by John R. Myers Jr.
KINGSTON, March 8 (Xinhua) -- After ruling his country for 14 years and fighting cancer for two years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed away on Tuesday, leaving a legacy cherished by neighboring countries.
Venezuela may not be popular with some Latin American countries, but for Jamaica and many small Caribbean economies, the world's fifth largest oil producer is an important ally which supplies them with long-term cheap energy, a great contribution to them.
Under the PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement signed in 2005, Jamaica and other beneficiaries can buy Venezuela-produced crude oil at market value, but only need to pay 5 to 50 percent of the upfront money, and wipe off the remainder in 17 to 25 years on 1 percent interest.
The deal allows these countries to offset their debt to Venezuela with services and goods such as bananas, rice and sugar.
Besides Jamaica, beneficiaries of the preferential oil prices include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Nicaragua, Suriname, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Take Jamaica for example, the third largest island in the Caribbean region, established the PetroCaribe Development Fund in 2006 to manage the proceeds that accrue under the deferred financing arrangement of the PetroCaribe agreement with Venezuela.
The fund now has about 170 billion Jamaican dollars (1.77 billion U.S. dollars) and is the largest source of concessionary loan financing available to the Jamaican government.
"We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars given on credit that has been used to provide balance of payments support," said Wesley Hughes, Jamaica's ex-financial secretary and now the fund's CEO. "Without it we would have had serious challenges on the balance of payments."
Last year, Hughes estimated in his capacity as financial secretary that Chavez's PetroCaribe deal saved Jamaica some 600 million U.S. dollars on balance of payments annually.
"What he did under the fund ... I can tell you, saved the Jamaican economy," Jamaica's former Energy Minister James Robertson said on hearing of Chavez's death.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller also hailed Chavez as a true friend of the island country and its people, and a brave and visionary statesman who safeguarded the interests of less developed countries.
"He will be long remembered for his willingness to challenge the 'status quo,' to take a stand against inequality and injustice at the individual, national, regional and international levels, and to make difficult decisions to achieve greater good," Miller added.
Jamaican opposition leader Andrew Holness also expressed his condolences to the late Venezuelan leader, who "is a good man and had a special place in his good heart for Jamaica."
Meanwhile, other Caribbean beneficiaries of Chavez's generosity also acknowledged economic gains from many of his initiatives.
According to Antigua Observer, a local Antigua and Barbuda newspaper, the country has saved over 200 million XCD (74.07 million U.S. dollars) through the PetroCaribe project and other favorable agreements with Venezuela.
Venezuela also offered about 7.5 million U.S. dollars to the twin-island nation to update its airport to meet the 2007 Cricket World Cup of the West Indies, and another 8-million-dollar grant to finance a major water infrastructure project, the newspaper said.
"Hugo Chavez's stewardship of important partnerships across the region has been translated into meaningful and longstanding social and infrastructural programs," said the country's Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.
"His contributions to the development of Antigua and Barbuda and the Caribbean as a whole will always be remembered," he added.
That's why Jamaican flags were flown at half-mast on Friday, and Antigua and Barbuda announced a three-day mourning for Chavez a day before.