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Diplomatic Storm Strikes When Trinidad and Tobago Refuses Hurricane-Hit Dominica an Ease on OAS Contributions

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS) Anthony Phillip Spencer, during the Regular Meeting of the Permanent Council in Washington DC, USA, on March 23, 2018. Photo credit: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When the Caribbean nation of Dominica was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, the island's 73,000 inhabitants faced near total devastation including loss of life, landslides, infrastructural damage, and hundreds of millions of United States (US) dollars in economic losses.

As Dominica began to pick up the pieces, its neighbours rallied in the relief effort during what was undoubtedly one of the worst Atlantic hurricane seasons on record.

However, when Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Dr. Keith Rowley offered accommodation to Dominican hurricane victims whose homes had been destroyed, waiving immigration restrictions for a period of six months, xenophobic comments arose on social media.

The trend was quickly countered by “right-thinking” social media users, but tensions rose again on March 23, 2018, after Dominica's ambassador asked members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) to waive the island's quota contributions for a period of two years (a value of approximately US $20,000) while it got back on its feet.

While most member states agreed, Trinidad and Tobago's representative expressed “reservations”, suggesting instead the deferral of payments and the implementation of a payment plan subject to annual review. The motion went ahead despite Trinidad and Tobago's objections, but the vote caused a social media firestorm.

Trinidadian Facebook user Caroline Taylor commented:

This made me feel sick. And sad. And angry. […] I really hope the people of Dominica know that not all Trinbagonians are as graceless as this official position might indicate, and this objection makes many of us feel deeply ashamed.

Anthony Phillip Spencer, Trinidad and Tobago’s OAS ambassador and acting representative during the vote, maintained that he was simply following the instructions given by the country's Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market) Affairs.

There were soon calls for the sacking of Dennis Moses, the minister in charge, who issued a statement suggesting that Trinidad and Tobago's position at the OAS meeting was “misrepresented”:

A suggestion by a public servant at an OAS meeting that Dominica's dues not be collected at this time but be deferred to some future time in no way reflects any change in our demonstrated concern for the welfare of the people of Dominica.

Political satire website Wired868 rebuked Moses’ claim, revealing details of correspondence that laid out clear instructions for how the country should vote.

Facebook user Teocah Arieal Ainka Dove suggested that Moses’ statement was not enough:

If this […] truly reflects what the Ambassador stated to the journalist, that he was sent this position by the Ministry and did not act on his own accord, then for the sake of our Dominican brothers and sisters and CARICOM, can the Minister (not via Press Release), but via either the Parliament or a Live TV/Radio interview, indicate what really happened in this matter, once again apologize to the people of Dominica and find a tangible way to make amends.

Trinidad and Tobago prime minister Dr. Keith Rowley has requested an investigation into the circumstances that led to the opposing vote, which he reportedly said was  “not in alignment” with the country's policy toward Dominica. He has since received “a full report of the details of the OAS mishap”.

Meanwhile, Dominica handled the snub with grace. Trinidadian morning show host Hema Ramkissoon contacted Dominica  prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit about the controversy, and posted his response on Facebook:

The relationship between Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago is still solid. The Trinidad Government and indeed the whole of TT have been very supportive of our efforts. I do not think the PM would have been aware of the vote at the OAS prior. This is one of the usual miscommunication occurrences which happens to all of us from time to time.

We in Dominica are heartened and touched by the continued love, care and concern which TT continues to demonstrate towards us; and this transcends all strata of society including political parties. Much thanks from we [sic] in Dominica!

Subsequent reports added that the prime ministers of both countries planned to meet “to renew their ‘solid’ relationship that might have come under strain following the decision […] not to back a waiver […] on its assessed quota contribution to the Organization of American States”.

While some Dominican social media users were dismissive of Trinidad and Tobago after the vote, others were not so quick to forget the assistance the twin islands rendered after Hurricane Maria last year.

In one Facebook thread, Michelle Bernard advised against “tarnish[ing] all Trinidadians with the same brush”, while Colin Sampson scoffed at the idea of CARICOM, a community network of 15 Caribbean countries, in the first place.

An editorial in the Trinidad Express added:

What could have possessed this country to stand against a sister Caricom country at the hemispheric forum is simply unfathomable. […]

It is a shame that will be very hard to live down. Dominica, we are sorry.

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