On 27 March 2020, the Trinidad and Tobago government temporarily re-opened its borders for a meeting with a seven-member delegation from Venezuela, headed by vice-president Delcy Rodríguez, which—according to a press release—‘focused on the strategy being deployed in both countries to combat Covid-19’.
However, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar suggested, in a virtual press conference today, that more than half of the visiting party were senior members of the Latin American country’s state-owned oil and natural gas company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela).
“Did the minister of national security grant entry to these persons and did the prime minister meet with those persons and what was the nature of these discussions?” asked Persad-Bissessar, who pointed out that the meeting happened the day after the US attorney general laid narco-trafficking charges against Venezuela president Nicolás Maduro and 14 members of his ‘inner circle’. “If this meeting was about Covid-19, why [were] high ranking members of PDVSA present?
The guest list, according to a passenger manifest that Persad-Bissessar claimed to receive anonymously, included Juan Vicente Santana, vice-president of PDVSA Gas, Antonio Perez Suarez, PDVSA vice-president of commerce and supply, and Asdrubal Chavez, the cousin of late Venezuela president Hugo Chavez who, on 27 April, was appointed PDVSA president.
Further, the Venezuelan contingent allegedly flew to Trinidad on a PDVSA-owned plane sanctioned by the United States government.
Persad-Bissessar claimed to be seeking transparency and accountability from the Dr Keith Rowley-led government.
“We have continued to undertake our constitutional responsibility,” said Persad-Bissessar, “we have called on the government to account for their misguided and reckless actions which could seriously jeopardise our nation…”
Rowley reiterated that Rodríguez is the head of Venezuela’s Covid-19 response team but gave little details on the meeting. He said he was accompanied by Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dennis Moses. He did not name Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh as being present.
The Prime Minister said he did not know most of the members of the Venezuelan party but confirmed that Chavez was present.
“Yes, there was a small delegation that accompanied [Rodríguez], most of whom were not introduced to us,” said Rowley. “[…] She did not discuss before [the meeting] the details of what she was going to talk about. Present with her was, I am now discovering, was some person called Asdrubal Chavez who I am now discovering, worked as part of a commission for PDVSA restructuring somewhere in his past.
“Nobody in that meeting was introduced to us as president of the PDVSA… I am discovering that subsequent to that meeting that individual was promoted.”
Rowley denied any knowledge about the plane that brought the Venezuelans to the Piarco International Airport.
“The Venezuelan presidency has been to Trinidad on many occasions coming by what we presume are presidential aircraft, not by commercial travel,” said Rowley. “I have never asked, I have never been told and I don’t know it is the protocol to find out from the president of Venezuela what aircraft they’re coming on, what is the aircraft number…
“That is a matter for the civil aviation department, once we have given permission for the meeting to take place.”
The exchange between prime minister and opposition leader followed claims by UNC MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, on 27 April, that fuel sold by Trinidad and Tobago’s Paria Fuel to Aruba ended up in Venezuela.
Moonilal suggested that the Trinidad and Tobago government knowingly breached United States sanctions against Venezuela and, controversially, he shared those allegations with United States Ambassador to Trinidad, Joseph Mondello, by letter.
Persad-Bissessar said the UNC is trying to hold Rowley to account—not to have the country sanctioned.
“We have continued to undertake our constitutional responsibility, we have called on the government to account for their misguided and reckless actions which could seriously jeopardise our nation,” said Persad-Bissessar. “[…] Any possible threats of sanction will never be the result of any action by the opposition but rather those who are in charge of our national affairs now.
“[…] We are not calling for sanctions on Trinidad and Tobago we are seeking clarification on these very serious matters. The people of this country deserve to know the truth, there must be transparency in governance and that is why we are calling for answers…”
Rowley, on the other hand, accused Persad-Bissessar of trying to ‘curry favour’ with the United States government in a ‘desperate’ attempt to drum up support in the lead up to the general election. And he suggested that her loyalties were not with the people of the twin island republic.
“I wonder just who is Kamla Persad-Bissessar working for at this point in time,” said Rowley. “[…] She and her minions [are] going out of their way to try to incite the United States to convert their speculation into a situation where Trinidad and Tobago is deemed to have acted illegally and we are deserving of the wrath of the United States.
“[…] This is reprehensible conduct and it has gone beyond the diary of a mad, failed politician.”
Rowley pointed out that, although he is cognisant of the might of the United States, the United Nations continues to recognise the Maduro-led government, as does Caricom.
And, as the closest neighbour to Trinidad and Tobago, he said the country already helps Venezuela by feeding the 17,000 temporary visitors here who send remittances back to their motherland.
“Would we eat and let them die here in Trinidad and Tobago?” asked Rowley. “Because a plane that brought the [Venezuelan] vice president here happen to have American sanctions that we didn’t know about, you are going to call for sanctions on the people of Trinidad and Tobago?! You are a traitor lady!”
Persad-Bissessar made it clear that the UNC does not recognise the Maduro government and instead: ‘sided with the vast majority of the western hemisphere and the entire civilised world’.
“This issue is now about the grave danger which faces our democracy and the stability of Trinidad and Tobago,” said the opposition leader. “It is our patriotic duty and it is that of all citizens to demand that the Keith Rowley government tell the truth about this meeting with madame Delcy Rodriguez and the officials of PDVSA.”
Rowley, instead, urged the public to view Persad-Bissessar as dangerous to the interests of the country that she wants to lead.
“I must say I am very, very disturbed as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago to see a former prime minister and opposition leader aspiring for office some time in the distant future,” said Rowley, “playing the role that mistress Persad-Bissessar playing now. Her desperation should now be of concern to all our citizens.
“[…] Just who is this woman working for and whose interest does she intend to serve by demanding that this country be sanctioned?”
Persad-Bissessar strayed from the topic of Rowley’s supposed links to the PDVSA just once and only briefly.
A reporter asked for her view on Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi’s assertion that the UNC was not vindicated by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service’s decision to close its investigation into links between Cambridge Analytica’s election rigging and her party.
“It is a police matter, the attorney general has no investigative power and he should just shut up,” said Persad-Bissessar.