Jamaica’s OAS vote in line with its foreign policy, says Johnson Smith

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FOREIGN Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Senator Kamina Johnson Smith says that Jamaica’s vote against recognising the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela at the Organization of American States (OAS) was not a break with its foreign policy.

“It was in fact not. We always vote on the side of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which is what we did at the OAS last Thursday,” Senator Johnson responded to the first issue raised by political reporter Jonny Dymond at the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC)-staged forum, “World Questions” at the Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston last Tuesday.

Senator Johnson Smith said that the Venezuela elections, which were held on May 20, 2018 under Maduro’s Administration and in which he was re-elected to a second six-year term did not comply with internationally accepted standards for free and fair elections.

The minister also noted that last June, Jamaica had also voted to question the same principles of a free and fair election, at the OAS.

“So the vote on this occasion readily flowed from that vote, and was entirely consistent with our support for those key principles, which we have done since Independence,” she said.

“We have not taken any position in respect of the (Venezuelan) Opposition. We have, too, heard that there have been discussions about recognising an alternate government, but the Jamaican Government has not been exploring that as an option. We are however monitoring the situation closely,” she said.

Pushed by Dymond to explain whether the Government was using the human rights aspect of the issue as “the litmus test” for supporting the Venezuelan Administration, and whether Jamaica was ignoring human rights breaches by Israel with which the island has also been engaged, the foreign affairs minister admitted there are complexities in the relationship with Israel which do not follow a “directly linear” path.

“I wouldn’t say human rights is the litmus test for our vote in respect of Venezuela. What we indicated is that human rights, the rule of law and democracy are principles which we hold to, as well as non-intervention,” she added.

Senator Johnson Smith noted that the issues relating to Israel are currently being addressed at the level of the international fora, and are much more complicated, which the Government has been dealing with for some time.

“Our cooperation with Israel, certainly our exploration of their expertise in innovation, in domestic security and other matters, is quite phenomenal and we have been seeking to learn from and cooperate with them in that regard,” she said.

“We have not gotten into any political issues there, and we don’t necessarily correlate the two,” she added.

Opposition spokesman and Member of Parliament (MP) Peter Bunting, who was speaking on behalf of the People’s National Party (PNP), refused to be dragged into a debate on foreign relations but insisted that there were concerns about the principle of expropriation of assets, especially as it relates to Venezuela’s 40 per cent ownership of the Petrojam oil refinery.

“We believe there should always be a last resort. The Government have said they are bringing legislation to Parliament to forcefully acquire the minority shares, which Venezuela holds in our local refinery. We believe that they have not exhausted all reasonable attempts or amicable attempts to come to an agreement on price, which we understand is the outstanding issue,” he said.

However, he said that while he could not deny that Venezuela does have an economic and humanitarian crisis, and a whole range of issues, there is a need to balance that with the fact that Venezuela has been “perhaps, the most generous country to us”.

“We don’t feel, in a sense, that when someone is down it is time to use strong arm tactics on them. We feel that regardless of whatever the criticism we may have of the current regime, and some may be quite legitimate, we must ensure that our behaviour is principled, is fair, is just, to the people of Venezuela, who ultimately are the owners of the shares,” he said.

At that point, Dymond asked Jamaica’s poet laureate Lorna Goodison, who was also a member of the quartet of panellists, whether the view here is that Jamaica is kicking Venezuela when it is down?

“This is a very complex issue,” Goodison responded. “I think we should require broad discussion. A lot of people don’t know the background to this. They have no idea what we are talking about. So the first thing I would say is maybe this could be the beginning of a series of discussions, where people are informed and get to ask questions about exactly why we are friends to Venezuela in the first place, and why the friendship has broken off.”

She also said that there are many questions that need to be asked before most persons can have an informed opinion.

The fourth panellist, Professor Alvin Wint, pointed to another perspective on the human rights situation in Venezuela, noting that even while only 200 votes separated the ruling Jamaica Labour Party from the PNP at the 2016 general election, it was “outstanding” that even with that narrow margin of victory there were no tensions or hostilities across the island.

“This is really a tribute to the electoral system that Jamaica has developed over many years,” Wint told the audience.

He noted that while nobody disputes the fact there are challenges with Venezuela’s electoral process, Jamaica has created a bipartisan electoral structure to manage the system, which countries like Venezuela should look at as a potential model.

The BBC World Service hosts a series of debates across the world, led entirely by questions from the audience. “BBC World Questions” allows the public to question politicians, leaders and people who influence opinion directly, face to face.

BBC hosts the programme each month in a different country which airs its news services.

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