Time for a Caribbean-US Relations Reset

Time for a Caribbean-US Relations Reset

By Hon. Dr Keith Rowley

The United States has long been a very important neighbor to the Caribbean and continues to be a significant partner for our 16 million- strong Community in a number of areas – security, trade, investment, energy, agriculture, education, tourism and sport.

Members of our diaspora have contributed meaningfully to the socio-economic fabric of the United States in the fields of education, medicine, academia, the military, culture and the arts, to name but a few. A little-known fact is that, well before the US became an independent nation, wealthy islanders from Barbados, established a colony, in what is now South Carolina, in their quest to expand their agricultural landholding in the Americas.

[Today] one can still find their historical records and descendants there. So, it can be said that we did colonize you, decolonization became fashionable. We also fought with you out of Trinidad when Fort Reed was one of the busiest Allied airfields in World War II and American sailors and marines were ‘drinking rum and Coca-Cola, going down Pt Cumana’, naval base before the Andrews sisters stole the haunting rhythm and those immortal lyrics.

Constituents of CARICOM lineage can be found in New York, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, and California. As a matter of fact, one will be hard-pressed to find a West Indian household today which does not have at least one family member or close relative domiciled somewhere in the United States, many in the military, such is our bond.

Distinguished US citizens of CARICOM heritage have served and continue to serve at very high levels in Congress and in public administration. The record-breaking PresidentKamala Harris, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Attorney General Eric Holder have strong familial ties with Jamaica and Barbados and the celebrated actor, choreographer, dancer, the iconic Geoffrey Holder brought to the lights of Broadway, the best of Trinidad and Tobago. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamiltonwas born in Nevis, now part of the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis where his birthplace still stands as a shrine in recognition of America’s deep roots in our idyllic islands.

I cite these distinguished Americans and some history, to highlight the Caribbean, indeed CARICOM’s nexus which transcends the border reality and illustrates a natural partnership. Our prosperity redounds to your benefit and vice versa. In 1997 when President Bill Clinton met with Caribbean leaders in Barbados, both sides agreed on a ‘Partnership for Prosperity and Security’.

When CARICOM heads met with President George W. Bush in 2007, trade, economic growth and development, security and social investment featured prominently. A year earlier, President Bush proclaimed June as Caribbean – American Heritage Month which serves as a platform to highlight the contributions of Caribbean people to America. CARICOM also welcomed President Barack Obama for the Fifth Summit of the Americas which Trinidad and Tobago hosted in 2009 and which was attended by all the heads of state or government of the membership of the Organization of American States (OAS).

CARICOM also engaged now President Joe Biden, when he was vice president, in 2013 on security, human development and energy matters in Trinidad and Tobago with subsequent encounters in Washington DC focusing on energy. The Caribbean Basin Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative still remain invaluable areas of collaboration and partnership.

We are now in the era of the US-Caribbean 2020 Engagement Strategy – a multi-year Strategy to increase the Security, Prosperity, and well-being of the people of the United States and the Caribbean. It is to the credit of the drafters, in a pre-COVID-19 era that the main tenets of the current blueprint for engagement are security, diplomacy, prosperity, energy, education, and, of course, health.

This juncture in time is an excellent opportunity to reset relations between the United States and our region on these very issues:

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

For CARICOM, our first order of business is to ensure that as many of our citizens as possible are vaccinated as early as possible. This is fundamental to resuming social and economic activity across all spheres. The pandemic has spawned a crisis in health, closed our borders, crippled economic growth and is creating a debt crisis that is unravelling noteworthy gains made by CARICOM countries. Last month, the World Economic Forum cautioned that job creation is slowing while simultaneously, job destruction is accelerating. We all have to fight against that and awaken the opportunities of the digital economy.

Our region, comprised of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and those with low-lying coastal areas, is considered the most tourism- and travel-dependent globally: sectors that have been hard hit, almost decimated by the pandemic. As a Community, the economic challenges reverberate throughout our Single Market. The tourism sector, which in some Member States, accounts for 50 percent of GDP, is a significant source of employment, revenue generation and earns over 60% in foreign exchange.

It is also closely-linked to food and beverage, the cultural industries, financial services, and transportation. Some of us, like Trinidad and Tobago, have grappled with collapse and fluctuations in energy and commodity prices (crude declined by 23.9%, natural gas by 2.9% in 2020), a high food import bill (currently US$4.7 billion and increasing), and the impacts of extreme weather systems such as hurricanes and floods.

A real and present danger is the emergence of new variants which may or may not be neutralized by the vaccines developed to date. It is for this reason that the fair, transparent and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is critically urgent. We applaud President Biden’s commitment to channel US$4 billion to the COVAX facility in the next two years and, the G7 pledge of US$4.3 billion to develop and distribute effective tests, treatments, and vaccines world-wide. We too recognize that no country can be safe until every country is safe.

CARICOM wants to work alongside the US and other international partners within a robust multilateral framework to build back better together and ensure that no one is left behind. On February 17, the United Nations secretary-general regretted that ‘ just 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines…while more than 130 countries have not received a single dose.’

We applaud his resolve to mobilize the entire UN apparatus in support of a Global Vaccination Plan and to bring together all those with the required power, expertise and production capacities to achieve this outcome. We in CARICOM expect to receive our first doses sometime around mid-March. So far, all that we have received are 170,000 doses gifted to a couple nations from the Government of India. Barbados and Dominica who received these gifts, graciously shared them around to many of us. This was done by them even as others with millions of doses that they can’t use immediately are refusing to make way for others at the manufacturers.

Debt relief, vulnerability index, correspondent banking, investment

CARICOM looks forward to working with the US and other partners to navigate global economic challenges. The IMF estimated that the global economy contracted 3.5 percent in 2020 and they have provided a somewhat optimistic, but very uncertain global outlook for 2021. This is against the backdrop of the tremendous negative impact of the weakened economy on women, young people, the poor, the informal sector, and those in sectors with intense contact. The World Bank sees no abatement of development risks, with economic activity and incomes remaining low for a protracted period of time. Not surprisingly, the IMF’s World Economic Outlook forecasts significant debt servicing problems for many developing countries as a result of the massive fiscal support provided during COVID- 19.

CARICOM is calling for global consideration of our peculiar challenges. We believe the time is now for the use of a multidimensional Vulnerability Index for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to supplement the current, but inherently flawed, criterion of GDP per capita, to measure development. As our Region seeks to get back on track towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we call for the refinancing of COVID-related debt and the postponement of debt servicing payments; comprehensive debt relief; and appropriately priced funding to build economic and climate resilience.

Concessional lending will also allow for expenditure on public infrastructure and training to support CARICOM’s digital transformation and effective participation in the digital economy; as well as pursue investments critical for nutrition and food security, and energy security.

I appeal to the banking community to desist from blacklisting and de-risking activities resulting in the withdrawal of correspondent banking services from our Member States. Severing of these services, without acknowledging ongoing actions to comply with international standards, is to cut off our proverbial oxygen supply. On behalf of CARICOM, in September 2019 I had encouraging discussions with Congresswoman Maxine Waters on this matter, and we were encouraged by her promise to have a hearing on this matter but then COVID got in the way.

Climate change

Permit me to raise the issue of climate change which represents an existential threat to all of us in CARICOM. Let me first applaud President Biden on the US officially becoming, as of Friday – February 19, a Party to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change once again.

Climate change is real as evidenced by the hitherto inconceivable reality of a major hurricane flooding the New York subway, raging fires scorching the California landscape leaving a path of destruction; and record-breaking low temperatures causing loss of life and the collapse of infrastructure in Texas. We extend our sympathy to those who have lost loved ones and indeed, also, on the loss of livelihoods. CARICOM empathizes, having annual experiences of extreme climatic events wreaking havoc in our countries. We, therefore, continue to be actively engaged at the international level, providing guidance, scientific support and leadership on the climate issue.

As the global community prepares for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), CARICOM sees a golden opportunity to enhance our collaboration with the United States.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming indicates that emissions of greenhouse gases must be cut by 50 percent by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Such action will protect our fragile ecosystems on which agriculture, fishing and tourism depend heavily. Many of us have begun to seriously utilize and encourage low-carbon and renewables to augment and direct our energy consumption into a sustainable future. We hope to work together to urge all parties to enhance their National Determined Contributions (NDCs), before COP 26 in Glasgow in November, to make attaining a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature change a reality. To do less, is to put at risk our generation and the future.

Way Forward

The World Economic Forum declared last month that ‘no institution or individual alone can address the economic, environmental, social and technological challenges of our complex, interdependent world.’

Cuba is Caribbean. Venezuela is Caribbean.

We know the nature of the issues and the history of the challenges in both areas however we were very disappointed when the US recently reversed the very welcome, halting steps towards normalization of the relationship; and most recently the announcement of the unconvincing designation of Cuba as a Terrorist –sponsoring state. We believe that this is one place where climate change would be welcome. We could all benefit from a significant thaw here.

As for the Venezuelan relationship we would like to see a dispassionate early review of the US ‘ scorched earth policy’ here since, as the United Nations assessment confirm what we always knew, and that is, that the ineffective harsh policies of unilateral sanctions are contributing immensely to widespread additional indiscriminate human suffering in this Caribbean Nation which needs help, a compassionate ingredient which is not beyond US leadership. We anxiously look forward to the United States playing that leadership role with CARICOM and the nations of Mexico and Norway to assist Venezuelans in solving their seemingly intractable political problems.

The way forward in CARICOM’s relationship with the United States is continued close collaboration and partnership on regional and international issues and a renewed commitment to pursue ardently the sustainable development of all our citizens.

Dr. Keith Rowley is the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and Chair of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). On Friday, February 26, 2021, Dr. Rowley spoke on “Re-Setting US-Caribbean Relations.”  His address was in his role as the CARICOM Chair. CARICOM recently concluded its intersessional Heads of Government Meetings. The conversation was part of the Atlantic Council Front Page Event and launch of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center’s new Caribbean Initiative.

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