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T&T has found itself in a minor diplomatic row with the United States over the report that a shipment of gasoline intended for Aruba may have ended up in Venezuela. This would be in violation of the sanctions imposed on its state-owned oil and natural gas company, PDVSA, which were intended to pressure President Maduro to resign following the disputed 2019 presidential election.

It should be noted that the report originated from a Venezuelan news service and has not been independently confirmed. However, it did prompt a response from the US State Department and the local embassy, both of which have pledged to investigate the matter further.

However, they took the opportunity to reiterate the position that any country or non-state entity assisting the Maduro regime in circumventing US sanctions will face some of their own.

This was a not-so-subtle warning. We are being told that if we choose to stick with Venezuela, we risk jeopardising our relationship with the United States. In other words–we need to think carefully about who we count as our friends.

Of course, as a small state, it benefits us to be on good terms with those countries within our hemisphere. But that policy has put us in a difficult position–right in the middle of someone else’s fight. On one hand, the United States is a major trade and security partner.

But on the other, Venezuela is our closest neighbour… and we’ve already witnessed how its (deteriorating) domestic issues end up spilling onto our shores. How do we choose…and should we even have to? After all, America’s issues with Venezuela have nothing to do with us.

The quandary we’re in is the direct result of the relationship our governments–both PNM and UNC alike–have maintained with Venezuela’s junta-backed, socialist regime. The Prime Minister has rationalised this decision as simply being pragmatic. In the words of his former political leader, the person we have to deal with is, “Whoever answers the phone.”

This indifference explains our vote to abstain in a resolution at the Organisation of American States (January, 2019) regarding the Venezuela crisis and the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency. Beyond that, however, our government’s actions seem to contradict its stated position of neutrality.

Even as Venezuela descended into chaos, the Rowley administration eagerly engaged the Maduro regime in negotiations over the Dragon Gas deal. One could make the argument that Venezuela’s politics is an internal matter, making it no concern of ours. And, more importantly, that pursuing the deal was in our best interests. Fair enough.

But Dr Rowley made a spectacle of himself by cheerfully dancing with President Maduro at an event to celebrate its signing. Forget the feeble explanation of not wanting to offend his host–the PM had no business being there in the first place! The deal could have been concluded via ministerial proxies without any fanfare. Optics matter…and the PM’s apparent friendliness with a dictator sent the wrong message to the global community.

The repercussions are such that it fuels the suspicion that the gasoline delivery to Venezuela was a pre-determined arrangement. Even if our government claims having neither control nor responsibility for where the shipment eventually ended up, the recent meeting between Prime Minister Rowley and Venezuelan Vice President Rodríguez allows for a lot of conjecture. Furthermore, any attempt at plausible deniability is dispelled by the recent revelation that members of her delegation are employed with PDVSA.

What exactly was the purpose of this meeting? And can it be proven that the gasoline handoff wasn’t part of it? Again, optics matter, and Dr Rowley’s continued use of the “I didn’t know” excuse is hardly convincing.

Now, according to Dr Anthony Bryan, a professor of international relations at the University of the West Indies, the US has no justifiable reason to impose sanctions on T&T.

“Where the oil ends up cannot be seen as collusion or connivance by the seller. It’s a free market.” He also contends that there are still too many unknowns in this matter. That may be. But even if the US decides not to impose sanctions, they have other options with which to punish us. The Caribbean Basin Trade Initiative, the agreement that gives T&T exports access to the US market at preferential rates, is up for renewal in September.

Get the picture?

Last week the Prime Minister labelled the Opposition Leader a “traitor”, accusing her of acting against the best interests of our citizens by casting aspersions on the gasoline deal and inviting the US to impose sanctions.

Considering Dr Rowley’s own actions, it sounds like a case of the pot calling the kettle black. This isn’t about the morality of dealing with the Maduro regime or its legality; nor is it that the US has no right to interfere with the dealings of sovereign states.

This is about what T&T stands to gain and lose by appeasing one over the other. We can’t afford to make enemies, especially one that can inflict considerable damage on our economy.

Like it or not, our country is involved in a very serious game. And what’s in our best interest is to ensure that we’re playing with the winning.