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Why Roosevelt Skerritt abandoned Dominica’s claim over Bird Island?

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Why Roosevelt Skerritt abandoned Dominica’s claim over Bird Island?

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In an unclassified cable dated July 5, 2006, the US embassy wrote: Dominica has moved closer to abandoning its claim on Bird Island, a small piece of rock and sand located in the center of the Caribbean Sea that is also claimed by Venezuela. Following a June meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt remarked publicly that Venezuela has an internationally recognized legal claim to Bird Island that Dominica can do “nothing” about. The leaders agreed to form a commission that will examine technical matters related to their maritime boundary but will not actually be charged with determining ownership of the disputed territory. Dominica’s previous public defiance of Venezuela’s claim to Bird Island appears to have been softened by substantial new aid, including a US$22 million Venezuelan grant for housing construction. To economically distressed Dominica, this should be ample compensation for giving up its already precarious legal position.

Bird Island Belongs to Venezuela

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit appears to have all but ceded his nation’s claim to Bird Island in June when he said that the international community recognizes Venezuela’s sovereignty over the disputed territory. “It’s a fact. So there is nothing we can do from a legal standpoint to reclaim Bird Island,” explained the PM during a June 26 press conference at the CARICOM Secretariat in Guyana. The Dominica PM’s remarks came several days after he met with Venezuelan President Chavez in Caracas, where the leaders agreed to establish a joint commission that will meet in July to examine the maritime boundary between the two nations.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves visited Caracas at the same time as the Dominica PM and attended a joint meeting with Skerrit and Chavez, according to press reports. The Dominica MFA could not confirm, however, that such a three-way meeting actually took place.

We Haven’t Ceded it Yet

PM Skerrit has not formally given up Dominica’s claim to Bird Island, a high-level official in the Dominica MFA explained to Poloff. The PM’s remarks were not intended to recognize Venezuela’s claim of sovereignty to the disputed territory, but simply state the current legal situation. Dominica understands that several countries have previously recognized Venezuela’s right to Bird Island, and that if the matter goes to arbitration Dominica may very well lose. The MFA official explained that the planned joint commission would not determine which nation’s claim to Bird Island is accurate, but simply allow legal experts to examine technical issues regarding the maritime boundary between Venezuela and Dominica. (Note: The demarcation of the maritime boundary will be of great importance if undersea energy deposits are ever found in the region. A key issue that still needs to be addressed, and is crucial to Venezuela, is whether Bird Island is classified as a habitable island that generates an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Venezuela Increases Aid

Venezuela will provide Dominica with US$29 million in new aid for housing construction, the Government of Dominica announced on June 29, just three days after PM Skerrit made his remarks regarding Bird Island. This latest Venezuelan assistance will be given in the form of a US$22 million grant and US$7 million soft loan, supplementing the estimated US$10 million combination of funding and in-kind assistance Venezuela currently provides to Dominica’s airport expansion program. Dominica, along with several other Eastern Caribbean countries, also moved closer to implementing the PetroCaribe oil accord in June when it signed a bilateral agreement with Caracas that could allow it to begin receiving Venezuelan petroleum products.

Venezuela’s recent largesse appears to have had the effect of convincing Dominica to change its tune from 2005, when the nation’s Foreign Minister said his country would not give up its claim of sovereignty over Bird Island without, at least, a diplomatic fight. This was, most likely, an attempt by the Government of Dominica to place itself in a position to extract some form of compensation from Venezuela. As the PM’s recent remarks indicate, the Government understood that it did not have a strong legal case for Bird Island and simply sought to get something from Venezuela in return for ultimately acquiescing. The new US$22 million grant from Venezuela suggests that Dominica was successful.

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