My first experience in Venezuela was a teenager in the 1980s when our family visited Caracas. Some years before the 1989 riots in Caracas, anyone could feel the tension in the air. Like Trinidad, weak oil prices took a toll on the economy, and social tensions were high. It was the first time I had seen regular police patrols where officers were armed with semi-automatic weapons. The tour guide was literally begging us to be careful because of the high risk of mugging.
In the 1990s, somehow, I found myself meeting many Venezuelans both in Trinidad and during my time at university in South Florida. I then realized that two of the more popular destinations for Venezuelans to get out were Trinidad and Miami. Many would tell me how fed up they were with the crime and corruption. During this time, I also realized just how similar the Venezuelan culture was/is to Trini culture. In both places, you find a very multicultural society bubbling with an indescribable passion and energy. A lust for life and love of partying juxtaposed against a religious conservatism that perhaps confuses outsiders.
Today, as I look at the memes that paint Chavez as our generation’s Che Guevara, I find it hard to forget the other side of the story. Yes, he presided when Venezuela enjoyed unprecedented reductions in its poverty rates, rising literacy rates, falling mortality rates, and increasing regional political influence. What made it more impressive was that income inequality was declining there when it was increasing in the US and here in the UK. But at the same time, I met Venezuelans who were unimpressed by his ironclad control over the media, disregard for private property rights, and a style which some described as dictatorial.
For all the improvements in Venezuela’s quality of life, crime remains a problem there as in Trinidad. However, what is noteworthy is the writer Darius Figueira’s point that the Latin American drug cartels operating in the Caribbean now use arms leaving Honduras as opposed to Venezuela. This suggests that Chavez may have had some success in curtailing their influence.
However, Trinidad has not been as lucky as Venezuela, as the evidence suggests that drug cartel influence has increased as of late. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago’s present coalition government was swept into power on promises of ‘change.’ One of their first acts, however, was to weaken the islands’ national security apparatus systematically. Orders for security equipment were canceled, and national security agencies were publicly vilified and dismantled. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that certain indicators suggest that drug cartel influence has increased.
A 2012 report of the Financial Intelligence Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (FIUTT) has stated that $638,844,310 in alleged “dirty money” transactions have reportedly passed through the country’s financial system over the past year. A big jump considering that in 2010, $263 million was red-flagged to the FIUTT, while in 2011, that figure rose to $569 million.
Expert David West, a former interim head of the FIUTT and former head of the Central Authority for Extradition and Mutual Assistance at the Office of the Attorney General, was particularly critical of the Financial Investigations Bureau (FIB)—the body responsible for charging and prosecuting white-collar crimes. He said the FIB has been unusually dormant in the fight against white-collar crime.
Also of concern is the government’s recent move to give the army the power of arrest and increase army patrols in crime hot spots. Many think this to be a very dangerous move. A previous Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago refused to go down this road. They remarked that once a government deploys the army against its own people, it is often difficult to control the army. A close look at our Latin American neighbors’ history shows this fear to be a valid one.
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Last October, at a defense ministers’ meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cautioned Western Hemisphere countries against relying on the military to perform police duties. At a meeting of the region’s defense ministers, he went on to say that civilian authorities should be strengthened to deal with law enforcement on their own. Calls for institutional strengthening and more decisive action against allegations of corruption continue to be made by civil society institutions in Trinidad, but they appear to go unheeded.
Like its nearest neighbor Venezuela, the beautiful twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is at a crossroads. I hope that their respective leaders choose wisely.
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