Former Prime Minister, Sir James Mitchell has suggested that the United States is punishing St. Vincent and the Grenadines for its pro-Venezuela stance at the Organization of American States.
Sir James, speaking on Boom FM on Tuesday, noted that Washington has not offered interview waiver for visa renewals to passport holders from SVG, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda.
Kingstown, Roseau and St. John’s have been supportive of Caracas, against efforts by the OAS, to force the Nicolas Maduro administration from office amidst a worsening economic and social crisis in Venezuela.
Recently, the United States announced the interview waiver courtesy for passport holders from St. Lucia, Grenada, and Barbados.
This means nationals of these countries would no longer have to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown to be interviewed as part of the visa renewal process.
In his radio interview this week, Sir James, who retired from electoral politics in 2001, asked Vincentians to consider recent developments at the OAS, and also the alleged attack of a Peace Corps volunteer in Kingstown on Aug. 20.
A 70-year-old female volunteer alleged that she was attacked near the Leeward Bus Terminal, towards the western end of the city by whom she described as two Middle Eastern men who spewed anti-American rhetoric.
The bus terminal and its environs are generally busy at that time of day, but no one has claimed witnessing the alleged assault.
Further, surveillance footage of the area where that attack is alleged to have occurred shows the woman at the scene but does not show any attack.
However, the 23 Peace Corps volunteers were removed from SVG to St. Lucia and there is yet no word on whether they would return.
Asked to comment on the recent development, Sir James said:
“We have to be careful about analysis and drawing conclusions. I find it passing strange that it is so easy now to get a US passport in St. Lucia or in Grenada and it is difficult to get a visa to go to the States if you are a Vincentian. Is there is a connection to foreign policy that every Vincentian has to ask: what is in his best interest?” he said on Boom FM.
The former prime minister said the Peace Corps volunteers have made a fantastic contribution to SVG, adding that he knows male Peace Corps volunteers who have married Vincentian women.
He said there are questions to be asked about Ross University moving from Dominica to Barbados.
“Is something happening? … We are not going to get any answers from the US, but this is how foreign policy works: you have to see how best you can handle matters,” said Sir James, who was prime minister for about 16 years ending October 2000.
Think beyond patriotism
Asked if he thinks there is a connection between what has transpired at the OAS and the removal of the Peace Corps, Sir James said:
“If a hurricane is coming here, we have no choice on the matter. But what we do as human beings, we have a choice. And there must have been some reason exercised in somebody’s mind why it happened.”
He sought to sidestep to a question about whether he believes the volunteer’s story.
“I am not into that. I am not into those details. I am into principles and I am saying to you that there must be some reason why they have been withdrawn and it is for us, Vincentians to find out why and not have a single scapegoat and not trying to play the game of patriotism and we have to back up this and forget about Venezuela — patriotism.”
Many Vincentians have defended the country amidst the report of the alleged attack.
And Searchlight newspaper noted in its editorial, that Peace Corps volunteers were not extracted from SVG when U.S. nationals were murdered in SVG.
On the issue of a patriotic response to the Peace Corps issues, Sir James said:
“But Dr. [Samuel] Johnson had something to say about patriotism many years ago, couple centuries ago: patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
Asked if he thinks SVG was on the right track in supporting Venezuela and offending the United States, Sir James said:
“I do not support the government of Venezuela and the way they are operating and I would not want to identify with that country and its military country.”
SVG should help Venezuela change
Sir James was prime minister when the New Democratic Party administration established Kingstown-Caracas ties.
He believes that Kingstown should help to nudge Caracas.
“I think we should help them move in a different direction — by first of all having frank dialogue and telling them that they are wrong. You have ruined your people and be careful with what you are doing. Can’t you see starvation? Can’t you see hunger?”
He further said:
“If you see a friend of yours going down the wrong road, you have a moral responsibility to guide them away from that. If you see your loved ones about to commit suicide, you have a responsibility to take the knife away. We have a responsibility to be helpful and not find ourselves fighting against the whole world…”
The NDP founder, who seems to be on the mend with his party after a years-long rift with former leader, Arnhim Eustace, said he hopes he is speaking on behalf of the NDP on this issue.
“I would not like to think that the NDP supports the lack of human rights and the abolition of the judiciary and the abolition of the congress. If the NDP supports the abolition of the congress, that means they don’t want Parliament to exist. No, no. We can’t go down that road.”
He said whether people like it or not, kingdoms fall.
“The kingdoms of Maduro, Chavez, will fall. I see that our intelligent finance minister is taking a position. It looks as if now that [Fidel] Castro is dead and [Hugo] Chavez is dead, he must be the leading advocate of socialism in the world. You’re going against the entire world supporting Venezuela…
“… the whole world is paying attention to Venezuela. Are we an island to ourselves? Should we not be paying attention too? It’s a terrible situation. Venezuela was once the wealthiest country in the whole of South America. And now, Venezuela is the poorest.”
Mass exodus amidst runaway inflation
He said that in 2017, the number of persons who had “abandoned” Venezuela for the United States was 290,224, for Columbia 600,000, for Spain, 208,333; for Ecuador, 39,579, for Brazil 35,000, and for Chile 119,051.
“Fourteen countries have recalled their ambassadors, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada. All those are some recent ones but several other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors before.”
He said that on the day of his comment, US$1 was valued 6,049,200 bolivars, according to Oanda, a currency exchange website.
He said the 6.04 million exchange rate was after five zeros had been dropped from the figure.
“It’s too much. They can’t count it.”
Sir James said he had a copy of The Economist from May 12, 2012 and the exchange rate was US$1 to 4.29 bolivars.
“And it was also the same rate the year before,” Sir James said adding that The Economist has a tabulation of major currencies, including the bolivars.
“If you look at a current issue of The Economist, there is no quotation on Venezuela because there is no space in the column to put in all these millions.
“And there is total chaos in that country.”
Sir James said that the situation in Venezuela is totally different from when he first visited as trade minister in the 1960s.
“Venezuela, at that time, was the richest country in South America. If you go into the Caracas Hilton on a Saturday night, where my delegation was staying, you’d think that you are in Paris.”
He said that at that time it was said that there were a lot of poor people in Venezuela but it was mainly Colombians who were fleeing the conflict with the drug cartels.
“Over a million Colombians migrated to Venezuela. I don’t believe there is a single Colombian in Venezuela and it is because of the kindness of Venezuela to Colombia in the past that Colombia is prepared to take in so many Venezuelans.
“And it is terrible,” he said.
“We have to bear in mind and listen to what is happening to our neighbours,” Sir James said.