As the region takes a break for the holiday season, authorities in Trinidad remain under severe pressure to deal with the Venezuelan refugee crisis with the latest row being linked to allegations by the US Embassy in Port of Spain that it had allegedly provided a large grant aid sum for refugee assistance that local officials appear to know nothing about.
Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said the money — about $11 million — must have vanished into thin air as his administration was unaware as to how it was disbursed and was at a loss to determine who the beneficiaries were.
The American mission had at the weekend said in a statement that Washington has made available the money for assistance to the refugees. The announcement appears to have so irked an already fatigued Rowley that he called out the Americans to explain where it had gone.
“Just bear in mind that somebody or bodies are getting and have received $11 million for this purpose. It is certainly not the government. It explains a lot,” the prime minister said as the island remains under severe pressure to play host to more than 40,000 Venezuelans with more trying to sneak in each day.
The latest political ruckus comes just days after Rowley vowed that the island nation of 1.3 million with Tobago will no longer participate in any voting business at the Organization of American States (OAS) until the hemispheric body removes the representative of opposition leader, Juan Guaido from the assembly and replace him with one designated by the current Venezuelan government.
Rowley has in recent weeks lashed out at the OAS for trying to determine how the cabinet should handle the crisis despite the economy tanking from low oil prices, shuttered borders and reduced economic activity from the corona virus pandemic.
“We go to the meetings but we are not voting on any resolutions or supporting any resolutions where the people who are sitting there representing countries are not proper,” Rowley said, pointing to his inappropriate presence at the OAS.
“The head of the OAS has no right engaging in derogatory conversation with the head of any government anywhere in the region. Today is Venezuela, tomorrow is T&T. We are a member, but we are not a sheep.”
The administration had already been under pressure to deal with opposition and other criticism over the alleged forced return to several refugees who had made it to Trinidad on rickety boats in recent weeks. This issue flared up even more after about 19 of them had drowned in the border Gulf of Paria waters between the two countries.
Trinidad and Guyana are the regional countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, with the two playing hosts to an estimated 100,000 in recent years. Both have complained about the financial strain of accommodating and catering to the groups.
Rowley becomes the chair of the 15-nation CARICOM grouping in January buy said he does not necessarily need the backing of the collective to deal with the refugee crisis and recalcitrant groups such as the OAS. He blamed the main opposition United National Congress (UNC) for undermining national foreign policy by lining up behind the favored American and western candidate, Guaido as they “spent all their time supporting Guaidó because it was said that that was the new president. They denigrated us, they undermined our policy,” he said.