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Shock over Bird Island
Web Posted - Thu Nov 10 2005
AT least one member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States [OECS] may find itself is a position not wholly dissimilar to that of Barbados over access to its maritime economic zone.

Venezuela continues to claim ownership of Bird Island, which lies just 70 miles off the Commonwealth of Dominica and is also close to Antigua and Guadeloupe, the latter a French Overseas Department. Much to the anguish of OECS leaders, the oil-rich South American country has added further drama to its claim by deploying additional military personnel to a strategic outpost on the tiny island.

The ostensible difference between that situation and CARICOMs strongest two economies is that Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago are at loggerheads over a long-running problem of fishing in waters between the two CARICOM states. That matter, currently under international arbitration, is critical because of Barbados heavy dependence on a marine species, flying fish, which Trinidadians had originally discounted as a major economic asset.

No less important is the possibility that an area claimed by T&T not many miles off Barbados southern town, Oistins, probably has substantial oil reserves.

In todays often bitter struggles for economic advantage across the globe, issues such as straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks may only be exploratory sparring towards larger claims and deeper intrusion.

Oil is said to be an underlying reason for Venezuelas stepped up militancy to take Bird Island out of Dominicas jurisdiction. As rich in fish stocks as the sea around that territory may be, Venezuela has shown little interest in that food resource, possibly because it has more than it can harvest from its own continental waters but recognises the escalating economic and geopolitical value of crude oil. Nevertheless, its eyes could be on both prizes and it possesses the wherewithal to press the issue.

Neither the OECS nor CARICOM has a credible counter to Venezuelas military muscle. A more sensible option would be for them to refer this dispute to the Organisation of American States [OAS], but Venezuelas influence in that group is probably greater nowadays than that of the United States, let alone that of the combined CARICOM membership. However, there is still the United Nations [UN] to which the Commonwealth of Dominica  acting on its own or with CARICOMs assistance  can appeal for a determination. Such appeal would likely be lodged under the Law of The Sea Convention.

Regardless of Venezuelas professed interest in the economic welfare of Caribbean states, as expressed in the form of the PetroCaribe oil deal which the OECS eagerly embraced, its presumption of ownership rights to Bird Island is hardy the way to reinforce that interest. Quite the contrary. It tells small, militarily impotent states that respect goes no further than a powerful neighbour wants them to go.

Given what it has already done at its security outpost on the tiny island, in all probability Venezuela will eventually attempt to show that might is right, an attitude previously associated only with an often ill-advised US in this hemisphere.

It is clear that South Americas most assertive left-leaning state wants to flex its muscles. But if it does not relish being damned as a bully, it should first agree to hear what OECS leaders have to say during a meeting they are seeking with Venezuelas president.



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