Trinidad-U.S. relations in the context of Venezuela and the Rio Treaty

U.S. relations with Trinidad and Tobago have intensified after a series of events involving Venezuela. What does this mean for the future of Trinidad-U.S. relations?


Trinidad & Tobago’s (TT) Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley and his administration are in the midst of a heated exchange with representatives of the U.S. government, concerning the country’s recent interactions with Venezuela.

In 2019, Rowley criticized the administration of President Donald Trump for designating TT a Tier 2 country in the United States State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. Earlier this year, Rowley also took exception to a meeting hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Jamaica, where only certain Caribbean governments were invited to participate. He characterized the meeting as an attempt to divide the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries. 

Since then, political heat between the two governments intensified after a March 27 visit to Trinidad and Tobago by Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and an April 21 fuel shipment from TT’s Paria Fuel Trading Company to Aruba, which was then sent to Venezuela. Both events were condemned by the U.S. government, and created an opportunistic uproar back home—ahead of general elections due in late 2020—from TT’s opposition leader and former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar claiming that Rowley had opened Trinidad and Tobago to possible U.S. sanctions.

While the U.S. Government has not said that TT would face sanctions, its ambassador to the country, Joseph Mondello, stated that “Article 20 of the Rio Treaty, [to which Trinidad and Tobago is a party], makes it unambiguously clear that all measures imposed by the Organ of Consultation—like the travel restrictions on Ms. Rodriguez—are binding on all treaty parties, whether or not they voted in favor of such measures.”

In response to both Ambassador Mondello and Persad-Bissessar, TT’s Foreign Minister Dennis Moses said that the country “is not bound by the decisions taken by nations of the Rio Treaty, as it relates to the imposition of travel bans and sanctions against Venezuela’s legitimate Government.” Moses also stated to the TT parliament that the government recognizes Nicolás Maduro and not the U.S.-backed Juan Guaidó as the President of Venezuela. 

The Rowley administration has justified its recognition of Maduro on the basis that the majority of the world’s nations also recognize Maduro, as reflected at the United Nations. While it can be argued that the Rio Treaty supersedes the UN Charter due to Article 52, Chapter 8—which argues that existing regional arrangements related to matters of international peace and security preclude the charter as long as it is consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations—the principles and purposes of the charter state that the “organization [United Nations] is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.”

Therefore, since Venezuela remains a sovereign and accepted member of the United Nations, it is unlikely that the United States and other signatories of the Rio Treaty could justify the enforcement, or any consequences related to the treaty onto Trinidad and Tobago. 

As expected, the United States, which has routinely used its economic, military, and political influence to pressure Caribbean states into aligning with its stance on Venezuela, has been irritated by Rowley and his foreign minister’s justification for ignoring resolutions adopted by the Rio Treaty parties. Commenting to the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, a U.S. Department of State spokesperson offered the offhand remark that “if Trinidad and Tobago does not want to abide by treaty terms, maybe it should withdraw.” 

There may be good advice to the TT government in the State Department’s comment, as the Treaty serves no useful purpose for the country and is outdated and limited in its membership while wide in its scope. Trinidad and Tobago is only one of three CARICOM members that are signatories to the Treaty. 

The Treaty does, however, provide Trinidad and Tobago the opportunity to be involved in the political agenda of other signatory states. It is TT’s sovereign right to participate in regional and international forums and treaties. U.S. pressure on the country to withdraw from the treaty might be perceived as a U.S. attempt to regulate Trinidad and Tobago’s ability to vocalize its opinion on hemispheric matters that concern itself.

In addition, it is ironic that the United States, a serial ignorer of international treaties at its own convenience, seeks to lecture TT concerning decisions it has made in keeping with its own national interest, sovereignty, and its right to self-determination. 

The Rowley administration’s continued recognition of the Maduro government and its policies toward Venezuela are fashioned in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago. Changing its policies to suit the United States and the signatory parties to the anachronistic Rio Treaty would be to surrender Trinidad and Tobago’s autonomy to foreign powers and abandon its obligations to its people, the opposition’s stance notwithstanding.  

Trinidad and Tobago’s justification for maintained relations with Venezuela is its geographic proximity to the country, including a shared maritime border, that necessitates common interests and shared concerns, such as oil and gas agreements, migration, and security cooperation. 

Threats, whether real or implied, regarding sanctions or other negative actions the United States may take toward Trinidad and Tobago over the Rio Treaty dispute, will worsen TT-U.S. relations, at a time when the standing of the United States among the Caribbean populace, especially in relation to the treatment of black people, including Caribbean immigrants, is at a low point.

Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS. 

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