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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Washington’s gift to the Caribbean


TONY BEST

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Washington’s gift to the Caribbean

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The members of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate didn’t arrive on Capitol Hill recently in sleighs and their legislation wasn’t gift wrapped by Santa Claus.

And Caribbean ambassadors to the US, Barbados’ Selwin Hart, among them, didn’t line up to sing Adeste Fideles or Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

But although the lawmakers didn’t consider the enabling legislation they passed a Christmas present for the Caribbean.

What they approved can best be described as a measure that couldn’t have come at a better time.

The passage of the US Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act 2016, (HR 4939), which the Senate at the beginning of December, is an important step forward in relations between the North American economic colossus and the archipelago of islands and coastal states that is the Caribbean.

The House of Representatives had approved the measure several months before and the Caribbean nations, especially those in the English, Creole and Spanish-speaking areas which are routinely described as everything from “friends” and “partners” of Washington to America’s “third border” were understandably elated.

It’s a law that authorises the outgoing Barack Obama White House and the incoming Donald Trump administration to undertake a carefully-crafted initiative that would focus national and regional attention on the members of CARICOM and create opportunities for them  to accelerate economic and social development.

The measure, which took more than a year to move through the committee systems of the House and Senate, can become a catalyst to reinvigorate efforts designed to help lift the region’s economy out of the doldrums into which it had sunk after the Great Recession of 2008.

The act is the brainchild of a combination of Democrats and Republicans led by US Representatives Eliot L. Engel of New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and it can serve as a foundation on which the Caribbean and Washington can build an even stronger partnership.

I trust they move ahead with sincerity and alacrity to implement the law’s provisions after Obama signs it in to law.

As Engel explained it after the Senate vote: “This bill will allow us to increase engagement with the Caribbean especially when it comes to energy and security.”

That’s not all. Sensibly, the lawmakers included provisions that would require the Trump White House and succeeding administrations to work alongside Caribbean governments and experts to develop and implement an economic diversification strategy that would spur growth and stability across the region.

They would also mandate Washington to join forces with Caribbean governments to reduce drug trafficking and make citizens feel safe in their homes and on the streets.

The goals of the act don’t end there. For the first time, the State Department and other federal agencies will be required to establish and maintain links with the large Caribbean diaspora across the US, so the Bajans, Guyanese, Trinidadians, Haitians, Jamaicans, Grenadians, Bahamians, St Lucians, Dominicans, and others, would be kept in the loop.

As if those elements weren’t enough, the law will force the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, the Justice Department and a range of other aid and security agencies to come up with a strategy, complete with priorities and timetables that ensure timeliness in getting the job done with efficiency.

Far too often, US officials sit in their Washington offices and determine what’s important for Suriname, Haiti, the Dominican Republic or St Vincent and The Grenadines without even consulting their elected governments and when they do sit down with the decision-makers and policy planners in Castries, Nassau, Port of Spain or Bridgetown, they are condescending and high-handed.

Yes, Washington will be paying most, but not all of the bills as they come due but if the countries are to buy into economic and social efforts then the nations themselves must be part of the planning and the implementation.

That brings us back to the involvement of the diaspora. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana, in that order, contribute more than $5 billion annually to the well-being of families in their birthplaces.

When immigrants from Suriname, Grenada, Barbados, St Vincent, St Kitts-Nevis and The Bahamas are added to the equation the amount of remittances would skyrocket by almost $800 million. That amount far exceeds the levels of assistance provided by Washington, the European Union and international financial and development institutions annually.

Clearly, the diaspora is essential to the region’s prosperity and its member should be seen as key plays in the development strategy. And with an increasing number of Caribbean immigrants becoming naturalised citizens with a vote and a point of view on national and international politics in the US, they are already making a major contribution to their adopted home.

That may explain why both Engel and Ross Lehtinen, two elected officials with large immigrant populations in their districts, were so forceful in their insistence that the Strategic Partnership Bill should be passed and sent to the White House.

Engel, Ross Lehtinen, Yvette Clarke, Charles Rangel, Hakeem Jeffries, Gregory Meeks and a long list of other elected representatives have earned the thanks of the Caribbean. And they must ensure that the Trump White House implements the Partnership Act in word and in deed.

When implemented, the measure may result in a diminution of the influence and the role of the US Embassy in Barbados.

That can happen because the act requires the State Department to have a greater diplomatic presence in the nations which belong to the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.

In other words, the US may have to set up diplomatic missions in some of the islands.

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