“When the uninformed argue with the misinformed, there is no need to choose a side.” – Carmine Savastano
Several weeks ago, The Bahamas government reversed its age-old policy of neutrality when it comes to recognizing the sovereignty of an independent state, in the case the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Bahamas’ position regarding Venezuela arose after Nicolas Maduro was re-elected as Venezuelan president, having secured 68 percent of the vote, with slightly over 46 percent voter turnout.
However, The Bahamas government voted with several Organization of American States (OAS) members to recognize Venezuelan Opposition Leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president amid massive public protests against Maduro.
Therefore, this week we would like to Consider this… was The Bahamas government’s vote against the Maduro government a mistake in light of this country’s decades-old policy of neutrality regarding the internal affairs of a sovereign state?
The Munroe Doctrine
The development of United States (U.S.) foreign policy in the Americas, including the Caribbean, dates back to U.S. President James Monroe, who developed the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine was first enunciated in 1823 to oppose European colonialism in the Americas. It declared that any efforts by European nations to take control of independent states in North or South America would be viewed as a hostile act against the U.S.
The Monroe Doctrine also noted that the U.S. would recognize and not interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries. This doctrine evolved at a time when Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal had achieved, or were in the process of gaining, national independence.
The intent and impact of the Monroe Doctrine persisted for more than a century and its stated objective was to liberate newly independent colonies of Latin America from European intervention, and to avoid situations which could make the New World a battleground for the Old-World powers, so that the U.S. could exert its own influence undisturbed.
The doctrine also fostered the concept that the New World and the Old World would remain distinctly separate spheres of influence, and that the Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization.
Big stick policy
The United States’ non-interventionist policy radically changed in 1904 when the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine was adopted. In it, President Theodore Roosevelt asserted the U.S.’ role as policeman of the Western Hemisphere. In what became known as the “big stick policy”, Roosevelt’s attitude was that the U.S. should “speak softly but carry a big stick”. It became the mantra of this policy which asserted the U.S.’ right to involve itself in the affairs of Latin American countries, including those in the Caribbean, enabling the U.S. to police small nations that had unstable governments.
Although the U.S. justified this policy under the auspices of limiting European interference in the Americas, the Roosevelt Corollary laid the groundwork for the U.S.’ own global interventionist practices for decades to come. There are numerous instances where the U.S. big stick policy became that country’s modus operandi in its foreign policy exploits around the globe.
We witnessed the U.S. big stick policy systematically unfold in South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem, in Iran under Mohammad Reza Pallavi and in Syria under Bashar al-Assad, to mention a few vivid examples.
Closer to home, in the Western Hemisphere, in the waning years of the 20th century, we observed the U.S. big stick policy prominently play out in Chile under Salvador Allende, in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, in Cuba under Fidel Castro, in Panama under Manuel Noriega, in Grenada under Maurice Bishop and now, in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro.
Nicolas Maduro was first elected president of Venezuela following the death of strongman Hugo Chávez in 2013, an election Maduro won with 50.62 percent of the vote. Since taking office, Maduro has presided over a country, which has seen dramatic decreases in the standard of living, resulting in protests beginning in 2014 that have escalated into daily marches nationwide, repression of dissent and a dramatic decline in his popularity.
President Nicolás Maduro was re-elected for a second six-year term on May 20, 2018. The vote took place amidst a severe financial crisis in that country, the economy of which was decisively devastated by drastically declining oil prices. The nation also experienced months of violent mass protests, which initially resulted from the highest court’s decision to severely limit Parliament’s legislative authority.
Since Maduro’s reelection, Venezuela has faced an economic collapse that has created a humanitarian crisis, resulting in millions leaving the country.
According to the New York Times, Maduro’s administration was held “responsible for grossly mismanaging the economy and plunging the country into a deep humanitarian crisis” and attempting to “crush the opposition by jailing or exiling critics and using lethal force against antigovernment protesters”.
The OAS vote on Venezuela
In light of these developments and the rapidly deteriorating political and social conditions in Venezuela, the Organization of American States (OAS) voted to refuse to recognize Maduro as the legitimate head of state.
A number of countries, including the United States and Canada, refused to recognize Maduro’s victory. In the Caribbean, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Haiti, The Bahamas and Guyana, along with 14 other members, voted for the OAS resolution denying the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency and calling for a new presidential election with international observers. Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname voted against the resolution, while Trinidad & Tobago, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Belize abstained.
Following the OAS vote, Venezuela formally notified the OAS of its intention to leave that regional body.
The Bahamas’ vote at OAS
With its decision at the OAS to recognize the opposition leader in Venezuela as interim president, The Bahamas has taken the extraordinary and unprecedented step to delegitimize the government of another country.
The Bahamas’ decision in this matter is flawed on several fronts. It rejects this country’s long-standing policy of neutrality in the internal affairs of another country. In fact, by its vote at the OAS, The Bahamas has openly interfered in the internal affairs of another hemispheric state. This is unprecedented and inexcusable.
Secondly, our vote should have been based on the principle of neutrality and non-interference in another sovereign state. Our position should not have been based upon whether we like what is taking place in Venezuela. We do not, but that is not the point. Our foreign policy position should have been similar to the position The Bahamas took on Cuba when that country was unjustifiably embargoed by the U.S. in the 1960s and similar to the position that we have always taken regarding Haiti, even when that country was governed by military dictatorships.
Third, similar to the positions that were taken by Trinidad & Tobago, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and Belize, The Bahamas should have abstained in supporting the OAS resolution.
Fourth, what is the basis for The Bahamas’ vote at the OAS on Venezuela? Notwithstanding a purported letter subsequent to the OAS vote from the prime minister to the secretary general of CARICOM affirming The Bahamas’ commitment to non-intervention, which totally contradicts its OAS vote, The Bahamas government has yet to definitively explain with cogent clarity how its vote at the OAS was in our national interest.
Fifth, given our OAS vote, does this mean that The Bahamas also supports the overthrow of the de facto government in Venezuela? If so, on what basis and by what authority? Furthermore, does this now mean that an opposition party in any other country that claims it is the legitimate government should also garner our support?
The Bahamas’ vote at the OAS on Venezuela clearly demonstrates another example of this government’s inexperience shown by formulating foreign policy that is diametrically opposed to our historical policies, practices and conventions regarding our neutrality in such matters.
We must be very careful to always craft a foreign policy that is first and foremost in our national interests. We must avoid the propensity to kowtow to those whose policies are based on a “big stick” approach. We should never lose sight of the fact that the same big stick that is used to whip other sovereign states can be turned on us if we are perceived to act in a manner that is incongruent with those who have that big stick.
In the final analysis, we must always maintain our neutrality in foreign affairs when doing so is in our national interest because it is our national interest that should be this – or any – government’s number one priority, at all times, in all situations.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.