DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
Venezuela's reputation is suffering, thanks to its president, socialist Nicolas Maduro - derided as a despot who has provoked one of the biggest refugee outflows in Latin American history. But as John Otis reports, a handful of Caribbean countries remains firmly in Maduro's camp.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a ceremony in August, Keith Rowley, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, signed an agreement for Venezuela to supply his twin-island nation with natural gas. President Maduro then took the microphone to praise a faithful partner.
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PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: He said, Trinidad and Tobago should know it has a friend in the Venezuelan president. For the most part, Maduro has been making enemies. He faces sanctions from the Trump administration. Fourteen nations in the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, downgraded diplomatic relations with Caracas after Maduro was re-elected in May to another six-year term. They dismissed the vote as a sham. These governments are also worried about an exodus of 3.6 million Venezuelans who have fled hyperinflation and food shortages back home. Tiny Trinidad, which sits seven miles off the Venezuelan coast, has received 60,000 of them.
Still, Trinidad remains a staunch supporter of the Maduro government. Indeed, it refuses to label Venezuelans arriving here as refugees for fear of upsetting Maduro, so says Rodney Charles, an opposition lawmaker in Port of Spain, the capital.
RODNEY CHARLES: It does not make sense. We hear the news. We hear the reports - the starvation in Venezuela, the incarceration of political opponents. For some reason, this government does not want to acknowledge that there is a problem.
OTIS: Venezuelan allies like Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia are left-wing soulmates. But Trinidad's position is pragmatic. The government is betting that the August agreement to build an underwater pipeline between Venezuela and Trinidad will revive the island's vital natural gas sector. That's according to Mariano Browne, a former Trinidadian finance minister.
MARIANO BROWNE: That is the actual one of the reasons why this government is tippy-toeing around Venezuela because there's a monetary or pecuniary interest in acquiring Venezuela gas. And they don't want to do anything to upset the government.
OTIS: Several Caribbean countries, which receive subsidized Venezuelan oil, have adopted similar positions. Last year, for example, the Organization of American States tried to condemn the Maduro government for replacing the opposition-controlled Congress with a rubberstamp legislature. The resolution was blocked by Trinidad, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and several other small islands.
ERIC FARNSWORTH: This is one of the more frustrating aspects of the whole international effort on Venezuela.
OTIS: That's Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society think tank. He says it would make more sense for the region to insist on a return to full democracy in Venezuela.
FARNSWORTH: First of all, because then the economic relationship is going to be, you know, something that will, you know, really last for the long term - but more importantly, you're not then going to have - be threatened as these small island countries currently are, as Trinidad's a perfect example of, refugee flows of desperate Venezuelans trying to escape a collapsing country.
OTIS: Some are already second-guessing Trinidad's natural gas agreement. Charles, the lawmaker, points out that opposition politicians in Venezuela have warned that any energy contracts signed with Maduro will not be recognized should a new government take power in Caracas.
CHARLES: Why are we putting all of our eggs in the Maduro basket, given what we understand is the situation over there?
OTIS: Government officials in Trinidad did not respond to requests for comment. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
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