Somewhere over the Bocas

Crisis, what crisis? was the message from Energy Minister Franklin Khan as he gave the post-Dragon deal press briefing in nonchalant style this week.

“We do not interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states,” he said addressing the media with his best Touché Turtle grin. It successfully masked the grimace that threatened to contort his face as he realised the Dum Dum words that had escaped his mouth.

I don’t believe Khan really intended to deny that a deepening humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Venezuela, but at the same time I don’t believe that he cares if it is.

Energy Minister Franklin Khan speaks to the media about the Dragon gas deal with Venezuela at Hyatt, Port of Spain on August 26. FILE PHOTO/SUREASH CHOLAI

“All we into is gas,” seemed to be the message from the TT Government. Cheap gas from a country where life is cheap, but living is expensive. For Khan’s boss, closing the deal felt like a satisfying victory after protracted delays. Serenading journalists on the flight to Caracas with an energy 101 lecture, his stripy red tie immaculately twinned with his compadre Stuart Young’s, Prime Minister Rowley gave off the air of a man who would sleep soundly that night. Crisis be damned!

Indeed, it was easy to ignore the hungry children, empty food shelves and no-go crime zones of the Venezuelan capital while being welcomed with a red-carpet guard of honour by his Stalin-lookalike buddy Nicolas Maduro.

Warm smiles abounded as they gassed about hydrocarbons, Rowley glancing occasionally skyward, understandably vigilant of incoming drones. He had survived an earthquake, thanks to god’s Trini citizenship. The last thing he needed was to become collateral damage on godforsaken foreign soil.

“Spectacular Venezuela, home to some of South America's most incredible landscapes, rightly has a terrible image problem at the moment,” reads the introduction to the Lonely Planet travel guide.

(“What image problem?” Franklin Khan presumably muttered as he thumbed through his copy. “What have I missed?”)

“And yet,” the guide continues, “visiting Venezuela is both possible and remarkably cheap, with dollars instantly making even backpackers feel wealthy.”

Remarkably cheap? Try convincing the thousands queuing for bread.

“A sprawling metropolis choked with traffic, Caracas incites no instant love affairs.”

But Dr Rowley is clearly enamoured. This romance has been a slow-burner just waiting for a spark to ignite it. Like a hob ring coaxing a stuttering stove lighter with the hissing promise of a lifetime supply of methane. Then… boom. Every day we lit.

From a distance, parts of society seem to be leading ordinary lives in Venezuela. On Isla de Margarita, young people still post bikini pics from sandy beaches.

But no social media filter or government propaganda can erase the fact that 2.3 million people (7 per cent of Venezuela’s population) have left the country because of the economic crisis. Colombia – where many have gone – predicts another two million will leave by 2020.

Is it ever excusable to look the other way when people are suffering and shake hands with the person partly culpable for that suffering?

In recent times, TT has encouraged closer business ties and investment from countries including China and Saudi Arabia. Both have questionable human rights records, but there aren’t many nations in the world who refuse deals with these two economic giants, so why should TT? It’s not as though this country operates on higher moral ground.

The message from Rowley is clear: TT is open for business.

His British counterpart, Theresa May, has been spewing out that slogan (replace TT with Britain) at every opportunity on her Brexit roadshow.

This week, May visited Africa on a trade mission where she danced awkwardly with schoolchildren who backed away as she approached like a robot who last danced to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep at the school disco.

“Where’s your mama gone? Far far away,” was UK journalist Michael Crick’s view, as he pointed out at May’s stage-managed press conference that the last time a British PM had visited Africa was seven years ago, while Emmanuel Macron has visited nine times, to 11 countries, since becoming France’s leader.

Mama Africa ought not to play her cards too hastily now that she finally has Britain grovelling but Botswana’s trade minister Bogolo Kenewendo clearly hadn’t read May’s hand as she signed away on the dotted line, confirming Britain’s first post-Brexit trade deal within hours of arrival.

The PR exercise got worse for May in a Channel 4 News interview at Robben Island with Crick, who repeatedly asked if she had ever opposed apartheid, or supported Nelson Mandela, or considered him a terrorist, as Margaret Thatcher had.

Floundering and gulping a non-answer about supporting the UK government’s approach to apartheid (essentially, doing nothing for decades) May was flummoxed. Crick’s arrow had struck.

Trinidad’s PM would similarly flounder if ever faced by such resolute, demanding, even humiliating questioning from the Trini media. But a mixture of timidity on the part of the press, and disdain on the part of Trini politicians, means such a thing will never be seen.


"Somewhere over the Bocas"

More in this section