KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, March 6, IWN – St. Vincent and the Grenadines lost a key ally when Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, 58, died on Tuesday after battling cancer for some two years.
Such was the importance of the Venezuelan leader to the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration — and SVG as a whole — that on the announcement of his death, the ULP’s radio station, as a mark of respect, cancelled its weekly interactive programme and switched to religious music.
The radio station’s listeners were further told that they would hear “in due course”, a statement from Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves.
The Vincentian leader was a close friend of his Venezuelan counterpart, and attended Chavez’s inauguration in Caracas on Jan. 10, while Chavez himself was recovering from cancer treatment in Cuba.
On the eve of the 2005 general elections, after Gonsalves’ first five-year term in office, it was Chavez and his Bolivarian government that dispatched a naval ship to deliver cheaper liquefied petroleum gas to Vincentians — under the PetroCaribe initiative.
The ULP went on to maintain the 12-3 margin in Parliament.
And, while the “Labour gas” cannot be credited, singly, for the victory, many Vincentians might agree that it did contribute positively.
Further, it is that same PetroCaribe initiative — an alliance that allows Caribbean and other states to purchase oil from Venezuela on conditions of preferential payment — that allowed the ULP government to borrow to help to finance the nation’s first international airport, under construction at Argyle — an EC$652 million undertaking.
Venezuelans last October re-elected Chavez for a fourth six-year term as their president. During a visit to Taiwan in May, Vincentians there asked Gonsalves about the implications for capital projects and social programmes in SVG of a non-Chavez-led government in Caracas.
The opposition in Caracas has said that if elected to office, it would rescind PetroCaribe, a move that Gonsalves said would be “perfectly in order”.
“… I can’t deal with public policy on the basis of probabilities outside of what I know presently or even fanciful possibilities,” he told a gathering of Vincentian students in Taiwan.
But Gonsalves and his government must have considered those probabilities during the months when Chavez was not seen in public as he battled for his life after undergoing surgery in Cuba, and more so now that he is dead.
Caracas said Tuesday night that elections would be held in 30 day, and that the government’s candidate will be Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
It was not immediately clear if the opposition’s representative would be Henrique Capriles Radonski, who, in October, gave Chavez the toughest challenge for the presidency since the self-styled “21st century socialist” whose policies have improved the lives of Venezuela and the region’s poor, came to office in 1999.
But if a new government in Caracas dissolve ALBA — the Bolivarian Alternative for our Americas — under which PetroCaribe falls, this might mean that Venezuela would not meet its commitments to Kingstown as far as the airport is concerned, especially in the absence of signed cooperation agreement.
The Chavez government has not paid the wages for Cuban workers on the Argyle airport as Gonsalves said it would. In August 2011, the wages totalled EC$8.72M, and Kingstown was paying the Cuban workers an average of EC$368,572 per month. Gonsalves explained the situation by saying that while Caracas has promised to help, it does not owe this country anything.
But, over a three-year period, PetroCaribe provided US$34 million to the Argyle airport while the government borrowed from the ALBA Bank US$40 million at 2 per cent interest over 20 years.
Further, one year ago, Gonsalves said that this country would have sent to Venezuela a trial container of agricultural commodities for assessment for possible continued export to that South American nation.
Further, scores of Vincentian studying in Venezuela, recipients of scholarships granted by the government there. Vincentians students have also benefited from Caracas’ contribution to the implementation of SVG’s one-laptop per child policy and other social programmes, sometimes with the help of Cuba.
But, as with most things in SVG, whereas many loved Chavez, an equal amount loathed his politics and policies. His critics often described him as autocratic and accused him of using his oil wealth to woo countries like SVG to buy into and help spread his anti-Washington ideology.
Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, as he extended condolences to the government and people of Venezuela on Tuesday, reflected the divisive effect Chavez has had on SVG
“We in the New Democratic Party have not had such a good relationship with President Chavez but when death enters on the scene one has to recognise and deal with that reality,” Eustace said on radio.
“Death is not an easy thing to deal with and very often one has to put aside what differences you may have. On behalf of the New Democratic Party, I do so tonight. Tomorrow, I will send off something in a much more formal manner through the embassy here to the government of Venezuela,” Eustace further stated.
However, if leaked U.S. diplomatic cables are to be believed, it was not only the Opposition that was concerned about the warm Kingstown-Caracas ties.
U.S. officials in Bridgetown, the cables say, told Washington that the private sector in Kingstown in March 2007 registered “widespread anxiety” and discontent with the warm relations between Gonsalves and Chavez.
“Business representatives agreed that if Gonsalves were to back his socialist rhetoric with action, the country would probably face investment flight and a threat to its tourism industry,” the U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, quoted a U.S. official as saying.
Among the persons the cable mentioned as being uncomfortable with the SVG-Venezuela ties were Dr. Julian Ferdinand, then general manager of the Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC) — now an election candidate for the NDP,
KPMG partner and former Chamber of Commerce President, Brian Glasgow, Texaco’s Country Manager, Brian John, and businessman Ken Boyea — Gonsalves’ first cousin and former ULP parliamentarian.
One business person, the cable said, was concerned about Gonsalves’ adoption of socialist-style economic policies at the expense of efficiency and sustainability.
But, with Gonsalves and his social democratic in office in Kingstown, they would undoubtedly love to see the socialist government in Caracas remaining in office.
But, regardless of the outcome, a sentence for the cable in 2007 may still describe what the Vincentian Prime Minister is likely to do: “Gonsalves will probably continue to try to have things both ways: posturing with [Caracas] while assuring the United States that he remains a reliable partner.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Elias Jose Jaua Milano, has declared seven days of mourning and said Chavez’s body would lie in state until his funeral on Friday.
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro would assume the presidency until an election is called within 30 days.