to the situation through open and inclusive dialogue" among political and social actors in the country "to preserve peace and security in Venezuela, with full respect for its sovereignty."

The declaration also offers support for the initiative of the former Presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama to mediate an effective dialogue between the government and the opposition, a process which has already started. The opposition coalition currently controls the National Assembly by a huge majority while the government of President Maduro continues to oppose legislative actions passed by the assembly.

A similar declaration supporting the work of the three mediators was issued by the summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) in Cuba on June 4.

And on June 14, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced high-level talks to ease tensions between his country and the Venezuelan government. He added that the talks would also be aimed at fostering dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition.

Significantly, Kerry announced also that the United States would not support a push by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to suspend Venezuela from the OAS for alleged violations of the organization's democratic charter. At Almagro's request, the OAS is expected to convene an "emergency" meeting later this month to initiate the process aimed at suspending Venezuela from the hemispheric body.

But Almagro's action has isolated him from the great majority of the members, with even right-wing governments opposed to Maduro in the hemisphere refusing to support his proposal. His action is widely regarded as part of a personal vendetta against Maduro, and there is a general feeling that he could have better used his position to mediate a compromise between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.

A political compromise and understanding can surely assist to ease the pressures on the Venezuelan people. In the present circumstances with no side willing to be flexible, diplomatic mediators will definitely encounter a stiff challenge to reach their objective. How long this task will take is anyone's guess. In the meantime, the crisis continues to the detriment of the entire nation.


June 16, 2016

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003), Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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