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July 15, 2018
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July 15, 2018

Love thy neighbour … as thyself

In my June 19, 2016 column, I alerted that our Venezuelan neighbours were tottering on the edge of a social and economic crisis.  “Somos vecinos” or “We are neighbours”.

To support my view that we should not ignore Venezuela, I highlighted the fact that the narrowest point between Trinidad and Venezuela, the Serpent’s Mouth, makes it feasible (according to some experts) to consider a bridge connecting both countries.

Fast forward two years and there is ample evidence around us to confirm how the crisis in Venezuela has deepened.  In terms of numbers, an estimate from May 2017 suggested that there might be as many as 40,000 Venezuelans in T&T.

You might doubt the numbers, but what cannot be ignored is the T&T reality that in almost every neighbourhood supermarket, every popular sports bar, many households and many restaurants, you will find a Venezuelan national working.

Encountering a “Vennie”, as I’ve heard them referred to, evokes a spectrum of reactions among Trinbagonians—from indifference, to empathy, to disdain, and unfortunately, to xenophobia.

The empathetic Trinbagonians seem to understand the plight the Vennies who are working here are facing in their home country—food shortages and the inability to look after their families are driving Vennies to cross the border and eke out a living.

Then there are those Trinbagonians who, cognisant of the desperation that has led to the influx of Vennies to our shores, rub their hands at the prospect of cheap labour, ripe for exploitation that almost borders on slavery—pay you next-to-nothing wages under the threat of deportation.  A third category of Trinbagonians are the xenophobes among us—the ones who harbour deep-rooted fear towards foreigners.

In case you missed it (ICYMI), Trinidad and Tobago isn’t the only country to which Vennies are flocking. So deep and seemingly hopeless is the crisis that Venezuelans are flocking to Colombia, Spain, the USA, Canada, Peru, Argentina, Chile, among other countries, in search of food and work, as the crisis in their country worsens. An estimated 1.6 million Venezuelans left their country in 2017—that’s the entire population of Trinidad and Tobago, plus!

Notwithstanding the social and economic crisis fuelling the migration from Venezuela, I am mindful of, and cannot ignore the facts, that there are long-standing border and security concerns arising from illegal access to drugs and firearms coming from “down the main”.

Lord knows the crime scourge currently enveloping our country is due in no small measure to the readily available drugs and arms, purportedly widespread because of porous borders and inadequate border control.

As David Rudder once masterfully captured in ‘The Madman’s Rant’ “…somebody letting the cocaine pass…”.  That, to me, is another, very serious matter and one that ought to be a national security priority.

The communique issued at the end of the recent CARICOM Heads of Government meeting held in Jamaica July 4–6, doesn’t suggest any real mention was made of the situation in Venezuela or the potential impact of the growing crisis on CARICOM countries.

According to the official communique from that meeting,  Caribbean leaders addressed “….issues of critical importance to the Community including…crime and violence and security, disaster preparedness and resilience, evaluation of institutions and a renewed focus on partnering for development…”.

They also “…underlined the importance of enhancing the use of Information and Communications Technology in the fight against the illicit trafficking in narcotics and firearms, trans-border criminal activities and cyber-attacks. They expressed particular concern about the inflow of guns from outside the Region…”.  Perhaps somewhere in these discussions Venezuela featured?

A friend recently whispered that the Vatican has some concerns about the Caribbean’s response to the situation in Venezuela. Mine is not to pronounce on the legal or illegal, merits or demerits, of the 40,000-odd neighbours who are seeking a better life in Trinidad and Tobago.

Rather, I would want those reading (and sharing) this article to acknowledge that we are called to be compassionate – “…if I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living will not be vain…”.

Love thy neighbour as thyself.  That’s just my point of view.

A monthly column by Dr Marlene Attzs, Economist