FORMER foreign affairs minister Ralph Maraj believes Trinidad and Tobago can run into “serious trouble” with the US Government if it does not heed the “very strong” warnings the latter has sent about this country’s perceived relationship with Venezuela.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Maraj said if TT continued to ignore the US warnings on Venezuela, sanctions were likely.
“The US Government is no doubt keeping a close eye on these developments. Once they sanction a country, it can affect our ability to trade and conduct financial transactions and may even attempt to influence world bodies to support their position.
“Or they may decide not to fully sanction the country, but only individuals, once they have irrefutable evidence that TT, or anyone, was in violation, and this will make it uncomfortable for those individuals,” Maraj said.
“They are giving us warnings and if we do not heed them…We will run into trouble with the US Government.”
The latest “warning” referred to by Maraj was the statement from the US State Department that TT should consider withdrawing from the Rio Treaty if it could not abide by the consensus taken by member countries on sanctions against Venezuela.
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Dennis Moses reminded of the Prime Minister’s recent statement on the issue. Dr Rowley said the country was taking no such action.
Also on Tuesday, in an interview with Tobago Channel 5, Rowley said decisions for TT are made by TT. He said there was a bigger treaty – the UN Treaty, which, according to him, says the government of Venezuela is the Nicolas Maduro government.
Rowley’s government came in for criticism over the sale of fuel by state-owned Paria Fuel Trading Company to Swiss-based ES Euro Shipping which was allegedly diverted to US-sanctioned Venezuela, and also over the visit in March by Venezuela’s vice president Delcy Rodriguez.
In 2018, the US blacklisted Rodriguez for corruption and humanitarian issues. She is also subject to travel sanctions that are binding on all signatories to the Rio Treaty.
On Tuesday, the US imposed sanctions against four companies for operating in the oil sector of Venezuela’s economy.
US secretary of state Michael Pompeo said in a press statement announcing the new sanctions: “Maduro’s corrupt regime is directly responsible for the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The international community should increase pressure against the Maduro regime until it relinquishes its illegitimate hold on power. The US will continue to increase pressure on Maduro and his enablers until a democratic transition begins,”
Last Friday, Pompeo issued a statement reaffirming the US's commitment to Venezuela's self-declared president Juan Guaido and 100 deputies across all party lines who, he said, daily face threats and intimidation by the "illegitimate former Maduro regime."
Maraj pointed out that the US has reportedly sent TT a list of sanctioned individuals and has now advised withdrawing from the Rio Treaty if it is unwilling to abide by it.
“These are two very strong signals from the US Government.
“My own position is that TT must always maintain cordial relations with the US,” he said, adding that this relationship has undergone significant threats as a result of what he says appears to be TT’s devotion to its relationship to Venezuela.
Maraj said over 60 countries worldwide and within the region have rejected “Maduro’s dictatorship” and have called for the Venezuelan president’s removal and for free and fair elections to take place in the South American country.
Maraj, who was foreign affairs minister from 1991-1995, said the current Rowley administration has not once said a word about the "atrocities" taking place in Venezuela.
“And they claim non-interference in other countries’ affairs.”
This was a “bogus claim” since, he said, TT has spoken out against human rights violations in Haiti. He said speaking out about the need to adhere to human rights and return to democratic law did not constitute interference.
Maraj felt it was obvious that TT’s apparent silence is directly related to government’s negotiations with Venezuela for a gas deal and “that they did not want to ruffle feathers in Caracas.”
He said TT could still have maintained cordiality with Venezuela but taken a principled position on the adherence to human rights and democratic power.
Maraj said it was obvious to the US and other countries in the hemisphere that TT has turned a blind eye to what is going on in Venezuela.
“The question that arises is what power does Maduro have over this government, that they can open the border for a US-sanctioned individual? What power does Maduro have?” heasked, adding that there were no minutes to support claims that the March meeting with Rodriguez was to discuss covid19.
“…When the very next day a shipment of fuel left TT and ended up in Venezuela,” he added.
In a recent statement, former director of UWI’s Institute of International Relations Prof Andy Knight said it appeared either the current US administration did not understand the Rio Treaty or was deliberately misleading the uninformed public about what the treaty was in the context of international law.
“In my humble opinion, the US is misusing this treaty; manipulating the Treaty in order to bully Caribbean countries, like Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and the Bahamas into accepting its position on US sanctions against Venezuela,” he said.
“The argument right now for using it as a tool to bend countries to the US’s will is unconscionable,” he suggested, adding that to use the treaty to punish Venezuela was a “bit of a stretch” and maybe, in fact, in violation of international law.
“Using measures that are acts of aggression against Venezuela is not in conformity with "collective self-defence", no matter how the US tries to interpret it.“I do not condone this type of interference into other countries' affairs. Manipulating the Rio Treaty to accomplish that is...a clear violation by the US of principles of international law. I don’t see Venezuela engaged in an armed attack against any member of the treaty, so I don’t see how Article 3 of the treaty can be invoked against Venezuela, either covertly, or overtly, and to use the treaty as a way of disciplining TT is simply “out of bounds”.
“It is a despicable misuse of the treaty itself,” he said.
Knight also said if he were Dr Rowley, he would relinquish TT's membership in the Rio Treaty.
“It no longer makes sense to be part of it,” he said, adding that the US Secretary of State and US President Donald Trump were “using it to "discipline" TT and interfere in this country's domestic affairs.
Other diplomatic sources said the implied threat by the US was worrying since it appears TT was being warned that the majority of the parties to the treaty agreed on the position on Venezuela, with the exception of TT which abstained from the vote and Uruguay which voted against.
There is also a warning of possible sanctions coming in the form of limitations which can affect trade and foreign banking business which can affect businessmen with accounts in the US, or even the state-owned airline, if the US decided to impose limitations into and out of its airports.
“There are a number of measures they can take. At the moment, relations between TT and the US does not look all that good. The US is far more powerful we can ever be, always have been. They can impose sanctions and there is nothing we can do. What can we do? Run to Caricom, the Organisation of American States (OAS) or the UN?” was the question posed to Newsday by a former envoy.