BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Whither US-Caribbean engagement?

TONY BEST,

Added 05 May 2017

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THE PAST DECADE has been an era of mixed economic and social fortunes for Caribbean countries.

Tough at times for some – St Lucia, Barbados, and The Bahamas, for instance; a glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for a second batch – Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, Suriname and Guyana among them, while the remainder of states – Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and Dominica – are seemingly caught betwixt and between.

Anaemic economic growth, rising debt, dramatic declines in oil prices that have eased inflation, high unemployment, falling Wall Street credit ratings that have made foreign borrowing very expensive, a high incidence of crime that placed Jamaica, The Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago on the list of the world’s homicide leaders, the fallout from the Great Recession, the slow but steady pace of expansion in the gross domestic products of Canada, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom that triggered a return of tourists have combined to earn Caribbean Community states a presence on a roller-coaster of results.

That was the environment in which the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act emerged in December, just when Barack Obama was packing his suitcases to leave the White House on January 20 so that Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, could move in.

Piloted through the House of Representatives by Eliot Engel, a Democrat of New York who has thousands of West Indians in his Congressional District, and by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Florida, the US-Caribbean Strategic Partnership legislation was signed into law by Obama with high hopes of better days for the region.

“We spend a great deal of time focusing on challenges and opportunities in faraway places,” Engel once complained. “But it is important that we never lose sight of our interests closer to home. Indeed, we should be working to strengthen our ties with countries in the Caribbean.”

Barbados’ Ambassador in Washington, Selwin Hart, put a different angle to the story.

“The Caribbean strategic legislation offers us in the Caribbean and the US a chance to build on our historic relationship, economically, culturally and otherwise,” he told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY.

Sally Yearwood, a Barbadian who heads the Caribbean Central American Action (CCAA) in Washington, agreed.

“It’s important that the partnership succeeds because of its potential for good,” added Yearwood.But 100 days after Trump assumed the presidency promising dramatic changes, at least one lawmaker in Washington who has a deep interest in the Caribbean has complained that the new administration wasn’t moving fast enough to put the strategic initiative on the fast track to implementation.

“We were hoping that by now there would be some level of progress made on the strategic partnership with the region but so far that hasn’t taken place,” said US Representative Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat, who has been on Capitol Hill for more than a decade.

“I don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling which I had with President Obama, who had visited the region twice in eight years,” added Clarke, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants.

Actually, the word in Caribbean diplomatic and other circles in Washington is somewhat different. It is that the US State Department is pushing ahead to meet the June deadline for the submission of a comprehensive report that spells out the US strategy for linking arms with the Caribbean to boost development. The strategy is mandated by law.

“The State Department is on course to present to Congress the draft report as stipulated in the legislation,” said Yearwood, whose CCAA was consulted and participated in the discussions about the plan and the report. Several diplomats, organisations and individuals representing Caribbean countries and the diaspora have also been consulted. I haven’t seen the contents of the draft report but it is well on its way, on course. We had a meeting at the end of March, including drafters from the State Department and some of the other [federal agencies], a lot of the ambassadors, the private sector and so on.

“It was an open dialogue,” Yearwood added. “They have been having a lot of meetings. The Institute for Caribbean Studies took part. From where I sit, things are just moving along. It seems to be on course.”

Hart, Barbados’ top envoy in Washington, had a similar reaction when asked about the pace of preparation of the report.

“The Caribbean strategic initiative is moving ahead. The consultations are taking place and the Caribbean as a region is being consulted as well as the diaspora in the United States,” was the way the Barbados envoy put it.

But there seems to be a disconnect in the line of communication. Clarke said members of the House have not succeeded in their efforts to find out where things on the Caribbean stand.

“We [in Congress] are trying to get answers from the State Department about the direction they are taking,” she said. “We reached out to the Trump administration to ask about the special office having to deal with Haiti and maintaining that infrastructure so that we can do more work to assist Haiti. But when I think about the fact that the administration has not filled key vacancies in the State Department I am not very hopeful right now that there would be the kind of pivoting to the Caribbean that existed under Obama.”

Little wonder, then, that uncertainty is fuelling pessimism.

“We are still waiting for the new administration to appoint key individuals, and we would have a better sense about relations with the Caribbean once we know who the US ambassadors to the region are and what’s happening at the State Department,” said Clarke.

The picture may become clear when the CARICOM Council for Foreign and Community Relations meets in Barbados this month.

As Engel, a key author of the Caribbean Partnership legislation, said recently, “It is long past time to have a multi-year strategy that will allow us to increase engagement with the Caribbean, especially when it comes top energy and security.”

What’s clear is that CARICOM foreign relations urgently need vitality. With more than a dozen votes in the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States the region should be exerting far more influence in Western Hemispheric affairs than it is now doing. The ministers of foreign affairs are largely to blame. Collectively, CARICOM spends tens of millions of dollars every year to maintain diplomatic and consular offices in London, New York, Ottawa, China, Geneva, Brazil, Brussels, Cuba, Brazil, Toronto and Miami and to attend conferences around the world. Yet the region isn’t getting the bang for the buck. There isn’t a clear sense of a common regional strategy to accelerate the pace of development and to heighten Caribbean presence in international affairs.

A decade or so ago, Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, said in Bridgetown that Barbados “punched above its weight” internationally. You are unlikely to hear that statement repeated today.

And that is happening at a time when the country’s credit rating is deep into junk bond territory, debt is at its highest and economic growth seems stuck at less than two per cent.

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