VENEZUELA (Times Media Mexico) – The fundamentals of the incident are simple, agreed on by all sides: Just after midnight on March 30th, a Venezuelan Navy Ship – the Naiguatá – intercepted the cruise ship RCGS Resolute in the southern Caribbean Sea, ordered that it allow an inspection, was denied, fired warning shots into the waters ahead of the vessel, which were followed by a collision and the sinking of – perhaps counterintuitively – the Naiguatá.
All 45 Venezuelan sailors were rescued, whilst the RCGS Resolute – having icebreaker capacities designed to survive the Southern Ocean, emerged relatively unscathed and went on to dock in Curaçao soon after the incident.
Beyond that everything is hazy, and any scratching below the surface reveals more layers of inconsistency and unusual answers, a fact exacerbated by current western press coverage of the incident, which to all extents and purposes myopically places blame for the event at the feet of the usual suspects in the southern Caribbean, namely the socialist, corrupt, piratical, drug-running Maduro regime. Which is not to say that Maduro’s Venezuela is not all these things, but it still does not follow that it is all these things all the time.
For its part, the RCGS Resolute has had a litany of troubles of late: delayed and cancelled journeys in the Southern Ocean, angry passengers, unpaid bills, vessel placed under arrest in Buenos Aires (and Iqaluit, and Halifax), and more recently at the start of 2020 a formal announcement that One Ocean Expeditions – its operator – had filed for insolvency. All of which would seem enough of a fistful of surprises, until further investigation reveals that Bunnys Adventure and Cruise Shipping Co. Ltd, based in Germany, are in fact the vessel’s owners. And then one starts to wonder what role another company, Columbia Cruise Services, plays in all this – purportedly that of external contractors providing on-vessel services – and one cannot help but think that the effort taken in a statement on their website to emphasise that they are “solely dedicated to managing cruise vessels” suggests a desire to dissociate themselves from any of the fundamentals appertaining to the Resolute and its recent history. Indeed, it is of further surprise that in an internet largely devoid of interest in the incident, most commentaries relating to it should emerge from a sideline Facebook group called ‘Updates on One Ocean Expeditions’, an open group set up by disappointed customers to coordinate a legal, insurance and reimbursement front against OOE.
All of which reads like a follow-the-money Hollywood thriller, leading you to start wondering when THE RUSSIANS will appear, and you’re suddenly not really surprised at all when there they are, stage left, where they have been all along, just out of the line of sight, having been part of a litigation with OOE in which they withdrew two vessels from the OOE fleet, breaking an agreed contract – or removing service after non-payment of debt, depending on which way you look at the problem.
Not that Captain Yermince Aslenlly Granadillo Medina of the Venezuelan Navy would have known any of this as the Naiguatá, on routine patrol in waters off Venezuela last Tuesday, identified a barely-moving vessel on radar in or on – again, depending on your perspective – the edge of Venezuelan territorial waters.
What he and his officers observed was a substantial vessel behaving strangely in among a context which only days earlier saw President Trump declare Maduro and his military to be drug-traffickers in the very same waters, deploying one of the largest naval contingents to the region since the Panama incursion in 1989/90.
Not much of a leap of the imagination, therefore, to assume that the Bolivarian Armada of Venezuela was almost certainly instructed to be more prepared than ever for the emergence of an external threat. It is key, therefore, in this context, to realise that whatever the goods or ills of the Maduro regime in Venezuela (and ills there are plenty), the Venezuelan military essentially considers itself to be on a war footing in terms of defending from outside threat. Whatever the truth on the ground, it plays to both a Trumpian and Maduro narrative to heighten the rhetoric as regards the existential, external menace, led by the (Imperialist or Freedom-Loving) North-Americans.
Captain Granadillo Medina proceeded to open radio communication with the RCGS Resolute, asked their identity (a close look in port would later reveal the recently painted-over letters OOE on the ship’s hull), their business and their route. So far, so protocol. The Resolute’s Captain explained they were having difficulty with one of their engines, had little maneuverability and were undertaking repairs at sea. This didn’t entirely wash with Captain Medina, and he ordered the Resolute to follow them and dock for inspection at Margarita Island (Venezuela), which the Resolute refused.
The fact that warning shots were fired across the bow of the Resolute is not disputed – Venezuelan military narrative and video corroborate the same – but the next key question is where intent lay in the subsequent collision. Standard occidental media reporting tells how the Naiguatá pulled across the Resolute, forcing the latter to collide with the former, whereas the Venezuelan (and increasingly broadly Latin news) angle states that the Resolute, in refusing to deviate its course, fired up its remaining functioning engine and ploughed into the Naiguatá, and indeed video footage seems to suggest that the Resolute repeatedly drove into the side of the Naiguatá, which was holed and sank.
The Resolute made for Willemstad in Curaçao, leaving 44 sailors to go down with the ship, breaking one of the fundamentals of Maritime Law, whereby in peacetime or wartime, the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea is a fundamental international tenet.
The sailors were apparently rescued by the Venezuelan navy (information is scarce on this), and no lives were lost, but the about-turn and departure of the Resolute simply serves to amplify questions about what they were doing, and whether there was something to hide which made it impossible for them to comply with Venezuelan military orders.
Columbia Cruise Services – remember them? – the company that is “solely dedicated to managing cruise vessels” – issued a statement in response to the incident, calling out the aggressive undertakings of the Venezuelan military and refuting their claim that the Resolute left the scene immediately, stating that she “remained for over one hour in vicinity of the scene and reached out to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Curaçao” to establish whether or not further assistance was required, which they were told it was not.
Whatever the truth of it, their own recent context is not in their favour.
“Lies, damned lies, and Venezuelan military press conferences,” so the saying goes this side of the mid-Atlantic Trench, and of course everything uttered by the Venezuelan authorities comes thinly cloaked in a partisan, ideological context which serves only two purposes; continuing the Chavista experiment and holding onto power. But in contrast to standard reporting – in particular that with a western bias it often doesn’t even know it has – writers don’t always have to pick sides, even subliminally, especially when the evidence points the other way or at least to a muddiness which bears further examination.
Venezuela is a country in a deep hole, and has been for a number of years. Its well-documented hyperinflation, widespread scarcity of essential products and mass departure of up to a quarter of its population over the last two years are the starkest signifiers of this. Its leader, Nicolás Maduro, is at best incompetent; at worst, he demonstrates the kind of despotic tendencies which are never a good look in a leader.
Its population is desperate, on its knees, and the current regime must take broad responsibility for this. But journalism which blindly throws mud at Venezuela for everything that happens in the area ultimately opts to employ the very behaviour that the anti-Maduro journalists themselves are criticising so roundly. They are shouting the opposite, as loudly as possible, as often as possible, simply because it is the opposite. This line of reporting eschews nuance, critical thought and – yes – journalistic integrity, something which in these strange, constrained times, we perhaps need more than ever.
For The Yucatan Times
Jonathan Bonfiglio covers news and features across Latin America for international radio and online media outlets.
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