The past week has seen The Bahamas launched into an area that many consider uncharted territory.
Our country is now navigating the relationships with the United States, China and our fellow CARICOM countries, as a result of a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
It can be a tricky business trying to have friendships with countries that are often openly hostile to each other and whose wealth and populations dwarf ours on a global scale, but that is now where we are.
And it is the result of a most unusual move by our foreign service, which inserted The Bahamas into something that had nothing to do with us, and that we are quite powerless to affect.
Our support for a man who asserts himself to be president of Venezuela, a country we have no diplomatic ties to, is set to test us, perhaps like never before. What is going on in Venezuela is complex, nightmarish stuff that cautionary tales are made of.
Why we are involved has yet to be clearly articulated by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis or Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield.
The Bahamas’ position appears absent of coherent strategy.
We may have been better off doing what small countries like ours often do when the stakes are this high – remain neutral.
But that ship has sailed, and we now have no choice but to practice the art of geopolitical diplomacy, whether we are up to the task or not.
This South American country is divided by two men who both claim to be president.
That would be enough to give most countries without a stake in the affairs serious pause.
But it gets messier.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s elected president, won a poll widely agreed to be illegitimate – no opposition parties took part – last year.
The election was called by the Constituent Assembly, packed with Maduro supporters, and he was sworn in as president in the main offices of the Supreme Court, when, legally, that should have happened in the National Assembly.
Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly, which has a majority opposed to Maduro, was declared interim president by the assembly until new elections can be held.
Maduro controls the military, the greater organs of the state, has the backing of the country’s courts and, for all intents and purposes, carries out the functions of the president.
However, an economic crisis brought on by crippling inflation in that country has deepened into a humanitarian crisis.
Maduro can hardly keep the power on, resulting in school and hospital closures.
The stores barely have food on the shelves. Pharmacies are short on medicine.
Some people have resorted to eating from trash cans.
Millions have fled Venezuela to Colombia and other neighboring countries.
Maduro has refused international aid as the effects of his mismanagement of the nation, and sanctions by the United States, which backs Guaido, have taken hold.
Russia and China are backing Maduro, putting Venezuela, with its massive oil reserves, smack in the middle of a contest involving the world’s superpowers.
It is a country in deep turmoil.
Tragic, for sure, but there is little The Bahamas can do to impact this situation.
CARICOM has called for a non-interventionist strategy and encouraged dialogue between the opposing groups that both claim stewardship of the country.
However, individual CARICOM countries were divided on the issue.
In January, OAS members passed the resolution to not recognize Maduro with 19 votes in favor, six against, eight abstentions and one absent.
Jamaica, Haiti, The Bahamas, Guyana and Saint Lucia supported the resolution, while Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname voted against it.
Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Belize abstained during the vote, while Grenada was not present.
The Bahamas also later in the month voted to recognize Guaido as the country’s interim president.
However, in a letter to the CARICOM secretary general dated February 4, 2019, Minnis outlined The Bahamas’ position on Venezuela’s deteriorating state as one of non-intervention, in line with CARICOM’s stance on the issue.
The Bahamas cannot have it both ways.
It defies logic that the prime minister has a policy of non-intervention, yet supports regime change.
Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Chairman Fred Mitchell, who is the former foreign affairs minister, rightly pointed out that the move was precedent-setting.
What other countries will we support regime change in when international observers declare the elections improper?
The United States has limitless resources, influence and military might.
We are in short supply of all those things.
One wonders, how far is The Bahamas willing to go down this road?
The United States
However, the OAS position by The Bahamas seems to have had the benefit of capturing the attention of President Trump.
Trump invited five Caribbean countries that supported the resolution to recognize Guaido to a multilateral meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida last week.
Prime Minister Minnis joined the leaders of Jamaica, Haiti, St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic at that meeting.
The White House said it wanted to thank these countries for their vote and discuss, among other things, China’s “predatory economic practices”.
The meetup has laid bare the fragility of the CARICOM alliance, with several CARICOM prime ministers reacting in an unusually critical fashion.
But we’ll circle back to that.
CARICOM membership notwithstanding, it must be clear that The Bahamas is sovereign, and can meet with, ally with, consort with, strike agreements with whomever it wishes in the effort to advance the safety and prosperity of the people of The Bahamas.
While we enjoy a shared colonial history and even blood ties with many of our CARICOM friends, we sit a proverbial stone’s throw away from the most dominant and prosperous country in the history of mankind.
Minnis and his Cabinet must not forget what sustains the richest per capita country in the Caribbean – our relationship with the United States.
Those who say Minnis should not have met with Trump because they have a personal issue with the U.S. president should be ignored.
It would be lunacy to turn down an invitation to meet with the world’s most powerful man.
We should at all times be seeking to deepen our friendships with our allies, particularly our biggest trading partner.
The United States is from where we get the majority of our food, our clothes, our retail and wholesale merchandise, our medical supplies and medication, the means of much of our production – the list is endless.
It is where most of our children are educated beyond secondary school, and many of us have close family living there.
To be sure, The Bahamas would survive if we no longer had such a cozy relationship with the U.S., but our way of life would change dramatically.
Those who seek to pretend that The Bahamas is not currently dependent on the U.S. for our way of life are either too misinformed or too delusional to be taken seriously.
However, by no means should dependence mean subservience.
The Bahamas also brings much to the relationship.
It is close to the United States and ripe for investment.
We have the most beautiful water in the world, the best fishing, we are a safe and stable jurisdiction.
And we contribute greatly to the well-being of the United States through the many contributions Bahamians and those of Bahamian descent make throughout that country.
The United States was founded to oppose the tyranny of kings.
Trump, love him or otherwise, will not be president forever.
We must seek to have him help advance the relationship we have, and look strategically toward our future growth.
The meeting may have just been an opportunity to get a little “face time” with Trump.
Or it may prove to be more beneficial.
Either way, it was smart to accept the invitation, no matter the fallout with our friends in the Caribbean Sea.
China is our friend too
The statement by the White House announcing the Mar-a-Lago meeting sparked the ire of the Chinese embassy in The Bahamas.
Last week, in a statement addressing that meeting, the White House Office of the Press Secretary said Trump looked forward to working with The Bahamas and other Caribbean countries to “counter China’s predatory economic practices”.
Last Wednesday, Haigang Yin, the charge d’affaires of the Embassy of The People’s Republic of China in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, fired back at the United States, accusing it of attempting to “disintegrate solidarity and cooperation between China and other developing countries”.
“The accusations of predatory economic practices are completely baseless, unreasonable and contradictory to the facts,” he said.
Yin added: “Facing the fabricated lies and irresponsible accusations, we have faith in the people of The Bahamas, with whom rests the final judgment. We are confident that the Bahamian people and government will not be misled by others.”
On Thursday, U.S. Embassy in Nassau Charge d’Affaires Stephanie Bowers encouraged leaders to be wary of whom they get into business with.
Upon his return home on Saturday, Minnis said he pointed out to the president that while we have a great friendship with the U.S., we have no plans to change our friendship with China.
This is sensible policy.
Though Minnis used the tired trope of the Chinese bogeyman on the election campaign, he has since come to understand the reality of where we are.
The Chinese have given us solid development loans, with which we have built roads and ports.
Much more infrastructure is needed; we must seek to get concessionary terms from China without giving away the farm.
The Chinese have sought to deepen cultural exchange with The Bahamas and easy access to entry there.
There is benefit in learning more about the giant in the east.
China’s economy is likely to only grow stronger.
China has also been a great boon to our tourism product.
A Chinese company built Baha Mar.
A Chinese bank financed Baha Mar.
A Chinese family bought Baha Mar.
Baha Mar now employs over 5,000 Bahamians.
And its guests are mainly Americans.
Successive governments have smartly leveraged relationships with both countries to our benefit.
We must seek to leverage more.
Apparently seething from not being invited to the Mar-a-Lago meeting, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne suggested his fellow prime ministers were “weak-minded” and treated like “servants”.
Referring to the meeting in a Facebook post on Saturday, Browne said, “I feel embarrassed for those weak-minded leaders, who allowed themselves to be used, by carrying out the agenda of others.”
This was a surprisingly petty and irresponsible statement by a head of state.
If the meeting with Trump served to fracture CARICOM, what does Browne think his insulting comments will do?
This is not how you speak about your friends.
He well understands the proper channels of diplomacy.
Browne must display more maturity than this.
He did not utter a peep when former U.S. President Barrack Obama visited Jamaica in 2015.
That, like the meeting with Trump, had nothing to do with him.
His ego may be understandably bruised, but a prime minister should try to rise above such reactionary utterances.
Browne was just seen smiling in pictures with some of the same men he called “weak-minded” at the last CARICOM heads of government meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis last month.
He could learn statesmanship well from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves who, while being critical of the meeting with Trump, laid out cogent reasoning for why CARICOM took its position.
While he said he was troubled by the meeting, he admitting to knowing all of the Caribbean leaders at the meeting and expressed confidence they would do nothing to damage CARICOM.
Gonsalves expressed his concern, but did not stoop to insults.
It was a low moment for Browne.
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley was also among those who spoke out on the meeting with Trump, urging his citizens to not feel snubbed, but instead to take pride in the country’s stance on the crisis in Venezuela.
Following Cabinet on Thursday, Rowley said, “…We have never stood taller or stood prouder. If it is we’re being blanked or snubbed for steadfastly standing for the principles of the United Nations Charter, history will absolve us.”
Rowley is facing criticism from the opposition in his country about not getting an invite to the meeting.
He is also closer to the situation in Venezuela than any other Caribbean leader.
His country sits near the northeastern perimeter of Venezuela.
Thousands of Venezuelans are now refugees in Trinidad and Tobago.
That country has also come under harsh criticism for its handling of that issue.
But that is Rowley’s business, that he must navigate in the best interests of his country, much like our relationship with the U.S. is ours.