Pompeo makes history as first US secretary of state to visit Suriname and Guyana

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on September 2, 2020. - NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

While the 15-nation Caribbean Community bloc known as CARICOM remains divided on the issue of Venezuela, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit two of its member states this week as the Trump administration seeks to turn up the pressure on Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

“It’s not just that Venezuela produces refugees, they are producing security problems for all of these countries by harboring terrorists, harboring narcotraffickers,” a senior State Department official said Wednesday. “We’re trying to interdict drugs and we’ve put a lot of our assets into that and working closely with all of the Caribbean partners. Where are those coming from? A good deal of the activities seem to be centered in Venezuela now.”

Pompeo, who will visit four South American nations, was to arrive Thursday in Suriname, where he will meet with newly elected President Chan Santokhi. He will then head across the border to a volatile Guyana, where he will hold talks with representatives of oil companies, the secretary general of the Caribbean Community, Irwin LaRocque, and discuss the need to build an inclusive democracy with the country’s newfound oil wealth.

“We’re not trying to broker contacts between the oil companies,” the State Department official said. “We’re going to meet with the oil companies, see how they’re doing, see what their plans are.”

With the English-speaking nation still deeply divided over the disputed March 2 presidential elections and the monthslong standoff that ensued after incumbent President David Granger refused to concede, Pompeo will also meet with newly sworn-in President Irfaan Ali.

Ali’s first few weeks in office have been marked by reignited racial tensions and protests after the badly mutilated bodies of two cousins, Black teenagers Isaiah and Joel Henry, were discovered in a field on Sept. 6, and a third teen, a 17-year-old Indo-Guyanese boy, was chopped up and beaten to death in a reprisal killing.

In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Pompeo, who will also visit Boa Vista, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia, said he was glad to be visiting the South American countries “to celebrate and fight for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”

“Looking forward to strengthening regional partnerships that will benefit the American people,” he added.

The State Department is billing the visit, the first by a secretary of state to either Guyana or Suriname, as a testament to the Trump administration’s prioritizing “our relations with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. “ During the visit, Pompeo will “highlight the United States’ commitment to defend democracy,” and hold talks on regional security, highlight investment by U.S. companies in the gas and oil sector and raise attention on the plight of Venezuelan migrants and the ongoing crisis in that country. Pompeo will also raise concerns about China’s “predatory loans,” in contrast to U.S. companies’ investment practices throughout the hemisphere.

“We have been pretty clear. We are not running around saying, ‘Don’t deal with China,’ ” said a senior State Department official. “Make China deal with you on your terms.”

Located along the Atlantic coast of South America, Suriname and Guyana are part of a region known as the Guiana Shield, which also includes French Guiana.

While the elections in Suriname and Guyana earlier this year ultimately led to changes in the presidencies, each country initially had different outcomes following the balloting.

In Guyana, Ali’s Aug. 2 swearing-in came after a 33-day recount, U.S. visa cancellations by Washington, D.C., and five months after a disputed general election that took on racial dimensions now being reignited by the teens’ killings.

In Suriname, Santokhi, a former justice minister and police commissioner, took office amid a smooth transition following longtime president and former coup leader Desire “Desi” Delano Bouterse’s May 25 landslide defeat.

Bouterse’s political past as a coup leader, accused killer and convicted drug trafficker made relations difficult with the U.S., and even prevented meetings with U.S. presidents at global gatherings like the United Nations General Assembly.

“For us, it’s a clear signal of the support this government has,” Suriname Foreign Minister Albert Ramdin said about Pompeo’s visit. “This is regarded as a highlight, as it is the first time such a high level official will visit Suriname.”

Ramdin, a former assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, said the visit with Pompeo will focus on bilateral and security issues, as well as energy, democracy and regional affairs.

“Our approach is to build strong relations with the region. It includes the neighboring countries — Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana— the Netherlands and Europe as well as the United States, India and China,” he said.

Venezuela could come up in the margins of the discussion, Ramdin said, but it’s not the leading concern of the Santokhi administration — even as it continues to weigh heavily on minds in Washington. During Pompeo’s visit to Brazil he will visit a center that receives Venezuelan migrants. The administration has provided just under $1 billion in aid to assist Venezuelan refugees in the region, the State Department said.

“The new government’s position is that we don’t interfere in domestic matters, but we call on the leaders in Venezuela to find solutions to the benefit of the people of Venezuela,” Ramdin said. “While we are not in favor of sanctions or suspensions, we believe that all diplomatic channels should be used to facilitate a resolution in this conflict.”

In Guyana, where the Granger government tried to play both sides of the Venezuela crisis — attending meetings at the OAS of the Lima Group, which has refused to recognize Maduro’s socialist government, but not signing communiques — analysts say they hope the visit doesn’t endanger relations.

Along with some opposition politicians, analysts are warning that any attempt by the Ali administration to support the Trump administration’s hard-line stance against Maduro’s leftist regime could be disastrous for their English-speaking country and its new found oil windfall.

“It’s in Guyana’s own interest, the previous government or this one, to try and work together to resolve the crisis in Venezuela,” the State Department official said.

Ever since the discovery of vast deposits of oil by ExxonMobil Corp. off Guyana’s coast, the country has been embroiled in a reignited high-stakes border dispute with Venezuela over the location of their nations’ borders. The matter is currently before the International Court of Justice.

The disputed Essequibo area is about two-thirds of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles.

“Can you imagine if the borders of Guyana and Venezuela were redone and what it would mean for the entire South American continent? Almost every country in South America borders Brazil,” said Ivelaw Griffith, a Guyanese-born political and regional security expert. “If you change the Guyana-Venezuela border, it’s going to mean changes to the Guyana-Brazil border, changes to the Brazil-Venezuela border … and that’s going to reopen all of the claims that have been muted, dormant. There is too much geo-politically at stake within South America for this revisiting of borders and territories.”

But the fear is very much top of mind for observers. While Pompeo’s visit may have a semblance of Latin American-Caribbean engagement by the Trump administration following a divisive visit to Jamaica by the secretary, Griffith said he believes that Venezuela is very much a large part of the trip’s itinerary.

“My hope is that Guyana does not allow itself to become embroiled in the Venezuela domestic political situation. I think the Irfaan Ali administration is likely to feel compelled to try to be nice to the American government, given the strident support it received during the election crisis,” Griffith said. “But Venezuela will certainly be part of the agenda, there is no way that one cannot see that.”

Raphael Trotman, an opposition lawmaker, relayed those same concerns Tuesday during his budget response in Parliament. While not naming Pompeo, the parliamentarian for the political coalition A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change warned that the Ali administration should not to make any promises to the United States that could jeopardize Guyana’s case before the ICJ.

“We have made tremendous progress in the last five years to achieve a binding and internationally recognizable outcome by getting our controversy before the International Court of Justice and our cause is just and highly likely to succeed,” Trotman said. “We implore you not to turn a controversy, being settled by peaceful means, into a hot dispute that threatens our sovereignty and the peace within the region.”

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank has projected that Guyana’s economy will grow by more than 50% this year fueled by the country’s vast oil discoveries.

However, it’s a tough time for the oil and gas industry right now, with the global slump in demand and a big glut in supply. And in Guyana, oil-production approvals are still pending. At least one study from Rystad on Guyana’s oil production suggests that delays have already cost the government $1.6 billion in lost revenue.

While oil is on the agenda, it isn’t clear is if the country’s reignited racial tensions will be discussed. The tensions are raising fears of a return to the unrest that marked the 1960s between Afro-Guyanese, who are descendants of slaves, and Indo-Guyanese, whose ancestors arrived as indentured servants.

Following the Sept. 6 discovery of the mutilated bodies of the 16-year-old and 19-year-old in Berbice a day after they went missing, protests flared up in the streets of West Berbice and other parts of the country. Local press reported that Isaiah had the letter X carved on the back of his head and forehead, while Joel’s chest was cut open.

Taking to the streets, crowds of Afro-Guyanese blocked roads while demanding justice. Police detained five people who have since been released. Among them is a rice farmer who owns the cotton field where the Henry boys’ bodies were found. The 17-year-old who was killed in an apparent retaliation was the grandson of the farmer.

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