Business

Who wants to be history's hero?

BY ROGER BROWN

Friday, June 16, 2017

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For half-a-millennium, the vibrant arc of Caribbean and Central American history has been drawn by exceptional leaders. From Bolivar to Bustamante, Columbus to Castro, and Torrijos to Chavez, the region has long been home to strong men dreaming impossible dreams and making them real by sheer force of will.

All of them came with deep faults but unremitting convictions. They changed the world around them, leaving indelible impressions and uncertain futures in their wake.

However, there's no entry code for technocrats or puppets; it's always been a tough crowd out there, ever since the colonial masters sailed back to Europe and took their manners with them.

In Jamaica's case, that's why neither the eminent PJ nor the erudite Bruce G will ever make the cut, and why the once beloved Sista P has already become a mere historical speed bump.

It's been nearly a generation since this region last produced a true incandescent: the enigmatic yet charismatic Hugo Chavez…nobody else has really mattered in this geographic space since, except perhaps Ricardo Martinelli, the flamboyant billionaire-turned- president of Panama, who catapulted his country into an economic powerhouse.

There remains a yawning leadership gap in the region, ever more critical in these turbulent times; a resurgent Russia, a rudderless America, the UK in a tailspin, and Europe's future in doubt.

Only China has a real plan for global domination, driven by economic statecraft and a profound grasp of geography. Herein lies the opportunity for Jamaica.

There are two very big- picture events happening in the neighbourhood, demanding of both linkage and leadership: the extension of China's 'One Road, One Belt' global highway to the Panama Canal through that country's recent diplomatic ouster of Taiwan, and the festering humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Leading luminaries from the OAS recently wrote to Caricom seeking their condemnation of the rape of civil liberties in Venezuela. This was met with vocal resistance by PM Gonsalves of St Vincent & the Grenadines, and PM Browne of Antigua &Barbuda, both ardent recipients of Venezuelan largesse…tiny island states with a combined population roughly equal to that of suburban Portmore.

With the lone dissenting voice of Jamaica's PM, Caricom buckled under PetroCaribe pressures and issued a vapid statement about non-intervention in Venezuelan affairs, and the OAS caved. Such is the word soup of weaklings, the sad reflection of a defunct dream, and an abdication of Caricom's moral responsibility stunning in its scope.

Meanwhile, China is keeping Venezuela afloat, the yuan subsidising the bolivar in exchange for oil, while Goldman Sachs buys PDVSA bonds for fractions on the dollar. The writing is on the wall, and all over Youtube, written in the blood of Venezuelan youth fighting for basic democratic freedoms against an entrenched kleptocracy; even as the tanks roll, Venezuela's diplomats curry favour with Caricom fat cats to keep the OAS lid on their powder keg.

It's time for Jamaica to step up and be counted, to be the lone voice of brave dissent among its Caribbean cowards. Taking the moral high ground will not be easy, especially when cheap PetroCaribe oil may be at risk…but the world is now awash with oil, and the long-term loan component of PetroCaribe has really just been a back alley slush fund for regional finance ministries that may need to 'run wid it'.

Why should Jamaica take this political risk? Because Panama and Jamaica are destined to become the major regional links in China's new global trade network… geography demands it, and China absolutely requires those strategic links.

Just as China is the only world power that can influence North Korea, it's also the only world power that may be able to influence the Venezuelan leadership.

Jamaica must make it clear to China that it cares what happens in Caracas — that it expects China to exert a moderating influence on President Maduro, and that Venezuelan lives matter to all their neighbours. There is strength in unity: Jamaica's drumbeat of dissent will resonate far beyond its shores once Caribbean nations are made to understand that China's hemispheric ambitions eclipse Venezuela, which is really just their regional petrol station.

This will take some gumption. China-Venezuela trade dwarfs China-Jamaica investment, but the Chinese always take a long view and respect political backbone.

It will demand deep courage, but the Caribbean is crying out for regional leadership, for new ideas and big dreams following the epic failure of the Caricom experiment. Is it too much to hope for Jamaica's new young PM to continue to rise to the challenge?

Millions of Venezuelans are living on the edge, a humanitarian disaster that dwarfs the Haitian earthquake; the chaos in Caracas is already spawning a migrant crisis and an illegal arms trade… this is not the time for political platitudes, but for transformational leadership.

For decades, Venezuelans discounted their oil and kept most of the Caribbean afloat… muchas gracias, Presidente Chavez… but the moral accounting is long overdue. That PetroCaribe oil was the Venezuelan people's treasure: the region's debt is to them in their darkest hours, not to a corrupt failing state.

Simon Bolivar, founding father of Venezuela and freedom fighter extraordinaire, sought shelter in Jamaica when repressive forces drove him into exile. He found hope and strength here, penning a vision of national liberation and regional unity that endures to this day… there's a history lesson well worthy of political reflection.

The Caribbean leader who stands tall enough to speak the truth to Caricom, to the OAS, to President Maduro, and to his Chinese cohorts will be an easy target for the cynics and the sceptics. No matter; history will be their true judge, and it will look kindly upon the visionary who cared for those beyond his borders, and who had the cojones to take a stand.

Roger Brown is the founder and managing director of Panama-based Risk Control SA.

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