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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Washington’s Caribbean agenda

Tony Best

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Washington’s Caribbean agenda

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As a guide to what Barbados and its neighbours can expect during the remaining 21 months of Barack Obama’s final term as United States (US) president, an old foreign policy wonk had a straightforward suggestion.

“Figure out why president Obama is going to Jamaica to meet with CARICOM leaders on April 9th and the answer would become clear,” said the former diplomat.

“There are some key issues the administration wants to discuss and the best way to deal with them is sit down with CARICOM leaders before the next Summit Of The Americas begins in Panama and put Washington’s case. Clearly, it is not so much about what CARICOM wants but about Washington’s agenda.”

At the top of the US list is the weak economic state of most countries in the region. Facing strong criticisms from analysts that the administration hasn’t done nearly enough to help, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada,

St Lucia and the rest of the region grapple with such issues as a mountain of debt, low foreign investment, gaping budget deficits and rising unemployment, Washington is seemingly awakening from its prolonged slumber.

A sign of the emerging times was the recent Caribbean US meeting in Washington where vice president Joseph Biden was a star attraction.

Another is its stance on World Bank loans to Barbados, The Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago, countries which were graduated from the international financial institution’s loan window years ago.

The US, which once described the Caribbean as its third border, after Mexico and Canada, is worried about the expanding investment presence of China in the region.

At the same time, it is casting an anxious eye on Venezuela’s warm relationship with a host of CARICOM countries, principally through PetroCaribe, the oil deal fashioned by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to help the island nations and coastal states deal with their rising demand for costly foreign oil in the 1990s.

But diving global oil prices in the past two years are plunging Venezuela’s economy into a shambles, weakening its treasury, forcing cutbacks in social programmes at home and imperilling the future of PetroCaribe.

They have also exposed Venezuela’s leader Nicholas Maduro, Chavez’s successor to intense heat from the domestic opposition and the US. And as more and more supermarket shelves become empty and rubbish-strewn streets in Caracas become a hard fact of life in Venezuela, Maduro is blaming the US for his country’s problems, thus expanding the friction with Obama.

The upshot: the Caribbean may find itself enmeshed in the cross hairs of a firestorm they didn’t create. That’s why the last thing Obama wants to happen is to go to Panama and find himself caught in vocal disagreement with Maduro and the Caribbean taking Venezuela’s side.

The US leader understands only too well that many CARICOM countries, excluding The Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, which didn’t sign on to PetroCaribe, have become dependent on the oil arrangement and would be hard hit if it went the way of the Model T Ford, which seems increasingly likely.

Another Washington concern is the state of negotiations with Havana over the joint undertaking to normalise relations between the two capitals. Those efforts haven’t proceeded at the pace Havana and the rest of the Caribbean had expected and with CARICOM remaining firmly behind Cuba, especially when it comes to the economic embargo against Havana, Washington may use the talks in Jamaica to try to convince Caribbean leaders that it shouldn’t be blamed for the roadblocks.

What has made matters worse for Washington-Havana detente is the fact that the Republicans, who are opposed to any relaxation of US pressure on Cuba, are now in control of the US Congress and are determined to derail almost every domestic and international initiative launched by Obama.

Next is the spectre of China’s investments in the Caribbean and the fact that at least half a dozen CARICOM states, Barbados included, have diplomatic outposts in China.

Those moves haven’t gone unnoticed in Washington and while US concerns aren’t about the spread of communism, as was the case during the Cold War, the White House is said to be worried about diminishing US influence in the region.

The US president is going to Jamaica for another reason: the war with Islamic State militants, which has engaged in the horrifying acts of brutality, including beheadings of Americans, Japanese and other foreigners in the Syria and Iraq. Obama is genuinely concerned that ISIS may prove to be a major security threat to the US, using the Caribbean as a gateway to get onto American soil.

After all, as many as three million Americans take vacations in the Caribbean, many of them on cruise ships and there is the growing fear that a few of them can become victims of terrorism. Obama may use the Jamaica talks to emphasise the threat.