Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dog Soup and Dragons: Is Venezuela the next place for Maritime Piracy

Guest post by Claude Berube

All roads lead to Rome, but most commerce is conducted via sea lanes. As a recent report shows, those sea lanes remain under threat to varying degrees by non-state actors. The annual Oceans Beyond Piracy report by One Earth Future was released last week with its assessments of global and regional pirate attacks for 2017. Piracy off the Horn of Africa have largely abated compared to the level a decade ago. Attacks in Southeast Asia and the Gulf of Guinea continue to pose challenges. But pay attention to the numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean, specifically the Venezuelan coast. According to the report, incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean rose from 27 in 2016 to 71 in 2017 with a large concentration along the Venezuelan coast. Most of the ships – primarily yachts and tankers – were at anchor.

We’ve seen this play out before. Threats at sea along coastlines reflect instability ashore, or the inability of a territorial government to effectively patrol and intercept human smugglers, narco-traffickers, or pirates. Venezuela continues its descent from failed policies. From The Economist:
[Venezuela’s] economic policies have made life intolerable for most of the country’s 34m citizens. Food is in short supply, and nearly 90% of Venezuelans say they do not have enough money to eat properly. The contraction of the economy is the biggest in the history of Latin America. Prices are doubling nearly every month. At least a million people have left the country in the past four years.
The country’s inflation rate is intensifying the problem:
“Venezuela's inflation rate, already by far the world's highest, spiked from 4,966 percent to nearly 18,000 percent in just March and April — a trend that, if it continues, could push the country's annual rate to more than 100,000 percent by year's end, economists say.”
The health of a coastal nation’s fishing industry can sometimes be an indicator of maritime insecurity and the rise of piracy. In the case of Somalia, for example, large foreign fishing trawlers were able to conduct operations in territorial waters absent a government able to enforce fishing rights. Somali fishermen failed to garner sufficient catch to support themselves and some turned on each other. Others joined networks to take and ransom fishing vessels then larger prey just as tankers and freighters. Venezuela’s trajectory is different. Former president Hugo Chavez established a state-owned fishing enterprise to lower prices for Venezuelans. Long time private fishermen could not compete with the result that,
fish processing plants work at half capacity on good days. Machinery rusts in the salty breeze and there’s no way to replace broken parts.
Some Venezuelan fishermen – like their Somali counterparts more than a decade ago – have resorted to narco-trafficking and piracy. It is unknown if this trend is reversible in the near-term given the extent of the breakdown:
“In Venezuela, pirates are terrorizing the coastal state of Sucre, once home to the world's fourth-largest tuna fleet and a thriving fishing industry. That trade has collapsed, along with virtually every industry across Venezuela. Gangs of out-of-work fishermen prey upon those who still venture out into the open sea, stealing their catch and motors, tying them up, throwing them overboard, and sometimes shooting them. The robberies have taken place daily this year, and dozens of fishermen have died. People can't make a living fishing anymore, so they're using their boats for the options that remain: smuggling gas, running drugs and piracy," said Jose Antonio Garcia, leader of the state's largest union. The catch is down to less than a third of the 120,000 tons of tuna Venezuela produced in 2004. In June, Sucre was the epicenter of food riots that swept through the country. Punta de Araya families got through the summer by eating "dog soup," a broth made from seawater and the small fish that are usually thrown back.”
The Horn of Africa was a target-rich environment for Somali pirates. With the thousands of annual transits by the slower-moving fishing vessels and then tankers and freighters, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, pirates didn’t have to look far for a ship to attack, capture, and ransom. When recommended shipping lanes shifted eastward in the Indian Ocean, Somali pirates adapted and used motherships out hundreds of nautical miles, much to the surprise of some experts who told me “they would never do that.” Similarly, the southern Caribbean offers its own target-rich environment to potential Venezuelan pirates. In addition to larger ships, power and sailing yachts are common in the region in a way they weren’t in the Indian Ocean or Horn of Africa (cases like the ill-fated sailing yacht Quest which was surrounded by an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two destroyers.

In this highly-trafficked area, tourist destinations such as Aruba, Trinidad & Tobago, and Grenada are within two hundred kilometers of the Venezuelan coastline. At what point, however, would southern Caribbean piracy merit attention? There are several tiers.

Tier 1: the problem is likely seen as a Venezuelan problem requiring a Venezuelan solution. While facing critical challenges, the country does still have a functioning government.

Tier 2: should Venezuela collapse and piracy increases in nominal territorial waters against fishing vessels, the international community is likewise unlikely to respond as it largely failed to do in the early 2000s off Somalia. Yachts would likely be diverted from the region.

Tier 3: if Venezuelan piracy networks develop and adapt to taking larger ships, it may merit an international response if it has learned the lesson from Somalia. More likely, however, it may defer to the shipping industry. In the earliest phases of large ships being taken and held for ransom, shipping companies found they could pay the ransom and have the ship and crew released in weeks. Once ships and crews were held for months and pirates demanded millions for ransoms, insurance rates rose necessitating a response first by industry in best management practices including on-board armed guards. Only later did the international community respond en masse.

There are at least three factors, however, that are different in this case. First, armed riders usually only appear with the larger shipping companies; fishing vessels – the first to fall victim to pirates – can’t afford that luxury. They have to resort to defending themselves, abandoning their trade, or joining in on the melee and fight for whatever they can take. Second, the southern Caribbean is in America’s backyard facilitating navy and coast guard platforms and assets easier than was done initially with Somalia.

Third, according to the Oceans Beyond Piracy report, the most affected seafarers are from India, the Philippines, and China. China already invests in the Caribbean and the PLA/N has built up significant overseas capabilities with its twenty-nine flotillas it has deployed since January 2009. At what point would China seize an opportunity like the threat of its seafarers to intercede and assert itself in a region?

Is this alarmist? It’s best to remember that the threat to American sailors off North Africa led to the first squadrons deployed to the Mediterranean under Commodores Dale, Morris, and Preble. Why would we expect any another country and its rising navy to be any different?

In the word of CDR Salamander: ponder.

Claude Berube is the co-editor of “Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century” (Routledge, 2012) and the novels The Aden Effect and Syren’s Song. He teaches at the Naval Academy and has been writing about modern piracy and private security for more than a decade. A Navy Reserve officer, he served off the Horn of Africa in 2005. The views expressed are his and not those of the Navy.
Twitter @cgberube

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