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Prof andy Knight: Sofa for US to spy on Venezuela
While the United States has a genuine concern about terrorist threats in the region, even with sound reason to believe in the existence of sleeper cells in T&T, the real purpose of the recently signed Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) is for the US to keep an eye on and contain Venezuela.
Even T&T’s new partnership with China has to be viewed through the Sofa lens. This country’s existing agreements with both parties—the US through Sofa and China through its recent diplomatic arrangements—could lead to this country being a power broker for the region. This was the assessment of Prof Andy Knight, director of the UWI Institute of International Relations, when he spoke with the T&T Guardian recently about the signed Sofa between this country and the US.
Knight’s assessment supported the reason put forward by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran when questioned by the T&T Guardian about the reason for the Sofa. Dookeran said Sofa was part of a Caribbean national security initiative that involves the use of intelligence by the US in that country’s effort to assist with security issues in the region.
“It has to do with visits the US security forces will have to make to this region and the agreement allows them to enter air space and waters with specific arrangements,” he said. But Knight said while the security issues and the US interest in securing the region cannot be downplayed, the real purpose of the Sofa is Venezuela. “The US is really intent on containing Venezuela. Yes, there are also concerns about terrorist threats and sleeper cells...”
You believe there are sleeper cells in T&T?
Saying he was brought to this realisation through the work of another professor from another department, Knight said: “I don’t doubt for a moment that there are sleeper cells in the region and Trinidad is one of those countries where it is even more possible, because if you are radical Muslim, you can blend in easily in a multicultural country like Trinidad, more so than in a country that does not have a large Muslim population. Here you can blend in without being identified as a radical until the time comes when you have to take an order from somebody to carry out a terrorist act.”
Venezuela and Sofa
Knight added: “The reality is they really want to contain Venezuela and Trinidad is obviously the closest point to Venezuela.”
Noting the recent visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, Knight said: “A lot of his emphasis was on containing Venezuela. He made it out to be that Trinidad was leader in security in the region but in need of help with intelligence and surveillance. He even went to the extent of considering the use of drones in the area but then he pulled back because of all the controversy surrounding drones recently. The US has a vested interest in securing the region and they see Trinidad as a beachhead to do that in the southern part of the Caribbean right at the South American continent.”
He said that Sofas are done with many countries, and T&T is not the only one, though he conceded that the kind of agreement signed with T&T, allowing for US service officers to be able to face prosecution, “may be a first”. “Trinidad was very careful and wrote into the agreement the clause which allows for the arrest of members of the American military who breach the law, that was very important,” Knight said.
“Any big hegemony like the US wants to ensure that it has thorough surveillance capabilities to understand what is going on in the region. This agreement helps Trinidad protect its sovereign borders from criminal elements because Trinidad on its own cannot protect its borders. The question, however, is whether getting assistance from the US is the best thing, for while the Sofa in many ways lends to protecting Trinidad’s sovereignty, in many ways it also diminishes it.
“They (the US) are not going to give up on Trinidad in terms of having some kind of presence here, but the Trinidad government needs to be smart about it and has to make sure that if it lets the Americans operate, they must not impinge on the sovereignty of Trinidad.”
He said the fact that the government is not allowing the US to set up a permanent base here is to the credit of this country.
Having let the US in, this country now has to walk a fine line in managing its relationship with Venezuela. “Trinidad has to make it clear to Venezuela that the Sofa is not intended to target Venezuela, but it’s about securing Trinidad.“
Knight said he believes T&T will in fact maintain a good relationship with Venezuela, given the outstanding historical links and the shared oil deposits and fishing interests. He let on that there was even talk of treating Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro‘s attendance at the now concluded Caricom heads conference as a state visit.
“Trinidad needs to make a very careful diplomatic step in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be involved in nurturing the relationship with Venezuela so that Venezuela knows that the Sofa was not intended to be an affront to that country.“ He said it would be foolhardy for T&T not to maintain a relationship with Venezuela.
“That government could change tomorrow, so that while Chavez may have given the United States fits, it is possible that an incoming government may be more friendly to the US and then it would not be considered a threat by Venezuela to have the US on Trinidad soil.”
China the US and Trinidad
The diplomatic tightrope that T&T must now walk with Venezuela, Knight said, is one of the dangers and problems that come with being a leader in the region. He added that something to be watched is how T&T plays the game with China and the US.
“For the first time in our lives we see the coming together of the waning power of the US and the emerging power of the Chinese. China has to demonstrate that it is a hegemony power. It has to put its money where its mouth is, it has to do what hegemons do—not just to declare yourself a hegemon but to show your material capability.” He said the $3 billion offered to the Caribbean by China was an example of that.
“The Americans spend a lot of time in the South China sea, in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. “The Chinese view this as a threat, with the US operating in their backyard. They are saying, if you can operate in our backyard, we can operate in yours, and it has a purpose to do so. It has Venezuela, it has Brazil and now it has T&T, countries which were loyal to the One China policy over the years.”
He said it was the first time there had been such a confluence, an overlapping of the waning hegemon and the emerging hegemon, since the US and Britain in the 1940s. “They found a way to share the responsibility of hegemony for a while until the Americans took over the hegemony role. The question now is whether the Chinese and the Americans can find a way to collaborate, to share responsibility.” The alternative, he said, is war.
“Most of the time when world orders change in history, there have been major cataclysmic wars. “We need the transition without the war. The Chinese know this, the Americans know this.” He said behind the scenes US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were working it out and a smooth transition could benefit T&T. “Trinidad can find itself in a position where it can play one side off against the other, a power broker for the region.”
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