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Islands of Hope

Don Rojas Apr 5, 2013

Among the 60-plus country delegations in Caracas for the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were several Caribbean nations that in recent years had relied heavily on Venezuela’s energy support to survive the global economic meltdown of 2007–2008.

The ongoing crisis of global capitalism, while not as intense as it was five years ago, continues to wreak havoc on the development agendas of the fragile and vulnerable small island nations, many of which have substantial immigrant populations living in the New York City area.

The uncertainty of Venezuela’s future support in the wake of Chavez’s death must have weighed heavily on the minds of the Caribbean leaders who attended his funeral.

“He [Chavez] was the vital bridge between Latin America on the one hand and the Caribbean on the other,” said Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent.

Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro has vowed to maintain the level of support and solidarity they received from the “Comandante.” But if Maduro were to lose to his rightwing rival Henrique Capriles in Venezuela’s upcoming election, Capriles would almost surely put an end to PetroCaribe, the project Chavez launched in 2005 that allows 18 countries in the Caribbean and Central America a secure energy supply through oil subsidies of between 40 to 60 percent.

In the case of Jamaica alone, the end of these subsidies would leave a $600 million hole in the country’s budget. As an indication of how appreciated Chavez’s support was in Jamaica, both Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and the opposition Jamaica Labour Party stood united in praise for Chavez during a regular sitting of the Jamaican Parliament the day Chavez died. When the news reached Kingston the session was immediately interrupted and turned into a tribute with the prime minister, saying that “both administrations, no matter who was in power, Hugo Chavez was a friend to both. … He assisted Jamaica in a period of need.”

PetroCaribe is a part-payment-part-loan program that has funneled $14 billion worth of oil to the 18 participating countries as of 2012. Of that, $5.8 billion constituted long-term financing, and the monies saved from oil subsidies have allowed Jamaica and other Caribbean countries to invest hundreds of millions of PetroCaribe’s dollars in projects such as building highways, upgrading school buildings and providing sanitary facilities in crowded urban areas.

In addition to PetroCaribe, the Chavez government set up the ALBA Caribe Fund (ACF) and the ALBA Food Fund (AFF) to provide development assistance to the region. In the six years up to 2012, the ACF had invested $178.8 million on 88 projects ranging from education to water to airport construction. In nine countries the AFF had invested in 12 projects worth $24 million.

Don Rojas served as press secretary in the revolutionary government of Grenada’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop from 1981 to 1983. Rojas has also been an editor at the Amsterdam News and general manager of WBAI-99.5 FM.