News Americas, LONDON, England, Tues. June 21, 2016: It is clear from a recent visit to Washington that there is a renewed interest in the Caribbean and that its concerns are back on the US agenda.
How this has come about owes little if anything to the usual process of policy development, but to an accidental and helpful confluence of events and timing.
It is leading legislators, administration officials, think tanks and friends of the region to the conclusion that the next six months will be critical to driving forward a practical agenda that could set the scene for the next US administration.
The events that have brought this about are diverse, but each in its own way has led to the sense that now is the time for a greater focus on the Caribbean region as well as Central America.
Paramount among the factors driving this is the situation in Venezuela. While views differ about what might happen and how radical or otherwise any solution to the country’s problems needs to be, there was, quite literally, no one I met in Washington who believed that President Maduro’s present approach was sustainable; particularly in the light of growing food shortages. The consensus was that the instability and uncertainty in Venezuela meant that all countries within the region would wish to lessen their dependency on Caracas and that this would diminish Venezuela’s ability to maintain a substantial regional role.
Secondly, the situation in Venezuela coincides with widespread regional acceptance that initiatives being developed over the last year by the US Vice President, Joe Biden, that encourage energy diversification with the support of multilateral institutions and other governments, is beginning to result in almost every country changing their energy matrix, reducing costs and placing a greater emphasis on energy security.
This change in thinking, interlocutors pointed out, coincided with a period of low energy prices enabling a period of adjustment, probably involving the supply of natural gas from the US, Latin America and Mexico, and the development in key countries like the Dominican Republic of LNG transshipment hubs.
There was also a sense that the Caribbean was entering a new era in which it would find itself at the centre of global shipping routes with the opening of the widened Panama Canal. The fact that the first vessel to pass through on June 26 would be Chinese, carried with it the message that the region was about to become a global transshipment hub of strategic importance.
The view was also expressed that the US territories in the Caribbean were in a position to play a role in the changing the US-Caribbean Basin relationship. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, in remarks at a full to overflowing seminar in Congress on the Caribbean organized by the Inter-American Development Bank and Caribbean Central American Action, made clear that she and the USVI were reinterpreting their role and were prepared to become a voice for Caribbean concerns within the US legislature. Other Congressmen and women also spoke positively about re-engagement.
At the same time there was a pervasive feeling that President Obama’s continuing policy of détente towards Cuba had significantly changed the dynamics of the region’s relationship with the US, effectively setting aside the hemispheric animosity that had built up over decades.
All these developments, it was observed, coincided with the emergence of political parties across Latin America and more recently the Caribbean that were in one or another way conservative in their outlook. While Argentina, and recent changes in Brazil were cited as examples, in the Caribbean there was a real interest in the way in which the new St Lucia and Jamaican administrations might change the dynamics within CARICOM and the region’s dialogue with present or future US administrations.
Another important factor in recognizing that it was the moment to begin to develop a greater US focus on the Caribbean, was the recognition by the US administration and Washington based multilateral institutions that tourism had become of central economic importance to the future growth and economic success of the region. It was seen as tying the US to the region in multiple ways. Not only was a visit to Washington by a delegation from the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association’s (CHTA) led by its President Karolin Troubetzkoy and its Director General, Frank Comito, welcomed everywhere, but there was genuine engagement with the detail of the challenges facing the industry and its centrality to future Caribbean prosperity.
Quite separately as this changed thinking is beginning to emerge, there is also an interest in at least one major Washington-based think tank in developing a focus on the Caribbean and in looking past the present concentration on Cuba, Venezuela and change in Latin America.
Wrapped around and giving focus to all these developments and discussions on a host of more specific issues such as correspondent banking and de-risking, or visitor and cyber security, was the passing by the House of Representatives on June 15 of a bi-partisan bill that seeks to have the US Administration give greater priority to the US-Caribbean relationship.
The legislation, The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, was sponsored by the ranking member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, a Democrat, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican and a former Chair of the committee. While there is no funding attached to it, it makes the point that the Caribbean and its Diaspora should matter more to the US Administration.
The legislation requires the State Department and USAID to identify US policy priorities towards the Caribbean; outline an approach that will broaden their outreach to the Caribbean Diaspora in the US; and to describe how they will work with governments to improve citizen security and to reduce narcotics trafficking. A soon to be sponsored Senate version is also widely expected to have bipartisan support.
The effect is to provide a framework within which the present interest in taking new policy initiatives and programs in the region can be developed by governments, the private sector and others, offering a unique opportunity for the proactive to reset relationships.
What is important to understand is that none of this has been orchestrated but that these developments are taking place organically and independently but add up to a whole; providing the Caribbean with multiple opportunities to develop new initiatives.
How the region chooses to respond to these developments, or as seems more likely, individual countries react, will be interesting to see.