If it’s Visa-free for China, then why not for Venezuela?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Toni Ni­cholas

It was un­for­tu­nate last week, that cit­i­zens were de­nied the op­por­tu­nity to lis­ten to con­struc­tive de­bate in par­lia­ment over visa re­stric­tions for Venezue­lan na­tion­als ver­sus the lift­ing of visas for Chi­nese na­tion­als. Alas, many such de­bates are cen­tred on party lines as well as which ad­min­is­tra­tion favours which na­tions and for what favours. How­ever, there is a com­pelling ar­gu­ment on which the rea­son­ing for the visa re­stric­tion, vis-à-vis the visa lift, can be based.

The un­de­ni­able fact is that Venezuela is in cri­sis. Ev­ery­one ac­cepts this as truth ex­cept the lead­ers of that coun­try. On the other hand, China has been churn­ing wealth over the last few years and its in­vestors, as well as travellers, are look­ing for the next hot spot.

Con­sider this: in May 2014 the em­ploy­ees of a Chi­nese di­rect mar­ket­ing com­pany were treated to a va­ca­tion on the west coast of the United States. They vis­ited Los An­ge­les, San Diego and Las Ve­gas, sight­see­ing and shop­ping, as Chi­nese tour groups do. There were 7,000 of them. They took 86 flights, stayed in 26 ho­tels, and gen­er­ated around US$85 mil­lion of rev­enue and eco­nomic value for the state of Cal­i­for­nia.

In 2017 it was es­ti­mated that 1.5 mil­lion Chi­nese tourists would visit Cal­i­for­nia and the US De­part­ment of Com­merce es­ti­mates that by 2021, that fig­ure will in­crease to 2.3 mil­lion, who will spend ap­prox­i­mately US$6.1 bil­lion in the state.

For Chi­nese peo­ple look­ing to leave China, the US and Canada are the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions, fol­lowed by the UK and Aus­tralia.

Com­pare that to this sce­nario: ac­cord­ing to the UN Refugee Agency re­port for 2017, wars, other vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion drove world­wide forced dis­place­ment to a new high in 2017 for the fifth year in a row, led by the cri­sis in Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo, South Su­dan's war, and the flight into Bangladesh from Myan­mar of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees. Over­whelm­ingly it is de­vel­op­ing coun­tries that are most af­fected.

The UN re­port states that the ma­jor­ity of the world's refugees find safety in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. In the Bo­li­var­ian Re­pub­lic of Venezuela for ex­am­ple, grow­ing po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic ten­sions through­out the year led to the dis­place­ment of Venezue­lans with over 60,000 lodg­ing asy­lum claims in the Amer­i­cas and be­yond, in­clud­ing at least 27,000 who ap­plied in 2016 mainly in Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Spain and the United States.

The Caribbean, which is Venezuela's clos­est neigh­bour af­ter South Amer­ica, has seen an in­flux in the ar­rival of Venezue­lans since 2016, par­tic­u­larly Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. The ma­jor­ity of these travel in search of a bet­ter life in terms of jobs and other op­por­tu­ni­ties. Given the small size of some of the is­land states, the ar­rival of Venezue­lans, even in rel­a­tively small num­bers, is said to be hav­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact on the is­lands' lim­ited re­sources.

Trinidad is re­port­edly con­fronted with a sit­u­a­tion of over 40,000 Venezue­lans cur­rently present in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to a News­day re­port, and as the so­cial up­heaval con­tin­ues in Cara­cas and other ma­jor cities, this fig­ure is ex­pected to grow and is now of ma­jor con­cern to the gov­ern­ment.

In April of this year the prime min­is­ter of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Row­ley, re­marked, fol­low­ing the de­por­ta­tion of 82 Venezue­lans, that his coun­try was not a refugee camp. In­tel­li­gence in Trinidad & Tobago, as well as Guyana, sug­gests that there are grow­ing rings of Venezue­lans in­volved in hu­man traf­fick­ing, pros­ti­tu­tion, drug smug­gling and con­tra­band between those coun­tries.

Here in Saint Lu­cia, there have been re­ports of an in­crease in the num­ber of Venezue­lan na­tion­als be­ing in­volved in nar­cotics and il­le­gal firearms. Faced with the above sce­nar­ios, any gov­ern­ment would have to con­sider two things: how to cap­i­tal­ize on China's grow­ing wealth in terms of in­vest­ment as well as tourism; and sec­ondly, how to re­main friends with our neigh­bours, like Venezuela, while pro­tect­ing our very por­ous bor­ders from those mis­cre­ants who may use the ex­cuse of the cri­sis in their coun­try to ply their il­le­gal trades.

The im­po­si­tion of visa re­stric­tions is not a death sen­tence. Saint Lu­cia had it for years to travel to Mar­tinique and this never stopped the coun­tries from seek­ing bi-lat­eral agree­ments and co-op­er­a­tion. Con­versely, the lift­ing of the ne­ces­sity of visas by Chi­nese na­tion­als, does not mean that the red sea has now been parted and there will be a rush to Fair He­len. As I said in a pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, presently Chi­nese cit­i­zens can visit seven Caribbean coun­tries, visa-free: An­tigua and Bar­buda, St Kitts and Ne­vis, Do­minica, Bar­ba­dos, Gre­nada, Ja­maica and Saint Lu­cia. In fact, the Chi­nese pass­port has visa-free ac­cess to 51 coun­tries in the world. None of the Caribbean na­tions men­tioned has seen any in­flux of Chi­nese na­tion­als that has be­come over­bear­ing. And, as I men­tioned ear­lier, of the 51 coun­tries where Chi­nese are wel­comed with open arms, they have favoured the United States, Canada, the UK and Aus­tralia.

The task the gov­ern­ment now faces is not just the visa re­stric­tions on Venezuela, but to bet­ter equip our ma­rine po­lice, po­lice in gen­eral, Cus­toms and im­mi­gra­tion to deal with im­mi­gra­tion is­sues as well as the recog­nised sit­u­a­tion that is­lands like Saint Lu­cia are used as a trans­ship­ment point between South Amer­ica and North Amer­ica for hu­man traf­fick­ing, drugs and other il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. On the other hand, the gov­ern­ment of the day must be seen as fa­cil­i­tat­ing and en­cour­ag­ing an en­vi­ron­ment whereby ev­ery op­por­tu­nity is given to Saint Lucians to thrive in an open eco­nomic space. Whether it is own­ing a cof­fee shop, small restau­rant, bou­tique, ho­tel or man­u­fac­tur­ing plant.

It must be seen as a right of ev­ery cit­i­zen to en­vis­age them­selves as own­ers of a piece of Saint Lu­cia. It must be their choice, as well, to be­come builders of the econ­omy by in­vest­ing in their own busi­ness. The other op­tion of work­ing with one of the many in­vest­ments the gov­ern­ment is seek­ing to at­tract, or wait­ing on hand­outs from China, Venezuela, Cuba or Amer­ica, must never be the only choice!

Six peo­ple were ar­rested fol­low­ing what the gov­ern­ment de­scribed as an or­gan­ised at­tempt at as­sas­si­nat­ing Venezuela’s Pres­i­dent Maduro.

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